Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A book lover’s lament

with 3 comments

Yesterday, still plagued by loud renovations, I decided to take a day trip somewhere. The decision fell on near-by Düsseldorf, largely due to the presence of one of the few bookstores that I take seriously—Stern-Verlag. This especially with almost every visit to one of the weak Wuppertal bookstores having been a waste of time.

While on the train, I sketched a plan for the day, which would see me visit some other stores, do a bit of walking, including revisiting the park and the birds that I had enjoyed so much during my years as a Düsseldorf resident, have a prolonged meal with a good read—and then to go through Stern-Verlag from top to bottom, to make up for several years without visiting a good bookstore.

After dinner, I set out in the rough correction direction, to my surprise finding that I had forgotten the exact location, a fair bit outside the actual city-center. As I drew nearer, my memories started to click again, and I knew that I was either in the right street or one parallel to it. The latter applied, because I suddenly spotted the back-entrance. Good enough. I approached—and found the glass-door locked on a conspicuous lack of books.

Hoping against hope, I went around to the main entrance—possibly, there had just been cut backs, with a portion of the store closed? Alas, no. (Rest in peace, old friend.)

A last hope was a sign in the window pointing to a nearby Mayersche. While this chain has been one of the leaders behind the declining quality of bookstores, there might at least be some possibility that it had taken over a significant portion of Stern-Verlag stock, possibly because Mayersche had bought and stream-lined the old Stern-Verlag. No, this too was an unfulfilled hope—the “new” store was not worth the trouble, being even smaller than the Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment. The size of the downgrade is clear from German Wikipedia, which gives the sales floors as 7,000 m2 resp. 400 m2—a cut by more than a factor of 17… Veni, vidi, exivi.

To save something of my main purpose, I walked to the known second best alternative—a Mayersche about a kilometer away, in the main shopping district, which had a similar size to Stern-Verlag, but which, obviously, suffered from the Mayersche attitude towards books and customers. There I found myself demotivated and found the usual, depressing, Mayersche proportions of hyper-commercialism to more worthy content. However, I still managed to pick out two books, both college texts on literary science. (Exactly the type of book that is the first to go when we move down bookstore sizes.)

In this, I see two sad problems repeated: The death of bookstores and the take-over of highly commercial products, often even non-books.

Now, I can understand the wish, even need, to make a profit—and I do realize that with less commercialism, even more bookstores would already be gone. I also understand that the bookstores are not always the source of the problem, themselves being victims of “people don’t read anymore” and decreasing intellectual aspirations among those who do read. (Even eCommerce competition aside.) The development is still a negative and lamentable one—it might be a necessary evil, or a lesser evil, but it remains an evil. Moreover, the same development appears to have spread to libraries, where it is not defendable.

If we look* e.g. at the bookstore closest to me, the aforementioned Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment, we find that:

*I go by memory here. I might be off in detail, but the broad strokes hold true—and match what is typical for at least the major German chains. (But any quantities mentioned might need scaling by store size, including that a very large store, like the larger Mayersche from yesterday, might contain some types of books that smaller stores do not have—but still only in small proportions. Also see an excursion below.) Stern-Verlag, at least at the time of my last visit, had better proportions.

  1. A significant portion of the products are not books at all. This includes calendars, cups, writing utensils, DVDs, … I have seen bookstores where more than a quarter of the floor space is lost to such products. (But I do not think it to be quite that bad here.)
  2. The sections* for cooking, travel, and languages are among (or outright) the largest. That such sections are present is by no means wrong, but when they are so large compared to the overall, something is amiss, and such large sections on cooking and travel might even be better left to a specialist cooking respectively travel store. (Note: “store”, not “book store”.)

    *Here used to imply a portion of a bookstore with a clear own theme, typically somehow labeled to inform of the contents. In the case of this store, most sections (not including the above three or the main fiction sections) are just a single bookcase from top to bottom.

    Note, not necessarily as a criticism, the common theme of a practicality or a use unrelated to reading per se—and often unrelated to learning, education, and Bildung* too. Languages is likely the most “traditional” of these sections, but even here, the character of the books is different from both fiction and more regular non-fiction—it is not a matter of reading, Bildung, whatnot, but of learning a language.

