Berlin second-hand bookstore Another Country is not ”another” bookstore. Ranked one of the best bookstores in the world, Another Country operates as a shop, a library and a meeting place for all lovers of English literature.
The year is 1999, and Sophia Raphaeline sets out in Berlin with an impressive collection of 12 000 books and a desire to start a small business. Soon after, Another Country opens its doors in Kreuzberg. Almost 20 years later, Raphaeline’s store has been internationally acknowledged as one of ”the world’s greatest bookstores” by BBC Travel, and is home to more than 20 000 titles. It is a non-profit organization where you can buy books like you normally would, but also buy books and then return them for a €1.50 charge, like a library. You can attend movie screenings, dinner parties or just drop in for a browse and a chat.
With it’s tightly packed shelves, checkered tiles and mismatched furniture, it’s no wonder people are so drawn to Another Country. The books are everywhere, creating the ”organized chaos” that book-lovers — and book hoarders — are so notoriously known for. People frequently refer to the store as ’homey’, and I believe that is one of the reasons why it is so popular; it is a place where book lovers can feel at home, whoever they are and wherever they are from.
What is the atmosphere like at Another Country on a regular day?
The atmosphere can vary amazingly, but usually there’s an undercurrent of people surprised by what the place is like, and a strong feeling of it being a meeting place, too. Along with the normal intimacy of a bookshop, an English language one in Berlin adds to the feeling of attaining a degree of sanctuary, or so it appears.
Who are your customers? Do you find a lot of Germans seek out English literature, or is it mostly expats and travelers?
Germans tend to be 20 to 30 percent, other first languages maybe five to fifteen percent, and the rest of them are native English speakers who are here for the books and events.
Berlin is such a cultural city; do you think that your location is an advantage to your business?
Berlin is a great location in many ways. I’m not sure that the cultural aspect is such an advantage, but as a place that people visit a lot more, certainly.
Customers can buy your books, and then return them to get a refund, minus the €1.50 charge. What sprouted this idea? Are there a lot of people who return their books and then take out new ones, like in a library?
The library aspect was partly accidental. I looked at my books and saw many that I could sell, a very few that would never go anywhere near the shop, and some I’d like people to read but didn’t particularly want to sell since long experience of bookshops had shown me how difficult it would be to replace them. It’s practical in some ways, though it does depress notional profit, because it fits a lot of people’s different needs. There’s also always the wonder that refusing to sell a book to a customer brings some burst of pure absurdity into life.
How come you only sell second-hand books?
We will actually be changing that soon – we will have some new books in the coming months. I’m looking at the necessary German bureaucracy though, and I’m happy to have escaped so much of it for so many years.
A lot of second-hand books and library books have marginalia in them. How do you feel about when people dog-ear and scribble in the margins of their books?
I think it depends on time. If it’s more than 200 years old it’s generally fairly intriguing, 100 years old and it’s still interesting. Three years ago and it’s desecration. It’s a spectrum.
Do you have any particularly peculiar, old or strange books (or other items) in Another Country at the moment?
What is odd? Two stuffed European buzzards on the wall or the illuminated letters hung there? The vibrantly colored plastic statue of Lakshmi with lights and a fountain? Odd books I’m not so sure about. One thing I did do when starting this business was to think that I’d miss that engagement that comes with a new friend looking through your books and getting an idea of you from that. So I started with one shelf, now two, of evil (in my estimation) books. There’s some fiction, including American Psycho, 300, Oliver Twist and one of the Left Behind series, but also a lot of memoirs – from the Duchess of Windsor to Helmut Kohl and the works of a religious, not to say fundie, nature. Lots of fun conversations around books, like a Justin Bieber annual getting universal (dis)approbation.
You host a number of events regularly; English film club, dinner nights, and a monthly reading group. Do you think it’s important to provide a space where people can talk about literature with other literature enthusiasts, and do you have a lot of regulars at these events?
Events are supportive of the English language community probably more than simply of literature. We have maybe three writing groups every week, each Friday there’s a conversational party with food and drink where we normally manage to get 20-40 people along. There’s a storytelling evening once a month, board game meet-ups, a film group, a queer creatives event, which is about to give birth to it’s second published collection, some evenings for trans people, refugees and other minorities. Sometimes there’s a book club, but not at the moment. Even author readings from time to time…
What events are your favorite, and why?
My personal favorite is story telling – true stories on a particular theme – mainly because I like occasional performing but also because a bookseller, especially, ”curates” so many stories.
Sophia Raphaeline recommends:
Area X by Jeff VanderMeer
It’s good to see a writer you’ve always enjoyed but who never seems to quite have put everything together in one volume, finally make it in three. It’s a three part novel of incursion that makes House of Leaves seem innocent, a novel of American denial, perhaps the best novel written by a man with primarily female leads that I can remember reading. A book of wonder.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
I read this and didn’t like it. I don’t usually like, as apposed to respect, Miranda July, and think she favors style over substance too often. But it stayed with me, and when I looked through it again something clicked: such rage, such random savage kicks against the world. Tasty.
Roz Kaveney’s just published version of Catullus’s verse
A very new/very old combination. ’Catullus’ gives an excellent refreshing unity of personality. It’s been many years since I’d first read the poet, and only by chance did I see this. I read it and felt like being in a small boat, negotiating rocks and rapids, not universally successfully. Not a small gem.
Visit Another Country: Riemannstr. 7, 10961 Berlin (U7-Gneisenau)
Opening hours: Mondays 14.00-20.00, Tuesdays to Fridays 11.00-20.00, Saturdays 12.00-18.00
For updates on events and other news, follow @anothercountry on Facebook.