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Holiday indie bookshop guide

‘Tis the season: time to search for that elusive item known as the perfect gift. A taste of our December issue can save the (holi)day with eight recommended (indie) bookshops that specialize in everything from first edition Karl Marx to comic heroes.

Marga Schoeller Bücherstube
Photo by Charlotte Eberwein
No matter how specific your literary tastes are, there’s a Berlin bookstore ready and willing to cater to them. Here are eight of our favourites.   Best lit lounge: Marga Schoeller Bücherstube Stube is one of those German words that doesn’t translate well. But come into Marga Schoeller’s Bücherstube and you’ll know immediately what’s meant. Cosy, crowded but not cluttered, and reassuring: the archetypical Room of One’s Own. Plus books, including a respectable English selection. Schoeller has been around since 1929. In 1974, it moved to Knesebeckstraße where it occupies four rooms and is currently staffed by Thomas Rodig (Marga’s son), Monika, Barbara, ‘young’ Thomas and Shirley: a friendly, competent team complemented by sleepy canine Ida recumbent on her red cushion. Books are displayed around fresh flowers so that you want to pick up every single volume. Ask for a book for your German aunt and you’ll get a slew of suggestions. Set yourself a spending limit and you might just come out with that lovely little hardback monograph on WH Auden by Alexander McCall Smith, bought for the sheer pleasure of having it. Whether for children, travellers, academics, locals, eclectic or incidental readers, Schoeller is home from home. Virginia would have loved it. EL Knesebeckstr. 33, Charlottenburg, S-Bhf Savignyplatz, Mon-Wed 9:30-19:30, Thu-Fri 9:30–20, Sat 9:30-18
Best commie hideout: Rotes Antiquariat Looking for a first edition of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital from 1867? It will set you back €9000, but Rotes Antiquariat is the place to find it. The store belongs to a very different era than the luxury apartments under construction next door. Its 27,000-plus books, stacked to the ceiling, focus on the workers’ movement before 1933 – including expensive rarities as well as bargain reprints from the 1970s. You can get copies of newspapers from the General Commission of the Trade Unions from the early 20th century or from the Communist League of West Germany from the 1970s. If you know older Berliners who left behind radical pasts, wouldn’t they be thrilled to get an agitational poster from a defunct Maoist sect for Christmas? A shelf in the back carries English editions of Lenin and Bakunin. Around since 2003, the store is “a normal capitalist company” with an owner (the rarely seen Christian Bartsch), but at least all the workers earn the same wage regardless of qualifications. And it wouldn’t be a bonafide left-wing location if it didn’t occasionally get into trouble: in 2007, police raided the shop because one of the employees was accused of belonging to an underground left-wing group. JR Rungestr. 20, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Jannowitzbrücke, Mon-Fri 12-18, Sat 11-15
Best books for brats: Nimmersatt Buchladen A wonderful haven for children’s books in Berlin, Nimmersatt Buchladen features a varied array of titles – mainly in German, but there’s also a great selection of foreign language books and bilingual literature including English, Turkish, French, Spanish and Russian. The warm owners of this charming and eclectic space, Anna Hebbinghaus and Boris Raskin (from Germany and Russia respectively), carefully and passionately curate the titles with a special focus on international stories, which help the Graefekiez shop, open since 2005, maintain that much noted multicultural Kreuzberg family vibe. Many of the books featured are published by small, independent publishers who are often highlighted in the shop through lively and enticing displays. Engaging even the smallest reader in stories beyond the book, Nimmersatt often hosts brilliant children’s theatre performances and lectures. Currently there is an exhibition of the stunning Excuse me, is this India? by Anushka Ravishankar, illustrated by Anti Leutwiler. With a cosy cafe and great events programme this is the perfect place for babies, kids, young adults and parents to get lost in any time of day come rain or shine. SL Diffenbachstr. 53, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schönleinstr., Mon-Fri 11-19, Sat 11-18