    *This German word is hard to translate to English, although a metaphorical “cultivation” or some older meaning of “culture” might come close. It contains aspects of growing intellectually, growing as a person, and similar. The “Bildungsroman” (as might be guessed from the name) deals with Bildung, if typically on a beginners’ stage or the specific stage of growing from youth to adult. Bildung is not to be confused with just gaining an education—and certainly not with e.g. dressing well and visiting the opera.

  3. A very significant further section is school literature—large heaps of mostly the same books that parents buy for their children’s classes. At the seasonal height, one might think that “bookstore” actually should be “school store”, due to the sheer quantity of books, the common addition of non-book school supplies, and the prominent placement. College-level literature is far rarer.
  4. There are a few shelf meters with natural-science books. These are virtually all popular science and they are matched by a similar quantity of shelf for esoteric/“new age”/superstition/astrology/… books (that take these topics seriously) and a similar quantity of “self-help” books offering trite, superficial, and not very helpful advice for those unable to handle themselves on their own.
  5. Other non-fiction sections of a more serious character (to which cooking and travel do not belong), tend to fair similarly poorly, languages excepted. There is a computer section, but it contains only or almost only practical guides to various programs—with no sign of more abstract treatments, including books on actual computer science. Psychology books tend to be superficial pop-psychology or even “self-help” in disguise. Ditto religion. History does bit better, but not much. Literary theory, history of literature, and similar themes are absent (despite there being a natural connection between reading and having an interest in such topics). Mathematics is absent. Engineering is absent. Philosophy is probably absent. Etc.

    Two more practical sections are law and “work topics” (e.g. concerning job applications, on-job conflicts, middle-management skills, and similar By the nature of the topics, their contents seem appropriate, but, again, we have fields not strongly relating to reading, education, Bildung, … I have bought a few books from the latter category myself over they years—and have usually not found them to be very helpful or insightful. (I have bought a few reference books from the law section too. These have done their job, but today I would stick to the Internet.)

    Other notable sections include biographies and politics. I have never looked into either in more detail, but my superficial impression is that they continue the best-seller, for-the-masses, well-short-of-academia trend of other sections. For instance, recently a book by Michelle Obama has been very heavily featured.

    Through-out, irrespective of field, books on the college level or above, including actual textbooks, are rare or entirely absent.

  6. The various sections for fiction are dominated by best-sellers—works of “high literature”, “classics”*, whatnot are very obviously secondary to the latest Stephanie Meyer or whatnot. The proportions given to children’s and “young adult” literature sections seem larger than warranted by their part of the population—which is a shame for adult me.** A very significant portion are English works translated to German.*** This includes the many sci-fi and fantasy works that I might have been interested in, had they been in English—and would have been very interested in during my twenties.

    *In all fairness, most books counted as classics are in the public domain, and I recommend trying Internet sources for free access before looking in a book store.

    **However, I stress that I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing in a bigger picture—if children never learn to love books, bookstores are doomed.

    ***There is not necessarily anything wrong with translations in principle, but (a) most translations that I have encountered in Germany have been quite poor, (b) it borders on the shameful that the average German is so bad at reading, or unwilling to read, English in the original (other languages are more understandable). We are at a stage when most books by English authors should be sold and read in English even in Germany.

It does not contain a cafe, but that is only because it is too small… Larger Mayersche (and many other larger bookstores) typically do. Similarly, the lack of book signings and book-readings-by-the-author is more likely to relate to size than to insight into the typical commercialism and lacking intellectualism that dominates the former and is very often a factor in the latter—the former is for idiots and while the latter might have value for many non-idiots, I suspect that the idiots dominate among the actual visitors. (Consider e.g. motivations like “A reading by the author might reveal something new about the text.” vs. “Yes! I get to see my favorite author in the flesh!!!”.)

