Marian Ryan profiles one of Berlin’s most characterful bookshops…
In November 2010, one of the world’s best-known travel-guide brands, Lonely Planet, named Berlin’s Another Country among the top ten bookshops in the world. The quirky, thirteen-year-old Kreuzberg institution took its place at number six, alongside legends like Paris’s adored Shakespeare & Company and San Francisco’s iconic City Lights.
Not a few jaws dropped among the Berlin literati. “None of the other bookshops can quite believe it,” says its British owner, Sophia Raphaeline.
Naysayers fret that Another Country’s selection of literary fiction can be spotty, that the shop carries no new books, that the place is just strange. It’s true that Another Country is messy and unpredictable. The shop is appealing—with its black-and-white-tiled façade, dazzling red door, brightly painted plasterwork, colorful shelves, and comfy armchairs—but it does tend toward the slovenly with its full ashtrays and used wineglasses, mud tracked across the floor tiles.
And on Friday nights, when a crowd of regulars holds court in the back room, arguments break out and get passionate. It’s hardly a tidy, curated experience. Like other shops on the Lonely Planet list, though, Another Country is much more than a place to buy books.
Sophia is duly proud of the citation. You won’t see any promotional sign in the window, though, no mention in advertisements or marketing paraphernalia. You won’t find the news on the shop’s website either. Sophia demurs at the idea of truly publicizing the news; that would be, she says, “selling out.” Even so, she’ll tell just about everyone who comes in the door and is not above a good boast.
“Once or twice a day,” she says, “we get people saying, ‘What a great shop!’ We get a lot of Americans doing the Grand Tour, who come here after Paris and say, ‘Oh! This is what we wished Shakespeare and Company was like.’ The shop seems to fit into some archetypal image they have.”
Yet Sophia is something of an accidental bookseller. When the shop began, it was largely to find a use and a home for a personal collection of about 13,000 books. Wary of running a business unsupported, she approached an established secondhand shop specialising in English books about going into partnership. She told the bookseller that about a third of what she had consisted of science fiction and fantasy titles. “And I had wait about thirty seconds for the laughter to fully go away,” she says, “before the answer came: ‘Oh, we only do culture here.’”
She rankles at the memory. As you’d expect of a bookseller, she’s vastly well read, but Sophia abhors any sniff of cultural or literary snobbery. The principle behind her shop is very much one of inclusion rather than exclusion.
So much about the shop defies convention. For one thing, a good chunk of its 20,000-odd books are for loan, not sale (bring a book back and the purchase price is refunded, minus €1.50), while about ten percent of stock functions as a reference library, available only to read in-shop. Add to all that its considerable other life as a social club, and its curious owner herself.
The shop’s tall, dark-haired transgender owner, Sophia, dresses mainly in long, dark skirts and cardigan sweaters and describes herself as having the hormonal and emotional tenor of a fourteen-year-old girl – as a person in the throes of a second puberty.
Her story, unlike the more familiar trans narratives, of early-post-adolescent transition or sustained efforts to pass in one’s natal gender followed by transition in middle age, is uncommon. Free of gender-role struggles, Alan Raphaeline lived contentedly as a heterosexual male well into his sixth decade.
But one morning in 2008, at fifty-five years old, Alan woke to find he was no longer a man. Later, that is what he would conclude had happened. I sit on a wooden cube in front of the shop desk while Sophia tells me her story.
“Imagine you’ve done a tab of mescaline,” she says, “and the feeling never goes away.”
Around the middle of 2008, having experienced a serious health scare and come out the other side, Alan went through a sudden, wrenching shift. “I woke up one morning with the strong sense that something was missing,” Sophia says now. “When I hit the streets, everything changed in the way I seemed to see and feel people around me.”
Then-Alan found he was overwhelmed by incoming sense information. He forced his mind back to the night, the days before. Had he taken something? No, he had to admit he hadn’t used a hallucinogenic substance in fifteen years. So what was happening? He began a journey to find out. First the tumble awake to strangeness, followed by consultations with neurologists and endocrinologists, psychological exploration (he was in fact a certified psychotherapist himself).
