Dialogue Berlin

Wyndham Wallace talks to Sharmaine Lovegrove of Dialogue Books…

In 2009, former Londoner Sharmaine Lovegrove set up Dialogue in the back of a Prenzlauer Berg café, seeking to provide not only a source of contemporary English language books – including translations – but also to provide a focus for the city’s English speaking, book loving community.

Though other stores existed that sold English language works – from Dussmans to St Georges – Lovegrove’s brief was more precise: to employ her well-over-a-decade of specialist experience within the trade to curate a one stop shop for all that was fresh and exciting in contemporary literature.

Sharmaine Lovegrove, founder of Dialogue Books

From graphic novels to philosophy, Dialogue did exactly what it says on the tin: it got people talking about books, whether they were simply browsing or taking parts in events the store organised. Now Dialogue Books is going global, though Berlin remains the centre of its operation.

After having to vacate the Prenzlauer Berg premises, Lovegrove has overseen Dialogue’s transition from physical to virtual store, and from December 8th, 2010, Dialogue will transform into an online store – while continuing to offer readings, screenings, a Book Club and Lovegrove’s tailored recommendation service, The Book Doctor.

On the eve of its launch, she took time out to explain her philosophy, her plans for the future, whilst also making a few book recommendations for those interested about our beloved Berlin…

How did you end up in Berlin, and what drew you to the city to begin with?

I came to Berlin in February 2009 with the aim of founding an English-language bookshop. I had been spending the previous five years visiting European capitals looking for the right city to start the bookshop. I fell in love with Berlin and there wasn’t already a bookshop specialising in new English-language titles.

Dialogue began life as an English language bookshop run out of the (currently homeless) T Rooms in Prenzlauer Berg’s Christinenstrasse. What inspired you to set it up, and who else was (and is) still involved?

I was looking for a space that was small and compact to create a boutique bookshop where one could really engage with the individual titles and the T Room location seemed to be the perfect match.

The publishing industry has changed so much since the recession that I felt the only way to not be left behind was to have the ‘pop-up-shop’ for a short time to establish the community and then move forward with an online shop and cultural portal.

We have a strong community of people that support us by coming to events and spreading the word. The core team is myself, illustrator and web manager Julian Mills and my supportive husband Thomas Lovegrove who can often be found making everything just right.

Your goals right from the start seemed to be more than simply selling books, with readings, a book club, and – more recently – film screenings. Why did you take on this extra responsibility, and what did you learn from it?

Reading is such a huge part of my world and, having been a bookseller for most of my working life it’s only natural that I see books as more than just a physical object or hobby and thus have a strong desire to share, discuss and engage way beyond exchanging cash at the till.

We started a year ago so I am learning a lot! One key thing I have learned is not to work with people whose cultural values do not resonate with our own. Our most successful collaborations are with people who really love books and understand our vision. I am looking forward to reflecting on the past year once the website is launched.

You also offer a service called the ‘book doctor’: can you tell us a little more about this and how it works?

Book Doctor is where I prescribe individuals a reading remedy. If you are not sure of what to read next or you would like a library building service, then I make recommendations based upon your requests. This week I have been asked to write a list on Urbanism and also to add more titles to a regular customer’s Christmas book list.

It’s my favourite part of my job. I love recommending books to people on any subject. It’s challenging and really rewarding when the ‘patient’ is happy with the recommendations.

Dialogue is currently (or about to become) a virtual store thanks to the launch of your new website. Why did you decide to launch online? Do you intend to return to a physical venue as well?

I wanted to do some thing different. Experiment with my profession. So I am currently stretching myself into lots of different areas – all book related and so it seemed a natural step to go online to allow me to reach a wider audience and pursue my role as a literary consultant. I am not looking for a new shop but if the perfect 30sqm with front windows came up in a good location came up, who knows….

What can we expect from the new website? What will set you apart from other online stores or indeed other Berlin physical stores offering a selection of English language books? And are you concerned that you will lose your Berlin focus by focusing on the worldwide web?

Staying still is what concerns me, at 29; I straddle two generations – life before computers and life afterward. We have built a website that lists the finest books available in the English language but in a way that is clear, accessible and somewhere that you will hopefully want to spend time discovering new books rather than feeling ‘sold’ to.

I have looked at the cultural inspirations surrounding the books and taken elements such as place, film, idea, object, or art and connected them to relevant titles to create a cultural portal where you can browse and comment with your own book-inspired connections.

What sets us apart is experience – I have been a bookseller since I was 16 and have worked at shops such as Foyles and the London Review Bookshop; and we are the only bookshop in Berlin to exclusively sell new English language books. We are supporting writers directly by selling new books and we are more likely to experiment with new and upcoming writers, which is important to us. And by having an online bookshop then our new books are priced much lower than other new English-language titles in Berlin.

We have a great community based here so there will always be events and a Berlin focus to what Dialogue does. There’s an international conversation happening about books and we want to be part of that too, so going online allows us to have the best of both worlds.

What events do you have planned for the future, both confirmed and theoretical?

This month we have our launch party on 8.12.10. The Book Club is currently reading Blind Owl by the tragic Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat: we’ll be discussing the book on 20.12.10. Building the website is a huge task so we will get onto event planning again after Christmas.

Who would you most like to see taking part at a Dialogue event?

As our events are in English we have such a large pool of interest and inspiration to choose from, so much work in translation. I would like to do events with Herta Müller, Gunter Grass, Julia Franck, Slavoj Žižek, Geoff Dyer, John Berger…..

What is your ideal situation in which to read?

A guilty pleasure is to spend a day in bed with books…

And finally, what are you five favourite slow and / or Berlin related books, and why should we read them?

In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré - Anyone who wants to re-examine their priorities and engage with this cultural movement of slow should start here.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit – A history of walking that is about time and space and consciousness of the world as much as about putting one foot in front of the other.

What I Saw Reports From Berlin 1920-33 – Joseph Roth – Acclaimed Jewish-Austrian Roth takes us on a journey of Berlin, recording the violent social and political paroxysms that constantly threatened to undo the fragile democracy that was the Weimar Republic.

This Must Be The Place – Anna Winger – This wonderful Berlin novel brings two different perspectives on the city from two different people who for their own reasons have the time to explore the German capital and each other.

Berlin Blues – Sven Regener – For those who enjoy the laid back atmosphere of Berlin then the protagonist is pretty horizontal! It’s 1989 and, whenever he isn’t hanging out in the local bars, Herr Lehmann lives entirely free of responsibility in the bohemian Berlin district of Kreuzberg.

NOTE: The latter Dialogue Book shop in Xberg has also now closed but the online book service will continue.

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