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Bookstore spotlight: Shakespeare and Sons

INTERVIEW! On the next stop in our tour of Berlin’s bookstores, David Mouriquand visits Warschauer Straße, where a roaring bagel trade is keeping one English shop afloat.

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Book sales dropped by about 75 percent during lockdown at Roman Kratochvila’s Shakespeare and Sons, a bookshop and café on Warschauer Straße. (Photo by David Mouriquand.)

During lockdown, bookstores were considered “essential services” – along with supermarkets and flower shops – and stayed open the entire time. But was it all smooth sailing? Over the next week, we’ll hear how our favourite shops handled the crisis.  Next up, Warschauer Straße’s Shakespeare and Sons, a beloved space that combines a book store with a café.

Roman Kratochvila has been running Shakespeare and Sons on Warschauer Straße since 2014. Usually as jam-packed as one of their freshly baked, generously schmeared bagels, this cosy books and food joint found itself in a unique position in March. Half café, half international bookshop, its dual identity meant this go-to spot for English readers, curious browsers, eaters and typers could not be fully open during the lockdown. Instead, they barricaded the front and set up a table with an aquarium-style glass façade so people could still order their coffees.

This also meant that customers could still order a cheeky copy of 1984 and marvel at how time has revealed Orwell’s seminal novel as less of a warning and more of some demented instructions manual. But most people prefer to browse, leading Shakespeare and Sons’ sales to fall by about 75 percent – even if the book sales have always been the smaller part of the operation, representing one third of the total revenue. “We could have been open, but logically it wasn’t possible,” says Kratochvila, who’s originally from Czech Republic. “The café could not be opened. But when you have two businesses, they complement each other, so if something doesn’t work on one side, the other picks up the slack. I’d rather say that the books kept us alive during the lockdown, but on a strictly financial level, it’s the bagels.”

Kratochvila relied on the loyalty of regular customers, a temporary window display – even if direct sunlight isn’t great for the book covers – and instigated a Corona delivery initiative, much like fellow bookstore Another Country. This went gangbusters in the first month of lockdown: the simplified bagel menu drew some attention, but  Shakespeare and Sons’ curated a selection of 10 fiction and non-fiction books is what really got quarantined bookworms page-hungry, with customers buying up to three books per order. Sourcing books, however, has been a challenge, as things are more complicated in the UK.

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Books and bagels. (Photo by David Mouriquand.)

“Distribution is completely disrupted,” Kratochvila says. “It’s borderline impossible to order anything from England right now. It’s much more expensive from the US. And then there’s always the competition from Amazon. But if everybody orders from Amazon, there’ll be nothing left – just coffee shops and banks.”

Depressing dystopian visions aside, more time at home seems to have translated to more people reading, especially with streaming fatigue kicking in. Camus and Orwell have been go-to authors for pandemic reads, but the crown belongs to the breakout Irish author Sally Rooney. “We sold all our copies of the Rooney books,” Kratochvila says. “We had to get US editions to keep up. And because of the popularity of these novels and the TV show being a big hit, I noticed that a lot of people were asking about new novels by young authors.”

Now that one of the best English-language bookstores in Berlin is open again, with only one person per 10sqm allowed, Shakespeare and Sons’ 140sqm will still feel the impact.

It’s too soon to tally what the two-month lockdown has done to the business, but Kratochvila estimates a loss of revenue of over 50 percent. Still, morale seems high, and even if a lack of tourists will continue to impact the business, fewer people leaving the city this summer should help. That and the Senat’s Soforthilfe funding.

“The government help has been generous and responsible, and no government in the world can cover losses completely,” Kratochvila concludes. “I’m already surprised that books were considered an essential good – especially when you look at some of the politicians around the world, with some of them coming off as barely semi-literate.”