Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Copenhagen Bookshops

Sunday, November 6th, 2007

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: The Bookshops of Copenhagen

One of many things I love about Copenhagen is its wealth of small bookshops. Most book-lovers in the United States mourn the continuing disappearance of the cozy neighborhood bookshop with an owner you knew by name and who knew your tastes in reading and was quick to tell you, “Say we’ve just got something in I think you might like…” The voracious goliaths have taken over the scene with their plethora of discouraging sloppy tables overflowing with remaindered hardbacks, making life difficult for independent publishers and writers. I don’t know how many reports I’ve received from people who tried to buy one of my books in one of those giant emporiums only to be told that I was out of print – which in Borders or B&N lingo means that my book was not distributed by their distributor so I might as well be dead and why don’t you join me in kicking the corpse? Maybe that sounds bitter. I’m not bitter; I live in Copenhagen.

Here there are plenty of small to medium-sized independent bookshops. Those that sell neew books and the so-called antiquarians. Even the few shops that could not be classified as small – I’m thinking of Arnold Busck on Købermagergade, near the Round Tower, which has a café and readings on its 2nd floor, and Politikens Boghal on the Town Hall Square, both of which stock a fine supply of English language books. There is the wonderful Paludan’s Book Café on the cobblestoned Fiolstræde, just across from the ancient university Library – a big, roomy shop with tall windows which features a greate series of Thursday readings, excellent draft beer and red wine and a sandwich of Italian cheese and prosciuto ham to die for; and let us not forget that in the basement antiquarian sector of the shop there is an eerie exhibition of modern sculpture nestled in its shadowy recesses, haunting forms.

And a stone’s throw from there, on Nørregade, just to the right of Our Lady Cathedral, is Atheneum International Book Dealer, whose English section is run by the elegant Sidsel Brun who is passionate about stocking books that matter; here you’ll find the esoteric English books you cannot find elsewhere. Then there is Chester’s Book Café at Strandgade 26 in the charming city neighborhood known as Christianshavn (which is also home to the so-called Free State, “Christiania,” an abandoned military encampment taken over by squatters nearly 40 years ago though which, sadly, is currently under assault by the current less than liberal government; a visit to Christiania is rather like a visit to the wild west in the middle of a civilized city). Chester’s Book Café is in a semi-basement, just down the street and across the avenue from the Danish Writers Union and features Wednesday evening readings by some of the best of contemporary Danish and international writers. Tranquebar Book Café (on Borgergade – just across the street from the Torture Rehabilitation Center – which will be subject of a later entry in this blog series) is a sprawling place named for the only colony Denmark ever had in India and modelled after the travel bookshop in the film “Notting Hill,” though this one is considerably more elegant and roomy. Its stock includes not only travel books but the literature of the countries you are considering travelling to as well as products from those countries – textiles, objets d’art, knickknacks, beer and wine! You can sit in one of its many chairs sipping a glass of red wine and reading for hours, undisturbed.

All these shops are personally welcoming with friendly and helpful personnel you might also bump into when roaming the old serving houses of this ancient capital. I regularly run into book-sellers in bars like The Fiver (Femmeren) on Classensgade or at Rosengaards Bodega just off the Coal Square or at the Café Under the Clock on Silver Square. Although not strictly a bookshop, I would also like to mention The Jazz Cellar on Skindergade because, although it specializes in jazz CDs and DVDs (I recently purchased a copy of the great restored DVD version of “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a film I had seen in 1960 and which made me understand I could love both jazz and rock and roll – it featured numbers by Chuck Berry as well as Anita O’Day…) But the Jazz Cellar – so named because it started out in a cellar on Grey Friar’s Square, although it is now in larger mezzanine quarters on Skindergade – also stocks books about jazz and was even so kind as to extend its concept to stocking my four novels about Copenhagen because of their taste for jazz as well; they sponsored an event once during which I read selections of each of the four books while my lady, Alice, womanned the DVD player, providing just the right background music mentioned in the novels at just the right time – Coltrane, Davis, Getz, Adderley, Lady Day…

I have saved for the last the bookshop in which I spend many a happy hour, alternately perusing the stock and chatting and sipping red wine with its owner – himself a writer and publisher – Lars Rasmussen about whom many have remarked his close resemblance to Feodor Dostoyevsky (see “Dostoevsky on Skinnner Street on www.WebDelSol.com, click enter, then in the upper right quadrant, click “The Literary Explorer” and scroll down to the desired title.) His shop, a broad expanse of plate window in a semi-basement, is called The Booktrader (www.booktrader.dk) note: I have not included web addresses for the other shops because they are in Danish only).

Once a week or so, I visit Lars in the Booktrader and we share a bottle of wine (sometimes two!) over the broad table on which are offered books for a tenner (ten Danish crowns is not quite two dollars American – and what marvelous books one finds on that table!) beneath the large wreath of erotic plaster sculpture on the ceiling (oddly, rarely noticed by anyone who comes in despite its explicit carnality!), facing Lars's alphabet book display – based on something he happened across in Joyce's Ulysses – books with only a letter for a title: "Have you read his W?" "No, I prefer his F." "Ah, yes, his F!") This display begins with Andy Warhol's so-called novel "A" and ends with a Danish edition of Aldus Huxley's "Ø" and another titled "Å" – which are the last letters in the Danish alphabet.

The Booktrader is a so-called antiquarian bookshop, selling used books, both ordinary and valuable, but Lars also writes and publishes books – most notably, a series on South African jazz and his own short stories which are a mix of elegance and nausée. What I particularly enjoy about a visit to the Booktrader, aside from Lars's company, is the pleasure of chatting with the customers, who include all manner of people, from a shy descendant of Dame Edith Sitwell to a poet-photographer who specializes in erotic poetry and art photographs of the female genitalia and confesses proudly that he has never slept with a woman who was not a prostitute – unlike those who brag, "I never had to pay for it," our friend Niels proclaims proudly, "I always pay for it!" Several hundred times throughout his life. Here there are visitors who are editors, writers, artists, playwrights, poets, travelers on their way through the city or the country or the continent and just plain people who love books. Something I have discovered in Lars's semi-cellar book paradise is that booklovers, who may be shy and retiring in life, retreating to the pages of a novel or poetry collection or historic study, when set loose in a bookshop are easily approachable and tend to respond positively to stimulation.

On August 1st, 2008, Lars will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Booktrader, which was opened in 1983 by an American named David Grubb and taken over by Lars in 1988. The first years that David Grubb owned the shop became somewhat legendary – including readings and press conferences with people like William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, Michael McClure and the Fugs. In the '90s the shop was known as the place to go for a continuing party, though at one point Lars recognized he would have to put a stop to that if he wanted to survive to a healthy, relatively old age. The participants at that great party came and went throughout the day, but Lars was there from morning to evening, and it began to take its toll.
Still, today Lars is not averse to sharing a bottle of nice red from the African import specialties shop or from the Spanish café on the other side of the street (where you can also buy a slice of Spanish sheep cheese that goes straight to the pleasure centers of the brain!)
And so,
while there is still world enough and time,
down into the Booktrader I shall climb
to chat and read and sip some wine.

See also www.copenhagenquartet.com for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (www.thomasekennedy.com)

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