4.10.14

Buying English Written Books in Warsaw - A Martian's Guide to Warsaw

Dear Reader,

The following text is the first instalment of A Martian's Guide to Warsaw, my humble attempt to chronicle some aspects of daily life in contemporary Warsaw.

Please be advised that the aforementioned title is misleading. In fact – just like you – I hail from planet Earth. However, as an Italian expat who moved to Warsaw just one and a half month ago I still consider myself an alien in this rough and beautiful town; thus the Martian's reference.
Well, to be completely honest with you I sort of borrowed the title of this guide from the excellent Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb who published his A Martian's Guide to Budapest back in 1935.

Please note that the point of view expressed in this instalment (and in the following ones) as well as the choice of topics is entirely my own. I'm a journalist myself, but my own experience in writing about a foreign capitol town is next to nothing. Not to mention that my current knowledge of the fascinating Polish language is still rather patchy.
Due to these reasons, don't expect these short vignettes about life in Warsaw 2014-2015 to be always that reliable and to provide survival tips in town. I'm just a Martian here, trying to get by and struggling to make ends meet.

That being said, do, sit down on a comfortable armchair and follow me rambling along the streets of Warsaw. I'm sure that you won't regret it and hope you'll find your humble Martian quite amusing.

Powodzenia!

The only remaining American Bookstore in town can be found - til November 2014 - at Galeria Arkadia

Earthlings of Warsaw and Beyond,

Let's face it: the right title of this instalment should be On NOT Buying English Written Books in Warsaw. For there is not going to be such a thing called an English or American bookshop in town from November 2014 onwards.

When your humble Martian moved here – merely 45 days ago – I was flabbergasted by the number of bookstores and cosy cafes-cum-bookshelves one can find in central and less central districts of Warsaw. And yet, for all of this profusion of Varsovian bookshops I wasn't able to find a single place selling decent English written books.
True, a few bookstores I visited did sell a tiny selection of (overpriced) non-Polish written books – chiefly tourist guides and chicklit novels –, but a well-stocked section of international titles as well as of Polish novelists translated into English was nowhere to be found.

In the following days I made some research online to find out whether I missed out some hidden booklover's lair wondering around town or not at all. What I've found turned out to be discouraging.

Listen up, folks.
As far as I could track down, there were up to 10 (ten!) bookshops in Warsaw selling English-written books only six years ago, which I will list down below:
Traffic Club, Redding's, All That Stuff, Co-liber, plus 6 (six!) American Bookstore (on Kozykowa,  Nowy Świat, Galeria Arkadia, Galeria Mokotow, Sadyba Best and in some other place).

Eight bookshops out of this lot have run out of business in the meantime and a ninth one – the last American Bookstore – will shut down within November this year. From then on the only bookshop boasting a somewhat large English written books section will be Co-liber on Placu Bankowym 4. They don't have the best English written books selection you might look for but, at least, they're still in business.

Those were the days of the Traffic Club in Warsaw that closed down in 2013
A couple of the bygone bookshops – Redding's and All That Stuff – used to sell second-hand English written books and this is the greatest loss for your often penniless Martian.
Truth be told, All That Stuff's website states that they're on 'a well-deserved break' and that they will 're-launch the bookstore in another place', but I wouldn't count on that in the short term.

According to some conversations I eavesdropped in town as well as to various online forums I read, Amazon is to blame for the death of the Varsovian English bookstores. These bookshops were simply not able to cope pricewise with the competition provided by the evil Jeff Bezos' monster.

Redding's is no more and shut down in 2009. Picture taken from bookstoreguide.org
Now, I won't write down an apology of the self-named Amazon Family (including worthy Abebooks and BookDepository both selling rare and second hand stuff), as it is a smoking gun pointed at independent bookshops indeed.
Nevertheless, I think that - in Warsaw and elsewhere - Amazon and its Kindle are a damn good alibi to justify lazy bookshop owners going out of business and I'll tell you why.

I'm lucky enough to know some booksellers whose shops are still alive and kicking in places much smaller than Warsaw. Small towns with no universities, no decent transport network, no wealthy foreigners and hard to reach for deliverers and clients alike.
What I noticed from those experiences is that a bookshop can survive nowadays by organizing workshops and events, involving kids and their parents, inviting authors, encouraging strong readers to buy rare books by ordering them on their behalf etc. But all of this means passion, knowledge, customer dedication and a good deal of time spent at the phone and on the social networks.


