There are some places in the world where you are transported back in time. Walking through the streets of Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia, reminds the English visitor of a time where bookshops were a central tenet of a city’s culture. In the UK, it is only in the likes of the novel passages of London’s Cecil Court where traditional bookshops still thrive and grant warm haven to a bibliophile.
Sofia provides a surprisingly wider area for the humble bookshop. Though there are modern shops where glossy full priced books line the shelves and display areas, the real surprise is in the wealth of traditional bookshops. And it is not just shops; in Sofia, booksellers literally line the streets, filling alleyways with tables and boxes of second hand works.
The shops though are a particularly unique and unforgettable characteristic of the city. The interactions with the staff can also provide a memorable interlude. I almost miss one shop, with its tremendously narrow window and doorway. The proprietor is standing at the threshold conversing loudly with an old gentleman. I sidle up beside the visitor and look at the owner.
He smiles, flashing a profile which reminds me of Mole in Wind in the Willows. I ask whether he stocks English books. He smiles ruefully and shakes his head. I express my uncertainty, as I am not sure if he understands me.
“Only Bulgarian books?” I ask.
He nods, points behind to a warren of bookshelves, which I am desperate to investigate, and says something in Bulgarian. He then gestures more wildly to his myriad cavernous shelves and smiles again.
“Do you have any books in English at all?” I venture, thinking repetition may do the trick.
He beckons me into the shop and proceeds to reveal that there are English books at the very back, new ones on the left, some second hand on the right. His ability to speak English has quickly improved. It is the type of confusing yet strangely alluring service I now expect in Sofia. His manner and his shop itself reminds me of Mr Cave’s emporium in H.G. Wells’ The Crystal Egg.
The bookshop is so overstocked that I look up at the ceiling wondering if there are any available here too. The middle of the ceiling that is; the sides are already fringed by books which reach from bottom to top. The English books are almost entirely secreted in amongst other Bulgarian books and various contraptions, which exist solely to find books higher than six feet.
I move ladders and steps in order to squeeze sideways into the only possible space that provides the English books within arm’s reach. My body has to face the front door of the shop whilst I turn my head as far left as possible in order to read the titles available. But isn’t this what true discovery of reading material should be like? To find the books is an adventure, to read them a marvel. Many times the best discoveries are made through the most testing introduction.
The Elephant Bookstore is a well-known gem with a more accessible entrance. Part bookshop, part trinket and giftshop, it has the best-stocked library in the smallest most organised space I've ever seen. Most of the books are second hand but even so, huge rows of the same author’s works fill the shelves.
There are 15 books by Ernest Hemingway, 17 by Graham Greene, 15 by W. Somerset Maugham and several by Milan Kundera and Aldous Huxley. These are not authors you tend to see in foreign cities in such numbers, especially second hand at reasonable prices. Best of all they have the expected works by such authors, with several surprise titles also in stock.
Perhaps as a consequence of the prevalence of bookshops within the city, Sofia's people reveal a remarkable preference for actual conversation. Young and middle aged alike are not seen with their heads buried in a phone or tablet; instead they are more often seen conversing with each other face to face, which seems a by-product of a proudly literate society.
I find myself wondering how long it would have taken for the English books I found in Mr Cave's glorious emporium to be discovered had I not insisted upon finding them. Listening to some of the conversations between staff and English speaking tourists, perhaps it might not have been so long. There is clearly both a demand (and a sublime supply) for quality literature in Sofia.
And it strikes me how authors invest so much of our souls into our writing. We can be frustrated, misunderstood and indeed misrepresented at times by the industry. Yet the ultimate destination for any book should of course be the time-honoured bookshop even if our works may become mired in the antiquity of the past.
Many deceased authors represented in Sofia's literary heart are unaware of their continuing impact but the presence of their books is the ultimate compliment. The ultimate salvation for all authors is that sometimes those who stock the results of an author's dedicated hard toil are as passionate and enthusiastic as we are.
Paul Stenning, August 2019