With e-readers and online markets threatening book shops with extinction around the world, Duncan Rhodes is intrigued to discover that Bucharest’s “librării” have evolved to become curators of all things cultural and cool…
It’s not often that a book store counts itself as one of the city’s foremost tourist attractions, but when I travelled to Bucharest in April of this year – along with 29 other travel bloggers – word had got around about a must-see “magical” book shop called the Carturesti Carusel. Now if this had been some 200-year-old institution in the mould of Porto’s Livraria Lello (you know, the one that inspired J.K. Rowling and the library at Hogwarts) it would kind of make sense. Dark, romantic and dusty and staffed by one wisened old man with wiry round spectacles, the place had grown so loved over time that it was considered a city institution, propped up by council funding and sympathy purchases by American tourists.
When I discovered, however, that Carturesti Carusel is not two centuries old – in fact it’s not even two years old – needless to say I was pretty shocked. Clearly I was going to have to pay a visit…
From the outside there was nothing overly conspicuous about this new enterprise, but as soon as I crossed the threshold it was immediately obvious what all the fuss was about. “The Carousel of Light”, as it is known, thoroughly deserves it sobriquet: sunrays stream through the high windows and glass ceiling and fill the hollow middle of the building before bouncing off white pillars, balconies, walls and staircases. Four separate mezzanine levels encircle the hollow, rippling Gaudi-esque balcony railings on one side, stacked book shelves on the other, or in some cases artwork, design products or accessories. In the basement music and video games rule, whilst on the top floor, directly underneath Bucharest’s blue skies (at least today!), a delightful cafe vends coffee and cakes to a chi-chi crowd of browsers taking a break. As I pass one table I hear American English accents locked in highbrow conversation with a Romanian local. It seems like Carusel has already succeeded in becoming cosmopolitan.
I’m still left with a sense of surprise… why is anyone investing serious cash in book stores during the golden age of the Kindle?
Overall the shop is a class act – with its all-pervasive whiteness and organic lines it looks like a work by the architect Calatrava – but I’m still left with a sense of surprise… why is anyone investing serious cash in book stores during the golden age of the Kindle? The person that holds the answer to that question however is waiting for me at an even bigger – and, as I’m about to discover, yet more beautiful – book shop about 15 minutes walk from the old town. Guess I’d better be on my way…
Carturesti Verona was the second ever store opened by the Carturesti brand, back in 2003, and is housed in the old family mansion of the aristocratic Sturdza family. Despite the opening of Carusel, this space is still their biggest: in fact, as Emilia Barbu, one of the company’s project managers, takes me on a tour of the premises, I’m in genuine danger of losing my bearings as we glide down corridors and up and down twisted staircases, in one room and out of another. This genial meander is accompanied by a history lesson of the company’s evolution over the last decade and a half…
“…we established this idea at Carturesti with special blends of tea, to… associate drinking tea with reading books and listening to good music. Coming here was a leisure activity.”
“We started as a small bookshop 14 years ago in university square,” says Emilia. “In those days a book store was only a place to buy books, and we were the first to combine, books, music, CDs and tea in one place…. at the time in Romania tea was considered something you drank only when you were sick. The ritual was not introduced here on a large scale. So we established this idea at Carturesti with special blends of tea, to make it pleasurable and associate drinking tea with reading books and listening to good music. Coming here was a leisure activity.”
In other words, I surmise, to survive as a book store in the 21st century you have to be more than just a paperback retailer. That was something Carturesti took to another level, beyond brewing tea, when they opened this, their expansive Verona space. To illustrate the point, we stop off in small nook between rooms where Emilia shows me some slick-looking T-shirts and bags. One of the totes on display bears the memorable skit “I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie” (click here if you don’t get the reference).
“This project is called ROD, from the ROmanian Design,” explains Emilia. “We work with local producers and designers and come up with products that are sustainable – instead of importing everything from China. We are always trying to educate the public into buying Romanian stuff. We also have a line of stationery by Romanian designers, which is selling well, and we are ready to push our ideas further, to try more and to experiment.”
(For more on Romanian design hold tight… we’ll be publishing a full report on UTB soon. Subscribe to stay tuned!).
That seems like an understatement by Emilia, as by the time we finish our exploration of the Verona rabbit warren I think I’ve seen all a book store can possibly offer. From the elegant salon rooms downstairs with shelves stacked full of literary tomes (including an English language section), to the attic-like children’s section upstairs selling Star Wars, Lego, and Disney merchandise (the profits have to come from somewhere!), all annexed to a spacious play area, and not forgetting the aforementioned design section, a separate kitchenware section (appropriately enough in the house’s old kitchen) and a wine cellar stocked with Romania’s underrated vintages, plus a tea room AND a basement level cafe that hosts regular live music jams, Verona has pleasantly surprised me at every turn… and yet the best is still to come.
Exiting through a side door Emilia leads me onto a gravel path and out to the back of the building. Even my usually dull olfactory senses can appreciate the smell of Spring blossoms, whilst after just a few paces my eyes are treated to the sight of the late afternoon sun glazing the wooden tabletops of an epic beer garden. (Emilia refers to it as a terrace, but it’s definitely a beer garden!). There must be room for a 100 drinkers / thinkers out here, and in addition to the outdoor chairs and tables (strangely deserted, despite the fact that the day still carries some warmth) there’s a fancy glass conservatory that forms a sort of hipster’s retreat. This greenhouse style cafe comes replete with swing-style suspended seating at one end, which looks like a lot of fun (although I notice the locals have shyly ignored it).
