Talking Books and the Art of Bookshop Keeping with Vlad Niculescu

On any given Saturday spent in town, you will find me in a bookshop. It is my family’s favourite weekend activity – my latest partner in this activity is our almost three-year-old son. He is out the door when he hears that we’re off to the bookstore just as he is when he hears that we’re going to the park to play football. For me, there is no way you can have one without the other, sports and books, in a child’s education, or in any adult’s life for that matter.

We all need bookstores. We do. And I am not talking just about the books we can discover there, and about the power and magic of books – that they can transform lives, especially young lives, that they develop a child’s imagination like nothing else can, that the sense of discovery you experience in a bookshop can never compete with buying something online, that bookstores are the best champions of new and emerging writers. I am also talking about the bookshop and bookshop owner/keeper as being crucial for our inherent need for human contact in a world going increasingly icy and artificial. We need the comforting optimism of a bookshop, especially a favourite bookshop, full of stories waiting to be discovered precisely when the world feels distant and uncertain, we need the social interaction and warmth the bookshop invites to and provides. We need bookshops to feel human.
 
Carturesti & Friends
 
Carturesti & Friends - Classiq 
Personally, I can’t read an e-book and I don’t get why anyone would choose to read words on a stark screen, instead of turning the pages of a beautiful book, especially when we already spend so many hours each day staring at monitors and phones. But I am well aware that, in these times, this is a reasoning that will simply not hold for many. So I have turned to the one person I know who can make the best argument for the importance and beauty of paper books and for keeping the art of bookstore keeping alive: Vlad Niculescu.

Vlad is the former owner of the English bookshop Anthony Frost, which, for almost ten years, was a reference cultural spot on the Bucharest map (for locals and tourists alike) and which was included in Bob Eckstein’s Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores. Unfortunately (and I think I am speaking from the point of view of every book and culture lover in this city), Anthony Frost had to close its doors in March 2017, but we found hope again when we discovered Vlad Niculescu and Anthony Frost in a new formula, as Cărturești & friends, at the end of last year. In our recent interview, Vlad shares his honest opinion about the challenge to survive of the traditional bookshop, he talks about that special childhood moment that sparked his imagination and love affair with books, and makes the case for the beautiful book cover.
 
 

“What I know for sure is that reading,
especially fiction, is an activity that must be
exercised daily, just like physical exercising,
otherwise we go numb.”

 
 
How has your passion for books started?

Slowly. Of course it helped that I was born in a house that had a library, a house where I saw everyone around me, from my parents and grandparents to my big sister, with a book in their hands from time to time, but until I was nine I wanted nothing else to do but play (which somehow hasn’t changed at all) – play the ball in the courtyard or in the street with the other children. I „was assassinating” my father with „Let’s play” every evening when he came home from work. My mother, in turn, „was assassinating” me with the reading. There are assassinations caused by too much love, so this thing of being forced to read was a very risky „game”. I think it was a sort of a small miracle – thanks to my father again – that helped me a lot in this regard: a French comics magazine that had an impressive circulation in those times and which was available in Romania as well because it was distributed by L’Humanite: Pif. Thanks to it, I entered a universe of endless imagination and, since then, reading became my favourite game.

And your love for books slowly lead to your opening the English bookstore Anthony Frost in downtown Bucharest, which you kept for almost ten years. I thank you for that. Now we can find you here at Cărturești & friends in a new formula, but already rediscovering the wonderful atmosphere and unique selection of books that had made Anthony Frost my favourite bookshop in town – because I always came for the good books as well as for the warm atmosphere. It truly feels like a revival of the art of bookshop keeping. What’s the biggest challenge right now?

Surviving. The public for our largely atypical selection of books is rather small. I am very grateful for the loyalty of this community that has been built in years. As long as they need us and stand by us, we will be here for them too.
 
Talking books and the art of bookshop keeping  

Why do you say atypical? I personally find your selection in perfect tune with my own tastes and interests, and, according to my standard, this should be the norm when it comes to the kind of bookstores I look for. But I do realise I’m in the minority. So my question truly comes from sheer concern about the values of our society: why has the level of culture sunken so much? (I am particularly speaking about Romania, of course, although, really, I see it as a general problem, more or less so in different parts of the world).

Atypical for the times we are living, yes. There is a decline of the interest in the traditional bookshop that takes different forms worldwide (ten years ago, for example, there were 10-12 bookshops and antique bookstores in Charing Cross in London; today there is only the Foyles flagship store), but which has mainly the same causes, well-known – there is no use in mentioning them here – or in the process of being discovered. However, as I was saying above, this interest could be rekindled, even during these trying times, through fostering a good relationship with an intellectually alive local community. I don’t believe, however, that things will ever be the same again. If we want to survive, as I was saying, we have to adapt. I think the use of technology (in harmony with the canons of the traditional bookshop) plays a very important role in this education.

