February 3, 2014

“A bookstore every two meters”: why Sofia, Bulgaria is the new model for a healthy literary marketplace.


Note, however, that even bookstores in Sofia are not above selling stacks of puzzles or whatever.

Note, however, that even bookstores in Sofia are not above selling stacks of puzzles or whatever.

What might a mature bookstore ecosystem look like? If the situation in Sofia is any indication, the answer would seem to be more, and smaller, indies.

M.A. Orthofer points us to a post on Radio Bulgaria about the surprising density of bookshops in that city. Rumyana Tsvetkova writes

In recent years, new bookstores have virtually mushroomed in the city of Sofia. They have moved on to claim not only street corners and main streets but even crossings. Others have set foot in shopping malls and in residential districts. However, the city center remains the top place for bookstores, with Graf Ignatiev St. and its crossings being the location of a dozen of them, as well as of the biggest open-air book market in Bulgaria, in Slaveykov Sq.


Assen Mitov who runs a small bookstore in the city center and has been in the trade since 1989 [says] “Today we’ve got a bookstore at every two meters, just like pharmacies and bank offices 20 years ago. There is nothing wrong in this, because the market will regulate the situation in a natural way. The unhealthy thing in all this however is that books by serious writers are published in circulations such as 1000 copies, and then they fail to get sold for years. This I’d call a negative trend.”

Mitov goes on to complain about rent and online competition. Pavlina Genova, another bookseller, discusses declining populations of readers and the burden of VAT on books.

All of this is remarkable. Not because I like to see booksellers struggle (unless it’s with the cartons and cartons of our books that they’ve ordered), but because the struggles in Sofia would seem to be nearly the same as  those of booksellers in the U.S. and U.K.

Even their solutions are identical. Among those listed by booksellers speaking to Tsvetkova: reliance on a community of supporters, more events, providing a third place for the public to spend their time. A quick survey of  bookstore sites shows book prices comparable to our own. And yet if Sofia is still supporting dozens of stores on a single avenue, that rivals the literary riches of New York City before the rise of Barnes & Noble.

What are the differences? Well, Amazon is a more terrifying and ruthless foe than what they might be facing, for one. If stores are fitting into street crossings somehow (are they in low-flying balloons? is the “store” in fact a tollbooth?) these stores are small. Part of that will be an artifact of cosmopolitan rents—some of the most resolutely interesting stores here in New York have very small physical footprints. Some of the stores will be run by publishers themselves. And though bookseller Mitov was speaking scornfully about reading tastes when he mentioned books by “serious authors” having scant print runs, perhaps that’s a favorable difference as well. The best bookstores are constantly looking for interesting small press books that very few other places, excluding in particular Amazon and their ilk, will have.

A healthy ecosystem, even in the face of online competition and waning interest might look exactly like this: many small bookstores with a uniquely curated inventory and a fiercely supportive community.  And if Sofia is any guide it seems the ecosystem can support a richer population than we had hoped, even in the digital age.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.