Bookstores: Three Continents, Eight Countries, A Travel Journal – Part II


Central/Eastern Europe

Last Spring, my wife and I spent two weeks in Central/Eastern Europe. We started in Krakow, which we used as our home base in Southern Poland. My father’s family is from a small town called Gorlice, about 100 kilometres from Krakow, so we spent a day with a Polish driver/translator seeing the town and the house where my father lived until he came to America at the age of 15. I didn’t find any bookstores in the town, but there was a small museum where I purchased my first book of the trip. It was a paperback, published by the museum called Zydzi Gorliccy, a history of the Jews of the town written in 1998. I don’t speak any Polish, but I was able to find my father in the book, in a listing of survivors of the war. The book stated that he served in the Polish Army, then settled in Connecticut. This supports the adage not to believe everything you read in print, as he left Poland at 15 and served in the U.S. army.

Back in Krakow, there are two excellent bookshops in the Kazimierz district, the site of the former Jewish Quarter, that specialize in books on the Holocaust in many languages. The Jarden Bookshop is part bookshop and part Jewish Heritage travel agency, while the Yidishland shop is part of the High Synagogue Museum that contains photo exhibitions of Poland before and during World War II. Both shops specialize in new holocaust books and offer numerous holocaust memoirs from survivors from all over the world, many that I have never seen or even read about. In both shops the most of the books were not shelved, but piled high on tables by language, then title. I am in the process of putting together a collection of material about Anne Frank, but these shops focus on Poland and Auschwitz, while Anne died in Bergen Belsen. I did find some nice books on Krakow before the War.

The new Oskar Schindler Museum, built on the site of his factory in the Krakow Ghetto, also has an excellent bookstore specializing in material on Poland during World War II. The museum, itself, is first-rate and a must-see for any fans of the book or the movie.

The next day we took the bus to Auschwitz. As you approach the entrance there are several small kiosk type bookshops, with a large selection of Holocaust books in several languages, but I did not buy anything, as this excursion was neither a shopping trip nor a photo-op.

We left Krakow that night for Budapest, where I visited several bookshops, looking for a copy of Ulysses in Hungarian. It turned out to be impossible to find. There are some beautiful Rizzoli-looking shops on the Pest side near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, like the Ceu Bookshop, but they specialize in foreign language books for visitors, and few if any of them decide they want to read James Joyce on a European vacation. On the outskirts of the Jewish Quarter, there is a large academic bookstore called the Alexandra, but they did not have any Joyce translations. I ended up buying a very nice hardcover copy of Kerouac’s On the Road in Hungarian instead, because I thought the cover was interesting. The title in Hungarian is Uton which mydaughter’s boyfriend Aron told me is a direct translation: ut is the word for road, and the on suffix meaning “on the.” On Sundays there is a small open-air market on Gouba Street with several vendors selling books. We met up with a British bibliophile friend in Budapest, and we had a great time looking at the titles by English language authors and trying to guess the original English title. It was interesting that most of the translations here were in hardcover, not in paperback, which they are in much of Western Europe.

From Budapest we traveled to Vienna, where I actually purchased two Joyce translations in one day. One morning we took a side trip from Vienna to Brataslava the present capital of Slovakia and formerly along with Vienna, a second capital of the Austria-Hungarian empire during the Hapsburg era. It is a much smaller city than I had expected, but a major University seat in the region. While we were there for only a few hours, I found a bookstore, Knihy, right off the main square. The shop contained mostly used academic books. There was a table in the center of the store with some books each individually placed with the front cover face up, and lo and behold I saw a hardcover copy of Ulysses translated into the Sklovak language.

We returned to Vienna in the early afternoon, and I figured I was on a roll, so I went into another academic bookshop, Frick, in the center of town, a stone’s throw from the apartment where Mozart composed the Marriage of Figaro. The shop specialized in books in many languages, and the clerks were very helpful. I told them that I collected Ulysses translations, and was looking for a German one, they quickly turned up with a brand new copy, then spent 15 minutes unsuccessfully scouring the store for copies in other European languages.

We stopped in the small picture-postcard town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic en route to Prague. There were two small bookshops in the town, one catering to English speaking tourists selling used books, the other selling European books and prints. I walked into the later one, figuring this would be a better bet for Ulysses in Czech. When I asked the clerk, he smiled and said “No, sorry, your friends were already here asking. I don’t have a copy.” We were traveling with friends and had split up so they could go antiquing while we climbed up to the castle. I am sure it was the first time he ever got two requests for Ulysses in one day.

It is the spirit of Kafka, not Joyce, than infuses the city of Prague. Every few blocks there is a Kafka-something – the Kafka Bookstore, the Kafka café, etc. When you stand on the bridge looking at the old section of Prague, on the wall along the waterfront is a large sign for the Kafka museum. The Kafka bookshop is a clean well-lit shop with lots of Kafka in many languages, but the prices seemed a bit inflated. I bought one book, Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide, which I later saw back home at the Strand in NYC for a third the price. After visiting the Kafka museum, which is a must for any literary person, I had a hankering to read his Letter to my Father. Near the museum is an English language bookshop called Shakespeare Astnove (or Shakespeare and Sons) so I popped in for a look. There was a large selection of used and new books, mostly paperbacks, but the prices were pretty expensive.

The last morning, before heading to the airport, I went into the bookshop in the large modern shopping mall across from our hotel. If I took my glasses off, so I couldn’t read the titles (which were all in Czech), it looked just like any mall bookshop in America. There were very few English language books, so I headed over to the literature section to look for Ulysses. There was no Joyce to be found, but I did see two different hardcover editions of On The Road. At first I could not figure out why there were two recent, but different, translations. Closer examination revealed that one was a translation of the 1957 edition, the other was a translation of the original scroll, first published on 2007. I was so impressed that someone would make the effort to translate the scroll, that I was ready to spend the $30.00 on it, until I looked at each copy of this heavy but not well-made book and noticed that both had tears in the front boards. In the airport, I spent my last Czech crowns on a souvenir copy of Kafka’s Letter to my Father which I read on the plane home.

Overall, I guess you can say that experiencing bookstores is a lot like trying different brands of ice cream. Mall Bookstores everywhere are like Baskin Robbins, the ubiquitous mall ice cream stands, lots of flavors to appeal to everyone, but none of them very good. Many big city bookshops are a lot like Hagen Daz, readily available, yet expensive, with an aftertaste that is a little too sweet while the big chain stores are like frozen yogurt, not quite the real thing. Stumbling upon a shop with interesting items with reasonable prices, is a special treat even rarer than really great ice cream. My own town has a sweet shop that makes the world’s best coconut ice cream, but not one bookstore.

Postscript

Since returning, I have managed to find and purchase three interesting translations of Ulysses on-line. Europa has published both Polish and Hungarian editions in hardcover. I also found the second German translation, from 1930, which was done at Joyce’s request, since he disapproved of the original German translation. If anyone knows of a copy of Ulysses in Swahili or Czech that is for sale, please let me know.

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