Do you have favourite writers, favourite books? Do you bring them to the store? Is it important to separate your own tastes from the public’s or is it a good bookshop keeper’s duty and responsibility to try to distill the public’s taste, to educate the customers a little? How do you make the selection of books to bring to the store?

Of course I have favourite writers, books I keep returning to and books I’ve always wanted to have in the bookshop. I have found out about many others all these years that I have spent among people and books. How can you make a bookstore survive being aware of the responsibility mentioned above – without taking yourself too seriously – in these times? How can you make a selection that is able to meet these goals? I don’t know a perfect answer that works in every part of the world, but what I do know is that I couldn’t stay in a bookshop that would not invite me to take home its entire selection of books and I also know I could never recommend a book I don’t believe in.

Would you mind sharing a book you keep coming back to?
The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
 
Interview Vlad Niculescu Carturesti & Friends  
Who is the latest great new writer you have discovered?

We discover or rediscover authors every day. I have recenly read an interview with Philip Roth at his 85th anniversary. The thing I liked the most about it was that he talked about what I myself love about reading: you enter telescopically through a book that leads you to the next one, taking you from the world of a writer to another’s, because a name you find in the first book sends you in search of the next book and so on. One of the names he mentions in the interview is also one of the most important discoveries I have made in the past years: Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose „Between the World and Me” was fortunately translated in Romanian, too, by the Black Button Books publishing house as „Intre lume si mine”. Another recent discovery would be Teju Cole. They are two important voices, with a powerful, blunt writing style. I have recently read Jeremy Gavron, whose inventiveness reminded me of Borges or Mircea Horia Simionescu.

Yes, I have read that interview with Philip Roth as well and it is interesting that you mention Ta-Nehisi Coates and Teju Cole, too. Could you recommend a few other books which have recently been published?

Felix Culpa – Jeremy Gavron

Tenements, Towers & Trash – Julia Wertz

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone – Olivia Laing

The Correspondence Of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem – edited by Marie Luise Knott, translated by Anthony David

The Future Is History – Masha Gessen

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 – Thorkild Hansen, translated by Kathleen & James McFarlane

The Dawn Watch – Maya Jasanoff

Technicians of The Sacred – 50 years anniversary edition, 2017 – An Anthology by Jerome Rothenberg

The Last Testament – Jonas Bendiksen
 
Why we need paper books  
The past couple of years I’ve been less interested in literature and mainly interested in reading books about film, photography, art, history, autobiographies, or travel journals. Where do you think I should start reading fiction again? What three books in the store would you recommend?

It has happened to me too. I don’t think it works if you are telling yourself, or if you are reading in the texts of the people you believe in, that fiction is important because, through it, you can live thousands of lives or because fiction builds empathy, etc. We simply have to search, all the more so if we have distanced ourselves from fiction, and find a text that can be anything – a haiku, a poem, a SF, a collage or a classic novel – that will wake us. I don’t have any other solution. What I know for sure is that –
it sounds like a banality, but it never hurts repeating – reading, especially fiction, is an activity that must be exercised daily, just like physical exercising, otherwise we go numb.

Notes of A Crocodile – Qiu Miaojin
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country – William H. Gass

In one of our conversations you brought up the subject of the multitude of great but emotionally-heavy, sad books, and that some customers express their interest in reading more good “happy” books. But could it be that a great book should go beyond entertainment and escapism, that it should challenge you to see more clearly, to seek solutions, to be better, to make you realise that life always comes with good and bad, to have the potential to change your life, and that this kind of book never comes in the form of resolute chipperness?

The lists of the important English language prizes confirm the beginning of our conversation – for example, the latest Booker prize, won by George Saunders with Lincoln In The Bardo – but things are not that simple. I remember an interview with Prof. Dr. Iamandescu who talks about the accelerated rhythm of the activity of the neurons when we listen to baroque music, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, but also to Mozart or Beethoven. I think the same thing happens, maybe not that prominent, in the case of our reading – it is not necessarily about the genre approached, but about the power of the text. We have no chance as species but through education and culture. I think this is what Rothenberg is talking about in his anthology when he talks about how „poetry can save the world”.
 
Talking books and the art of bookshop keeping  

Do customers come to you to ask you for book recommendations? Do you have to read a little into your customer to be able to offer your advice?

If they didn’t, I would be very disappointed – it would mean I don’t do my job right. It helps knowing my customers’ tastes, naturally, but I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary that I do. My recommendations are always based on the things I myself truly love.

I, for one, appreciate a book with a beautiful cover and design. And I am relieved whenever I hear writers mention the importance of beautiful books. Am I wrong? Does image count? Should we judge a book by its cover?

