Saturday, September 6, 2008

Dirty Books (are not Freedom).

Off the beaten track, down a few stops from where the last of the tourists leave the train, Berlin is still quite a good place to be. The neighbourhood that greets us as we leave the U-Bahn tunnel may not be as monumental as the Unter den Linden, but it makes up for it in human interest, and simpathy. This is a place where it would be affordable to rent a place, and quite possible to have a good life.
We got here following instructions found on the internet, we are on a quest to find one of those legendary English language bookshops that scatter the earth wherever some expat felt like opening one and succeded. Think of the parisian Shakespeare and Co as a reference, but not as yet so well known nor so grandly situated.
On paper, or better, off the screen, this other place would seem to have all the right credentials though. A cultural establishment surely, but mostly an alternative one with more than a tinge of anarchy and very idealistic, boasting a range of activities that include the free loan of books and also film evenings, and the capacity to serve drinks and nuts. Now, you must be NUTS to actually drink or eat there.

From the outside the shop looks OK, promising. A rough kind of bench would accomodate the accidental reader, when the weather is fine, and the window is picturesque and enticing. It’s the smell that hits you as you cross the door that suddenly spoils the dream. Quite horrific. All the shelves, the books, the furniture, the walls, everything is greasy, dusty when not mouldy, in short dirty, including the owner who greets us with a pleasant enough demeanour and an unforgettable smile made of gaps and rotten teeth. Call us petit bourgeois if you want, I will not disagree, but the atmosphere is more oppressive than free. As we cautiously visit the place I find it hard to like it. The books are a vague mix of esoteric deep, strange and trivial, quite absurd as a whole. A copy of Isabella Beeton's Victorian Housekeeping rules next to some culinary tosh from the sixties for example. You may find something good, if you dug hard enough through the grime. The place is a sorry junk yard of paper and leftist gadgetry, unconvincing and unsincere, literary pretentious in a way, utterly self-indulgent.

Downstairs – where the air really is completely unbreathable– a huge section dedicated to pulpy science fiction fills the shelves, around a filthy table where the empty wine glasses of past evenings are scattered, and half full bowls of left over nuts are refilled from huge bags in what looks like a hopeless rotation of germs and grease. Our host looks like a fallen angel, rather a Hell’s Angel who got thrown off the bike by some of life’s vicious turns and took refuge in this self made dump, never to venture out again. Now and again the same dynamics would bring visitors around, we even witnessed young women seek some advise from this unlikely source (maybe very knowledgeable, depending on what one were looking for) and also enter the joint lured by the easy and fast free access to the internet. He looked like a spider in his net when he spoke to them: hairy, sticky and devious.

Sure, it is bourgeois to get mad at a place like this, but why should ideals of freedom entail a complete disdain of hygiene, this utter surrender of personal dignity? Let’s have a revolution, by all means, but please let’s keep washing our feet.

For obvious reasons I will not mention the name of the place. Rest assured that your very own nose will warn you if you find it.

As chance would have it, back in Amsterdam, I ventured in a bookshop that seemed in many respects the exact opposite of the Berlin dump, and still felt very ill at ease. This other place was, well, too clean! So, might it be so that the appreciation of books, not unlike some fine bottles of wine, benefits from the thinnest layer of fine white dust?