…my eyes are treated to the sight of the late afternoon sun glazing the wooden tabletops of an epic beer garden. There must be room for a 100 drinkers / thinkers out here!
That’s sealed it… Verona has made a late but spirited dash, racing comfortably past its younger sister to win my vote for the coolest bookshop in Bucharest by a distance! Not that Carusel was ever supposed to supersede Verona, says Emilia: rather the company felt determined to do something different with each opportunity that has come their way…
“With each bookshop we take a different approach and make a different offer to the public,” continues Emilia. “We try to adapt to every space we have. The core of the business remains, but the details are different. It was a complete adventure to open Carusel in the Old Centre, which is filled with bars, and the only thing that happens in nightlife and that’s all. So we went for a more commercial approach because for sure there there will be people who don’t know about us there and we can introduce our brand to them. It is less of a book store and more of a concept store, a flagship store.”
Of course it could all have been so different, if the building’s Greek owners, having successfully claimed back the property, had been persuaded to open a pub…
“The building used to be a bank, owned by the Chrissoveloni family. However after the war the bank was taken away from them and the family had to flee to Greece. The great grandson of the family managed to get the building back. He wanted to restore its glory, and despite the fact that he had many offers with what to do with it – from bars and clubs – he decided to go with us.”
“He’s mad!” I can’t help interjecting, “He would make a lot more money if it was a bar.”
“Obviously! We would make more money if it were a bar…. but we decided to take the hard way.”
I don’t wear a cap, but if I did I would have to doff it to the Carturesti team and their stubborn sense of romance. Not that I’m against an extra bar in any town (as regular readers might have discerned), but how much better to have a cultural bastion like Carusel occupying this great space, which not only sells bucketloads of books, but is a place that already in its short history has hosted countless concerts, book launches, discussion and other cultural events; and a space that also provides an amiable meeting point for intellectual minds and acts as a showcase for Romanian design, culture and innovation. Indeed, just few weeks later as I write this article, I’m reading the press release that Emilia has sent me and I’m struck by a quote from Șerban Radu, co-founder of Carturesti, who says:
“Even if from an economic point of view we are a small dot on the GDP scene (Gross Domestic Product), from the more relevant point of view of the GNH (Gross National Happiness) we are important,” Șerban Radu.
“Even if from an economic point of view we are a small dot on the GDP scene (Gross Domestic Product), from the more relevant point of view of the GNH (Gross National Happiness) we are important.”
…and with an attitude like that you have to feel that the latest chapter of this book store love story is yet another one bound for success.
OTHER INTERESTING BOOKSHOPS
This petite French book store is a meeting place for Bucharest’s surprisingly large French-speaking population. As a chat with the charming sales assistant on duty at the time of my visit revealed, French was the… well… lingua franca of Romania in the interwar period, and after a dip in popularity during the restrictive Communist era, is back on the school curriculum. A lot of French companies therefore also have branches in Romania where they
exploit employ cheaper local labour. Naturally if you’re not a French speaker then the shop will have limited interest for you, but if you are you can find not only French classics – from Asterix to Zola – but Romanian works translated into French. Do I need to tell you by now, that this being Bucharest, there is a coffee and tea refreshments, a children’s play area and regular cultural events. I also noted a copy of the graphic novel Le Bleu Est Une Coleur Chaude that inspired my new favourite film, Blue is the Warmest Colour (click the link for a review on my new fledgling film blog!).
George Enescu 8
When I visited this English language book store, naturally I was curious to know who exactly was Anthony Frost… as I’d never heard of this particular scholar. Well it turns out that he is not an author, poet or playwright but a humble truck driver, who met the Romanian owners when he took it upon himself to organise aid deliveries to the country in the 90s. The owners considered him one of the most magnanimous individuals they had ever met and so when they opened this store, they named it after their friend in honour of his generous acts of kindness. Anthony Frost has since passed away (although he did get to visit the store shortly after it opened in 2007), but the store continues to be a hub of English language, literature and culture in Bucharest.
Calea Victoriei 45
A rival to Carturesti’s hegmony of the Bucharest book world, Humanitas is both a publishing house and a chain of book stores, originally founded by Romanian writer Gabriel Liiceanu. Their flagship branch is Humanitas Cismigiu, which is situated on the ground floor of the recently furbished Hotel Cismigiu in a historic century-old mansion. Naturally there’s a strong selection of literary events, as well as an excellent cafe.
Bulevardul Elisabeta 38
“Beauty salon and good books” is the slogan of this project that pairs physical improvement with mental gain. In each different zone of this salon you’ll find books along an appropriate theme, for example in the hairdressing salon you’ll find books on arts and design, in the pedicure room books on travel, in the massage parlour tomes on the mind and spirit and in the toilet… books on philosophy! (Good thinking time I guess!). On top of that they have a dedicated library with works of literature and history as well as children’s books in case the sprogs need entertaining whilst you get your highlights done.
Pictor Barbu Iscovescu 30
Finally details of the stores in the main part of the article are:
Ever visited a bookshop in Bucharest? Which was your favourite… and why? Or maybe you know another city where book stores are still playing an important cultural role in the life of the inhabitants? Feel free to exercise your right to comment below!
This report would not have been possible without the #EnjoyBucharest initiative organised by Eventur. I would like to thank them very much for inviting me, along with their partners Blue Air who flew me to comfortably Romania, the Hotel Intercontinental for their luxurious five-star accommodation in the centre of town, and CDI Transfers for their airport pick up service.