September 24, 2013

New Russian bookstores are “glittering” bastions of independence


Vse Svobodny, an independent bookstore in St. Petersburg

It seems that independent bookstores are thriving in Russia, adopting a business model that emphasizes the strengths of small stores. Alena Tveritina reports for Russia Beyond the Headlines that several locations in Moscow and St. Petersburg are finding success by evoking the feel of literary salons, offering a more idiosyncratic atmosphere than the big chain stores.

Tveritina writes that this new wave of indie stores eschews the bestsellers that readers can find anywhere, going so far as to give preference “less to what is profitable, and more to what is aesthetically or academically valuable.” In this way, they develop a distinct identity that’s connected to the taste of the owners. The bookstores also tend to work closely with smaller publishers, in order to provide customers with titles that often aren’t stocked by the chains.

The Magic Bookroom stores, for example, have three locations in Moscow, with an emphasis on Lewis Carroll-inspired whimsy and an informal gathering space for eager readers. To that end, they hold events like “dodo merrymaking” and storytime for kids. The tiny Khodasevic bookstore, meanwhile, has a selection of used books, some of them available for only a few cents, and offers customer the opportunity to use the store as a library. For about eight dollars a month, they can get a subscription and borrow books as they please. Owner Stas Gaivoronsky explains, “A new book costs an average of 400 rubles ($13), so when you combine that with the fact that someone can easily read around five books in a month, the advantage is obvious.”

In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, Tveritina says the emphasis is on “atmosphere above all.” Vse Svobodny opened there in 2011 with the intention of evoking the feel of a “Petersburg home library,” as well as several other objectives, per co-owner Artem Faustov: “first, the books must be inexpensive; second, no books of mass consumption [such as pulp fiction]; third, a specialization in the humanities, because this is particularly dear to us; and fourth, independence.” Faustov and his partner Lyubov Belyatskaya have also launched another bookstore, Podpisnye Izdaniya, formerly part of the Soviet network and now a vibrant location complete with coffee bar and vinyl records that customers can play themselves.

While several indie bookstores have shut their doors shortly after opening them, “glittering,” as Tveritina puts it, only briefly, it is encouraging to see spaces like that gaining a foothold and providing a unique service to Russian readers.


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.