Given Russia’s rich literary history it’s hard to believe that until recently decent books were hard to come by unless you lived in Moscow or St Petersburg. Even three years ago, book lovers in the regions would have to travel to one of Russia’s bigger cities in order to fill their bookshelves. And forget about Amazon — the unreliable Russian post means that ordering online is a risky business. Now, things are looking up. A growing number of independent bookshops are popping up across Russia, offering bookworms their fix of cult and foreign titles. Given their scarcity, independent bookshops have come to represent more than just books — they have become focal points for the intellectually curious. The Calvert Journal brings you a selection of some of the best independent bookshops Russia has to offer.
Founder: Mikhail Maltsev
Piotrovsky is located in a 19th-century former pharmacy in downtown Perm. Founder Mikhail Maltsev opened his doors in 2010, having honed his concept for the store with business advice from Boris Kupryanov, the man behind Russia’s most famous independent bookshop, Falanster in Moscow. “When we conceived of the project we knew that we wanted Piotrovsky to be more of a place for enlightenment than a business,” says Maltsev.
Unlike chain bookshops, which focus mainly on selling “novelty” books, Piotrovsky sells cult classics as well as art and humanities titles. “In 2013, most bookshops wouldn’t sell books published in 2012,” he says. “Furthermore, if a book hasn’t been sold within six months, stores return it to the publisher. We realise that our selection far exceeds the demand for intellectual literature in Perm but we keep every book until someone buys it.”
Poryadok Slov (Word Order)
Founders: Anna Izakar and Konstantin Shavlovsky
Location: St Petersburg
The 2008 financial crisis took its toll on independent bookshops in St Petersburg. Feeling their loss, Anna Izakar and Konstantin Shavlovsky decided to open their own store, specialising in non-fiction covering cinema, theatre, philosophy and more as well as Russian and foreign magazines. “Our main idea is to encourage self-education,” says Izakar. “We have created a place where it’s possible to acquire knowledge just by buying one of our books or going to one of our free events. We organise lectures on on literature, art, sociology and philosophy as well as book readings and film screenings. If I may be so bold, I think we’ve created a unique little community.”
Like so many other bookshops to have opened in recent years, Poryadok Slov, which means ”word order” in English, offers up not only books for sale but also a cultural space. “We’ve drawn on the experience of foreign bookshops such as Shakespeare and Company where depending on when you visited you could have bumped into T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller, Aleister Crowley or Jacques Lacan.” Although other independent bookshops have since opened in St Petersburg, Izakar is unconcerned. “An independent bookshop is a completely subjective concept,” she explains, “where the selection of titles and placement of books within the shop depends entirely on the owners’ tastes and values. As such, each such place has its own personality and its own regular customers.”
Vse Svobodny (Everyone is Free)
Founders: Artem Faustov and Lyubov Belyatskaya
Location: St Petersburg
Although it is only 50-square-metres, Vse Svobodny has more than 8,000 different titles, each of which has been handpicked with a discerning readership in mind. “These books are scrutinised before we order them,” says Faustov. “We don’t buy books for the general public. Our inventory is chosen with the intelligent reader in mind, the type of person who appreciates a good book.” Faustov opened the store with his wife Lyubov Belyatskaya. Although there were other independent bookshops in the city, the couple felt that as one of Russia’s main capitals of culture, there was room for another in St Petersburg.
The atmosphere and decor make Vse Svobodny more like a cosy personal library than a shop. “Many people feel so comfortable here that they spend half the day with us, drinking tea and reading before leaving with a box full of books,” says Faustov. Like most independent bookshops, Vse Svobodny is a labour of love for both Faustov and Belystskaya. “If you want to be successful and make a lot of money, sell oil, guns or sex,” says Faustov. “But if you apply a more abstract definition of the word success, then I think we are successful enough.”
Heart of a Dog
Founder: Mikhail Faustov
When Mikhail Faustov returned home from a business trip to find 35 boxes filled with books, he took it as a sign that he should open up his own bookshop (The boxes were left over from a book fair, which Faustov had helped organise). At first he began selling books at a cabaret show called Stray Dog. “We had a few problems — drunk customers often stole them,” he says. “At one point I was ready to pack it all in until I realised that above the Stray Dog there was a disused, free apartment.” Faustov moved in and opened up a tiny bookshop selling highbrow literature. “It allowed us to sell our books in a more civilised way,” he adds.
The bookshop benefits from being near an archway, which, when the weather permits, can be used for events. “People who visit us say that we have a strange sort of a charm,” says Faustov. “Heart of a Dog has attracted a community of completely different people, who get together to talk, sing songs, read poetry, drink and read books.” It’s not all smooth sailing though. Unlike Moscow, where demand for foreign books is high, there are days when not a single book is sold. “Every so often I think to myself, what the hell have I got myself into?” says Faustov. “But then there are days when someone comes in and buys a whole bookshelf of books in one go.”
Founder: Sergei Solovyov
Sergei Solovyov was backpacking across Russia when he reached Yekaterinburg and decided to stay. He had just spent six months in St Petersburg, helping the owners of Vse Svobodny launch their bookshop and had begun to dream about opening up his own. “I've loved bookshops since I was a child,” says Solovyov who grew up in a village in Russia’s Ulyanovsk region. “Five generations of my family have been teachers and our family library holds around 10,000 books.”
To start with, Solovyov set up a pilot project, Four Pushkins, selling second-hand books that he had collected from locals. “After three months, we were in the black,” he says. “But more importantly, we attracted people. We were introduced to the town’s intelligentsia.” Following on from the success of the pilot, he moved forward with his plan for a bookshop.
With a little help from local philosophers, journalists and historians, he succeeded in renovating a basement for the store. “Some just brought us food while others rolled their sleeves up,” says Solovyov. “We’ve only been open for five months but there hasn’t been a dull moment: we’ve had to deal with thieves, flooding, and visits from the police and the president’s security service. We were even searched by the Criminal Investigation Department.”
His passion for books has taken Solovyov to other parts of Russia where he has helped libraries and prisons with stock and literary events. “Josef Knecht is not just a bookshop — it hosts many cultural events. It will soon become a complete educational centre. We work almost for free — none of us has ever had a salary — and we invest all of our profits, no matter how small, into the cultural and academic projects that capture our imagination.”
Founder: Konstantin Shalygin
Konstantin Shalygin moved from the outskirts of Moscow to Rostov-on-Don, a port city in southern Russia, two years ago looking to take his life in a new direction. He had a bit of spare cash to hand and wanted to revitalise the lacklustre cultural scene. His inspiration for a bookshop came from a somewhat unexpected source: the British sitcom Black Books, which he had just finished watching. “There was nothing like it in Rostov,” he says. “First and foremost, I wanted to make Forty Two a place for well-read and educated people to meet and discuss interesting things.”
Like other independent bookshops, Forty Two has to compete against the larger, more populist chains, whose staff, says Shalygin, “are completely indifferent to books”. “I have an image of a bakery in France where people don’t necessarily go in to buy a baguette but to speak to someone nice,” he adds. “For some reason in Russia, we don’t have this culture or approach to business and that’s a shame. I would like to be that baker.”