This sign which I spotted in the bookish village of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, reflects the attitude of many former Warsaw English-American bookshops: Amazon and Kindle cannot be fought back, but only forbidden. As much as I dislike reading on Kindle, I believe this neo-luddism is totally wrong. Photo by Christopher Fowler.
Well, I don't want to judge anyone here but I'm afraid that most of the former English/American bookshops in Warsaw didn't do much to save themselves from oblivion. And it's precisely this fatalist passiveness that killed them so quickly. The attitude I witnessed and experienced myself at the only surviving – but not for long – American Bookstore in Warsaw is a prime example of the wrongest behavior in town. Read and see what happened there:

Martian: Hello, I'm looking for this book: XY by YZ, I wonder if you have it here...
Bookseller: Hmm, mmmpf. No.
M: I see. Is there any way I can order it? I'd like to get this book.
B: Hmmm, mmpf. We sold our last copy on February this year.
M: Oh, that's a pity. But can I order another one?
B: Mmpf, no. We have only one copy left at our store in Krakow.

See what I mean?

Co-liber labels itself a 'Professional English Bookstore' but does have some English written novels, history books etc.



Anyways.
If you don't have problems with your budget in zloty and are just looking for a quick read to grab you could go to Empik which has several bookshops in Warsaw. Some of these bookstores (i.e. on Marszałkowska and on Nowy Świat) host a selection of expensive English written books. However, please be aware that in Empik bookshops it will be hard finding many Polish authors translated (Korczak, Hugo-Bader, Kapuscinski might pop up if you're particularly lucky).

Another place in central Warsaw where you could find some good English written books and a dozen of Polish authors translated is on Bracka 25. Unfortunately, every time I went to this bookstore (I don't remember its current name, but it used to be the old Traffic Club) I felt like I was disturbing those who worked there. 

Don't take me wrong: generally speaking the attitude towards a customer in Warsaw's bookshops is far from being friendly, but there in Bracka I perceived open hostility. And when I say hostility I mean shoegazing, inflated prices on the spot, annoyance. Thus, if I were you I would skip this bookshop and try your luck purchasing somewhere else.

For example, you could order your books from the superb – and kind of cheap – Massolit in Krakow and pick them up from Tarabuk one of those nice cafes-cum-bookshelves I mentioned earlier on. Otherwise, I'm afraid you'll either have to join the dark side of the Force Amazon Family or try Awesomebooks which asks only 2.99 £ for delivering in Poland.

Well, all things considered I believe there would be plenty of room left for anyone brave enough to open their own English or American bookstore in Warsaw. Please do that and rescue a poor Martian from the sad sad business of online buying. Do that and I'll mention you in one of my posts!

Summer 2015 Update
This post was written and posted months before I 'discovered' the amazing Aladdin's Cave known as Antykwariat Grochowski down Ludwika Kickiego, a little road in the Praga Poludnie district. Now, this IS the place to buy second hand English books in Warsaw I cried the lack of above. 
If you ever happen to look for good non-Polish written books sold for a song (price starts from 6 PLN and rarely go above 25 PLN) do yourselves a present and go to Grochowski. The owner is an awesome guy who'll recognize you at your second visit to his bookstore, plus they do have tons of good stuff in Polish and the place definitely has its charm with jazzy music often in the background. 

8 comments:

  1. When I was living in Luxembourg (a place where there are plenty, and I mean more than 40% of the people there, of foreigners) the only way I found to purchase English language books was to buy them online.
    By the way, I have discovered Awesomebooks a few months ago and it's just great.
    Love your Martian post, I'm going to share it on my Facebook page :-)

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  2. Hi there, thank you for your comment as well as for liking the post. I didn't know that Luxembourg was that provincial bookwise: what a pity.
    Yeah, Awesomebooks is great but buying books online cannot be the only way to purchase them once you're abroad in a non English speaking country.

    Have you ever been to Norway? Now that is an English written books paradise, despite their prices! I've just come back from Oslo - where I lived nine years ago - and was mesmerized to see how cool bookstores there don't make any distinction between Norwegian bokmaal/nynorsk and English books: you find them side by side. And, what's more, they have excellent stuff including books I wasn't able to find in the UK.

    It was not like that back in 2005 and I love the way it is right now. Wish Warsaw could join Oslo in that respect, but it won't happen. Bye

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  3. No, I've never been to Norway, although I wish I had. I really like what you say about their bookstores, I will make sure to check some out if ever I'll be able to go there. I think they have a completely different culture, more global I would say, and I guess this is true for Scandinavia as a whole. At least this is what I imagine from the reports I've heard.
    Ciao :-)

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  4. Hi, thanks a lot for the tip about Anykwariat Grochowski, I just came back from there with a couple of books. Have you found any more places in Warsaw that sell second hand english books?

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  5. Hi mp, glad you found this post helpful! Try the secondhand bookshop to be found in the underground level of the University Library (BUW): I don't remember its name, but it does have a lot of good and decently priced stuff!

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  6. this post is a god sent. I'm a new to Warszawa and the reality hits when i'm trying to find summer read... nothing can replace the feeling of crawling inside a bookstore... Thank you.

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  7. Hi Lorenzo,
    +1 to Hardy McWolf comment, extremly useful article, thank you

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  8. Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful!
    Manchester

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