Best music mecca: Echo Bücher In the heart of Wedding, David Armengou has opened what he likes to call “a safe haven for music freaks”. His bookstore focuses on contemporary music and club culture, carrying vinyl records and literary selections ranging from John Cage to Alva Noto – one of his personal favourites is Hold on to your dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene by Tim Lawrence. Originally from Barcelona, Armengou ran the Catalan publishing house Doble Sol in his home city before moving to Berlin and opening Echo Bücher in July 2013, fulfilling a dream he’d had since childhood, when he used to listen to African rhythms and beats on tapes his mother would bring back from her travels to the continent. Now, you’ll find customers of all ages and nationalities, from hip local teens to rock ‘n’ roll Opa expats, flipping through the pages of the latest Gestalten book while nodding their heads to the music coming from the small DJ booth in the middle of the room. Weekly events include art exhibitions, readings and lectures and film screenings in the back room. So head on over, have a cup of coffee or a beer and dive into the world of musical awesomeness! CU Grüntaler Str. 9, Wedding, U-Bhf Pankstr., Tue-Sat 15-19 (times may vary for events and selected 24-hour opening days)
Best foreign lit: Zadig When Zadig – named after Voltaire’s meandering philosophical novel – celebrated its 10th anniversary in September, passersby would have been excused to mistake the occasion for a typical Berlin street fest – the pavement outside was crowded with German Francophiles rubbing shoulders with nihilistic street artists, postgender memoirists, multilingual kids and red wine drinkers; from Stephane Hessel disciples to that brat reading Asterix comics with brownie-smeared fingers in the well-stocked Kinder corner. The store extends over two rooms with a wide range of books, from current fiction to philosophy, graphic novels to sociology. Shopkeeper Patrick Suel, a self-professed nihilist from western France with credentials as a singer-songwriter in the 1990s, describes his selection as aiming to “invent the future” in the context of the cultural metropolis of Berlin – meaning that, rather than just stock the classics, he proudly carries a hand-picked selection of voices from the Francophone avantgarde. But Zadig is clearly more than a bookshop with a progressive selection. It has grown to become an outpost of French culture(s), the alternative to City West’s old Institut Français, with quality readings and talks and a review-packed website contributing a fresh French voice to the Berlin lit scene. CC/RS Linienstr. 141, Mitte, U-Bhf Oranienburger Tor, Mo 14-19, Tue-Sat 11-19
Best comix lair: Modern Graphics A shop almost as old as a united Germany, Modern Graphics has its origin story based in the Wild West days of reunified Berlin in 1991. The comic book shop is a rare breed these days, seemingly gobbled up by online retailers or megastores who have caught a whiff of the superpowers of the graphic novel. So perhaps it was owner and founder Michael Wießler’s foresight to set up shop in the alternative hub of Oranienstraße, or just Berlin’s tendency to want to keep a good thing going, that has allowed it to survive and thrive to this very day – it even opened up a satellite shop in Europa Center in 2006. The cramped shop in Kreuzberg is its own special universe, though – cramped not for lack of space, but because of the sheer volume of nerdy wares. The three adjoining rooms are packed to the gills with current issues of comic books, graphic novels, knick-knacks and assorted paraphernalia to suit whatever your quest may be. Of course, they carry plenty of comics in both English and German. The casual reader can drop by for a copy of Watchmen, Charles Burns’ excellent Black Hole (both in English) or a vast selection of Ralf König. If you’re looking for a supervillain in this story, you’re out of luck, Wießler and staff are as friendly and helpful as can be – in other words, you won’t find The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy within. WC Oranienstr. 22, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor, Kreuzberg, Mon-Fri 11-20, Sat 10-20