The book is a perfect object – it can not be reinvented. Like the wheel – as Umberto Eco is saying in the book of conversations with Jean Claude Carriere – „This is Not The End Of The Book”. Doesn’t this perfection often suffer because of the questionable quality of the paper or because of the bad taste of the cover?

It is obvious that you do what you do with your heart. Should people follow their passion and do what they love?

I believe we should learn, for everyone’s benefit and despite social constraints, more and more to identify as early on as possible our individual capacities and to encourage them in every possible way. Yes, it sounds like a beautiful dream, I know. Passion, talent, intelligence have never seemed enough to me though. How each one of us can be of help to others, I think we should understand as soon as possible that “above all is endurance”, as James Baldwin said.

Without independent bookstores, I believe there would be very few great new authors to discover. It happened often that I bought the book that was shelved right next to the one I was actually looking for. What other reasons are there to choose a real bookstore over an online retailer? What do you do to keep the customers’ interest up? And how challenging is it to compete with online sellers?

A good bookshop is the one that discovers books you didn’t even know you were looking for, right? Lively, fresh, with a selection that is not based on search algorithms of the likes you find online – „Customers who bought this item also bought these…”. I don’t like this kind of strategies. Our selection is based on books that range from fundamental works to atypical new titles from various domains, from children’s to academic books. So my answer would be this: the book selection first and foremost, and the way you present it; that’s how we try to keep our customers’ interest up: through our authentic, genuine initiative teamed with our availability to order and bring any title the customer is interested in in the shortest time possible. Furthermore, at Cărturești & friends we have now joined forces with Ramona Chirica – she is curating the gallery Receptor which promotes Romanian illustrators – and with Brewtiful café (ed. note: I can vow for their flat white, one of the best in town).
 
Carturesti & Friends

Carturesti & Friends  
Do people still read books? Do Romanians still read books?

Of course they do – but how much and how they read, that’s a different story. As far as Romania is concerned, it is well known that most of the studies put us on one of the last places in Europe when it comes to cultural intake. The explanations are well known. We also know what should be done, it’s not that difficult to figure out, but as long as there will be nothing more done than singular acts and the volunteering of different types of NGOs, there is not much chance for things to change.

So how exactly can we change that? Or let me put it this way: what can the individual, what can I, for example, or the next person who loves books and appreciates culture, do to change that?

If I knew the answer I would be very happy to tell you, but unfortunately I don’t… But a good start would be to try to be an active participant in the cultural life of the city, thus encouraging the consumption of local culture from very early ages.

Is it important for people to continue reading paper books? Why?

Yes, it is, because it is a different kind of „reading”, much more devoted, focused, immersed, with much better results, as proven by studies made by some of the most prestigious universities, as compared to reading on various devices which draw your attention in a multitude of different directions at once making you lose your concentration. I don’t think it is useful, nor possible, in our age, to give up one or the other. We just have to learn to make them work together.
 
Carturesti & Friends

Carturesti & Friends 

You have a special section in the shop dedicated to children’s books. It’s one of my favourites. Where should a parent start in instilling their child the love for reading? And which are, in your opinion, five of the best children’s books of all time?

It is never too soon to start reading to your children and leading by example is extremely important; it is very true that seeing their parents reading, with books in their hands or surrounded by books will trigger the childrens’ curiosity and prompt them to open a book. I find these „best of…” lists terrifying and restrictive. I don’t like making them. They bring back unpleasant feelings related to school. One of the biggest joys of reading is to discover by yourself. Or to believe you discover by yourself. I am not saying that the regular childhood readings are not important or should not be encouraged: the fairy tales and legends of the world, from Grimm Brothers and Hauf, to Ion Creangă, Perrault, Jules Renaud, Barrie or EB White and many, many others, but I, for one, don’t think it is useful to anyone to make the children read in a particular order what we find appropriate, the texts we find „suitable” for children. I discovered as a teenager or even as an adult some so-called children’s authors or illustrators, whom I love just as much now: Iordan Chimet, with his splendid „An Anthology of Innocence”, Sara Fanelli, Edward Gorey.
 
Children's books 

You wish people appreciated more: Books. And by that I mean to truly appreciate books, which is not measured in online likes for photos of books.

One favourite thing to do in Bucharest and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world: To go to Obor (ed. note: the biggest market in Bucharest).

I am film lover and I have to ask: is there any film adapted from a book that you have enjoyed more than the book itself?

The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed after Graham Greene’s novel.
 
Talking books and the art of bookshop keeping

Talking books and the art of bookshop keeping  

Cărturești & friends: 9, Edgar Quinet Street, Bucharest
Facebook: @CarturestiFandom

 
photos: Classiq

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