Excursion on school books:
The presence of school books is easy to understand in that this is a recurring and large scale way to sell a lot of books—the number of books needed by a student at the beginning of the year might match or exceed the number of other books bought by the typical parent for the entire year. However, in my eyes, there is a systematic error here: if books are mandatory for school, it would be much better for the school to buy them, in bulk, with VAT deductible, with some leverage to negotiate prices,* etc. This not to mention the time and effort the parents would be saved. (This might, of course, come with some type of additional fee for the parents corresponding to the shift of immediate costs.)

*In fact, when schools dictate what books the parents must buy, publishers have every incentive to artificially inflate prices, and as long as parents pay, schools have no incentive to consider costs when making choices.

Similarly, I have read about U.S. schools where parents are given lists of things to buy for their children, include crayons and “Kleenex”* packages, which are then confiscated by the teacher, to be handed out among the students according to need. Apart from the implied Socialism, this causes a considerable extra effort and cost for the parents, which would be much better handled if the school bought in bulk and then just billed the parents a small amount—notably, an amount almost automatically smaller than what the parents would have payed individually, and potentially much smaller when the opportunity cost of the extra work is factored in. To boot, the quantities I saw in at least one list were such that the average child would be unlikely to use everything up, implying that the reminder turns into an involuntary gift from the parents to the school.

*Which raises the additional question of whether any brand will do or whether it has to be specifically Kleenex—a question which is not moot, considering variations in price, quality, and package size.

Excursion on Düsseldorf:
With my prolonged absence, I had forgotten how loaded with stores and large stores Düsseldorf was. Compared to Wuppertal (where I currently live) and Cologne (the stop before that), there is a mismatch with the population size. For instance, the larger Mayersche above could alone contain all of the bookstores that I have seen in Wuppertal—probably twice over. The Wuppertal Saturn (electronics store/chain) might be a third as large as the one in central Düsseldorf. Etc. Population-wise? Wikipedia gives population sizes for 2015 of 350,046 for Wuppertal, 612,178 for Düsseldorf, and 1,060,582 for Cologne—going only by stores, I would have matched the 1,060,582 to Düsseldorf and the 612,178 to Cologne. This is likely partially explained by a “magnet” effect after reaching some critical limit—even for me, Düsseldorf might be a better alternative than Wuppertal for my rare (non-grocery) shopping.

On the down-side, during my years in Düsseldorf, I repeatedly noted how the city was ruining it self through construction works, including causing traffic jams and reducing access to some smaller stores to the point that they lost too much business and had to close or relocate. Amazingly, such works are still on-going… (But it is much better now than around e.g. 2012.) Of course, for the big-shots of the city, this might not have been seen as a problem at all—the cost of traffic jams are carried by others and the loss of a mom-and-pop store just means that there is an opening for a new Prada or whatnot store that brings more prestige and tourist interest. The overall gain from these works, with the incompetent and intrusive implementation,* were not worth the cost.

*The same works done in a better manner, might have been a very different matter.

Excursion on bookstore sizes:
As might be clear from above, we need large bookstores. With smaller bookstores, the choice of books is highly limited; and having two, three, or four small ones, only means that we have the same limited choice repeated in each of them. Comparing e.g. the large Mayersche in Düsseldorf with my local, we can e.g. note that the proportion of books on literature is quite small—but there are still a few shelf meters. Similarly, it does not have many math books, and likely no truly advanced—but it does have a few shelf meters of the early college level. The Wuppertal Mayersche has a few shelf meters with (untranslated) English books—in Düsseldorf there is a similar quantity of French and Spanish books, and the English sections might be ten times as large. Etc. I would rather walk two hours to a bookstore of this size than five minutes to the local Mayersche. (Unfortunately, a walk to Düsseldorf would take far longer than two hours.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] caused by a text on bookstores ([1]), where my doubts arose and I took the safe path by using “bookcase” (but kept some plausible […]

  2. […] have previously written about problems with German bookstores ([1]) and mentioned the criticism against recent Nobel Literature winner Peter Handke ([2], […]

  3. […] Almost exactly one year ago (15th vs. 17th of July 2020 resp. 2019), I discovered that my favorite store in all of Düsseldorf had been closed ([1]). […]

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