Best art arches: Bücherbogen Located in the brick viaduct under the S-Bahn tracks at Savignyplatz, Bücherbogen has been a home for all kinds of stories, memories and meetings over the past 30 years. In 1980, founder and owner Ruthild Spangenberg transformed two of the arches from a car repair shop into a bookstore and exhibition space specialising in art, photography and architecture. Over the years, the store opened two more branches – in the Nationalgalerie and the Berggruen Museum – and three more arches in its original location. Each of the vaulted spaces now has a single focus: film, photography, art, architecture and Berlin. Books and publications ranging from top sellers like the very latest Red Stone Press edition Inside the Rainbow on classical Soviet children’s book illustrations or the magnificent and almost alchemical volume of Franz Kahn’s Man Machine to rarely found publications on type design and knitting patterns. Each section is supported by a variety of niche magazines that can easily compete in diversity even with Do You Read Me?’s selection. Nearly one-third of all of the publications are in English. Not having anything particular in mind, you might just stroll among the shelves and leave with Andrew Zuckerman’s Wild Animals photo book, beautiful and a steal at €10 off. AK Stadtbahnbogen 593, Charlottenburg, S-Bhf Savignyplatz, Mon-Fri 10-20, Sat 10-18
Best murder den: Miss Marple The welcoming atmosphere in Miss Marple could not be more at odds with the tension and fast pace of the thriller and detective novels it stocks. Open since 2002, the small 50sqm space feels like stepping into the personal library of owner Cornelia Hüppe-Binder. A lifelong Krimi fan, she believes that the key to success in the bookshop business is to focus on one genre, and she clearly has enthusiasm for this one. Can she give a personal recommendation? “One? I have hundreds!” Her favourite at the moment is Der Katholische Bulle (The Catholic Cop) by Irish novelist Adrian McKinty. Sorted by country and author, the selection comes from all corners of the world, including a children’s section and variety of audio books. The English section has around 500 titles, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to modern bestsellers by Ian Rankin, PD James and Jo Nesbo. A long, neat line of the shop’s namesake Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie indicates where the owner’s passion started. Once a month, a loyal audience of Krimi aficionados gathers for a glass of wine and usually soldout readings. Twice a year it’s a reading by a foreign writer such as Belfast’s Sam Miller earlier this year, or Englishman Tarquin Hall in March 2010. UK Weimarer Str. 17, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Deutsche Oper, Mon-Fri 10.30-19.00, Sat 10.00-15.00
Know your English classics
  • With 30,000 mostly used books, including many new American and British titles, jam-packed into ceiling-high shelving and barely any seating save a dilapidated Chesterfield, St. George’s is a bookstore’s bookstore, its old-world, no-fuss British vibe accentuated by charmingly dour owner Paul Gurner. Keep your eye out for an upcoming second location in Mitte.
  • Within pram-pushing distance, the smaller Shakespeare and Sons, spun off by Roman and Laurel Kratochvila from their bookstore in Prague, is the place to go for trendier new titles (Davids Foster Wallace and Eggers are both prominently displayed), readings and excellent bagels in the front-room cafe.
  • Chaotic Another Country is both a shop and a cult, with British expat and known Berlin personality Sophie (formerly Alan) Raphaeline as figurehead. In addition to a plethora of secondhand books – any of which can be brought back for a refund, minus €1.50 – they’ve got concerts, readings, quiz nights and gluttonous €5.50 suppers.
  • Open since November in a former “casino” on a still-gritty stretch of Flughafenstraße, The Curious Fox seeks to fill the void left by the spring closure of Dialogue in nearby Graefekiez. While the tiny shop’s selection of used and new titles is still growing, go for the lovingly curated kiddie corner or a quiet slice of cake and cup of tea with friendly Irish owners (and one-time Another Country acolytes) Dave Gordon and Orla Baumgarten.
  • Finally, for the chance to read through books in a comfy environment but relative anonymity, head to lit superstore Dussmann. A constant stream of customers, myriad nooks and crannies in its two-storey English section and lengthy opening hours make this the perfect place to hide out on a grey winter night.
Originally published in issues #122, December 2013.