Neurologists could find no pathology or evidence of stroke; endocrinologists found elevated estrogen levels and lowered testosterone. Sophia cites the hormone upset as likely tied to a long-term medication regimen. She also considers the possibility of disturbed hormone cascade in utero brought on by DES, which her mother took when she was pregnant with Alan.
Late in 2008, after a few months of struggle and investigation, came the realization of the thing that had been missing since the morning when Alan woke up disoriented. It was gender. Alan’s ways of seeing shapes and colors were utterly altered, his ways of knowing things, the character of his anger. He began to conclude that his cognition had been completely reshaped, with “female” neural structures activated and male patterns switched off. He began to find himself thinking thoughts that began, “When I was a guy . . .”
The decision came quickly. Sophia says she could not go back, likening the shift to being freed from a cramped, dark space. Alan became Sophia; she grew out her hair and began electrolysis, undertook hormone therapy, began wearing skirts and brassieres. After a trip to London for the granting of revised identity documents, gender female, Sophia Raphaeline returned to her Kreuzberg shop and held an intimate funeral ceremony for Alan, burning the old documents and putting him to rest.
Visitors to the shop often assume that its name comes from the James Baldwin novel of Bohemian decadence in 1960s Greenwich Village. It’s not a bad guess; Sophia (as Alan) came of age during the high tide of the counterculture, and bears its imprint still. But she says the name properly comes from the original source, Act IV of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta: “Thou hast committed— / Fornication: But that was in another country. / And besides, the wench is dead.”
The layers of subtext are delicious, but on the surface it’s just a good name for an ex-pat-owned bookshop visited by Anglophones who may pine now and then for the territory they’ve left behind; who’d like to use the simple currency of their native speech in a land run on seven-syllable-long, tongue-boggling compounds.
The main impetus in founding the shop, besides creating a purpose for then-Alan’s collection, was to make a place “where people could have the relief of speaking English. The books,” Sophia adds, “were almost beside the point.” Thirteen years on, she is proud of Another Country’s role as community hub, and enjoys helping newcomers to Berlin find their bearings, dispensing tips and advice.
The flagship community event is the weekly dinner and salon. On Friday nights around nine, a buffet-style meal is served among the sci-fi cellar stacks (at 5 euros each, exclusive of drinks). Sophia cooks most of the meal herself in her adjacent flat, catering for meat eaters and vegetarians alike, with dishes like marinated chicken, baked fish, Tex-Mex frittata, sautéed potatoes, and stuffed tomatoes. Twenty or so hungry book lovers tuck in downstairs while on the main floor a corps of regulars shoot the breeze over beer and wine. People linger for hours, the somewhat younger, fresher downstairs crowd playing Scrabble and sharing their stories, talking about books, and the ground-floor regulars settling in the orange glow of the back room among the crime and history titles like it’s their local boîte till the small hours of the morning.
Regular quiz nights and occasional film screenings are also on offer, and Another Country has at times hosted musical events and has had its own writer-in-residence, American Darius James, who took up office in the front window with his typewriter and tapped out stories. A contest is currently on for the best short stories featuring the shop in some way; winning stories will appear in an anthology. In-shop book groups have flourished, as have writing groups, with a new one expected to take shape after the holidays. The activities are organized largely by regular volunteers who help out around the shop or by community members, bringing things full circle.
Sophia’s post as bookseller brings many people to her desk, where she enjoys talking about books and life. She’s grateful for the support and friendship she’s received from the shop community as she makes her way through transition, though she admits, “A few people look at me and they don’t think I’m trans at all. They just see a guy in a dress.”
But she says she’s happy to be in trans-friendly Kreuzberg, in a city as receptive to difference as Berlin, with its vibrant queer, bi, and trans scenes, a place where eccentricities are, if not everywhere accepted and cherished, certainly tolerated. After keeping to her nest in the shop for a few years surveying the internal landscape, Sophia says she’s ready to go out more, explore the scene.
“Yeah,” she says, a laugh humming in her throat, “I want to get out there and be tolerated!”
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Open: Tue–Fri 11 am–8 pm, Sat 12–4 pm