Moving Kiez: An interview with Curious Fox

Marina Manoukian talks to Curious Fox owners Orla Baumgarten and David Gordon about their recent move to Kreuzberg…

Originally located on Neukölln’s Flughafenstrasse, the Curious Fox bookstore is an essential part of Berlin’s literary landscape. Known for their ever-changing collection of English-language books (second-hand and new) from local and international authors, as well as the variety of events held in the store—literary readings, quiz nights, poetry readings—it is beloved by writers and readers alike.

After eight years at Flughafenstrasse, owners Orla Baumgarten and David Gordon discovered in 2021—right in the middle of the pandemic—that their lease wasn’t going to be renewed. Suddenly faced with a frantic search for a new place, the increasingly exorbitant rental prices in the city, and the anxious wait for responses that can never come soon enough, they battled on for several months before finally finding a new place in Kreuzberg.

Set right on the northern edge of Lausitzer Platz, the constant sounds of cars along cobbled Flughafenstrasse has been replaced with the laughter of children in the adjacent playground. The new shop is located in a souterrain, and so has a different aesthetic as well as location. It’s even easier here to leave the outside world and lose your sense of time as you descend the steps and explore the intimate corridors lined with books and illuminate by sunlight that charms its way through the windows; only when you reach one of the rear rooms will you feel like you’re truly underground.

While the books are categorised by the same genres as before, their relocation allows for a new sense of discovery. The first room contains new books as well as second-hand fiction, while the long second room hosts second-hand non-fiction, poetry, sci-fi, and fantasy texts; with their three-for-one trade-in deal for used books, the second-hand book collection is constantly shifting.

A third and final room in the back, complete with armchairs, is the place to settle down with a book or just take a breather while your offspring leafs through the children’s books. It’s here that I sat with Orla and Dave to talk about their move…

What originally brought you both to Berlin from Ireland?

Dave: I came to Berlin first in 2007 for a weekend to see a concert with my friends and had the best weekend of my life. I had intended on going back to study for a Master’s in Dublin but decided to move to Berlin instead.

Orla: After I finished school, I wanted to travel around Europe for a few months, after arriving in Berlin I decided to stay for a bit longer—that was 22 years ago!

How did the two of you meet?

Dave: Orla and I met at the Another Country bookshop on Riemannstrasse. I had just arrived in Berlin and discovered that place on my first weekend and I slowly started to attend the various social gatherings there: the film night, the Friday night dinners, and though Orla had been living around the corner from it for years, she had only just discovered it too. I was chatting to Kim who used to work there and run the film nights and then Orla and I got to chatting. We quickly became friends and the rest is history. Our friend Sophie Raphaeline who founded Another Country passed away in May. This is a huge loss and we will always be grateful for her bookshop, the community that grew around it and everything Sophie did for us over the years.

And what made you decide to open up a bookstore?

Dave: It was something we both, separately, had always wanted to do. To me it had always seemed impossible but that’s one of the things about Berlin: things are possible here that in other places are not. I found out recently from friends of Orla’s family visiting from Dublin that as a child she ran a library for all the children on the street from her own book collection, so I really feel Orla was destined for this.

When did Curious Fox first open and what was the process of finding the first location like

Orla: We opened in 2013, and spent a good while thinking about it and then kinda very very quickly found a place after we started looking for a premises. It was a couple of weeks really, wasn’t it?

Dave: It was weird because I wasn’t quite ready for the shop. We’d just been planning it for so long, and then Orla said, “no it’s going to happen soon”. When we started looking at places, I just thought we were just getting a feel of what’s on the market. But was that the first place we looked at?

Orla: We looked at a bunch of places but I think that might have been the first one. It was just really well located between two very established shops, a Chinese shop called Yang Chinas Kultur that’d been there for 30 years and a second-hand antique place with a café. All the other places we looked at just were nothing in comparison really.

Dave: The footfall is also really good on Flughafenstrasse. Like, it’s not the most beautiful street in town to look at but it’s really well located between two U-Bahn stations.

How and when did you find out that you had to leave?

Orla: We always had quite short contracts for that place, three years, two years, one year. It seemed to depend on what mood they were in, and it always involved a proposed rental raise that we had to negotiate. We were in the process of negotiating when they told us they wanted us out ; we knew that our contract was up, but as usual five months before we’d get back to them that we wanted to stay, we’d negotiate, they’d say fine, and they’d send us the new rental prices.

Dave: We were kind of preparing ourselves but looking back there was just so much work involved in moving out that no matter how prepared we thought we were, we were not really prepared at all. There was just too much to do.

What was that process like? And where did the books go during the interim period?  

Orla: Everything that was precious or delicate or worth something we took to our places. Everything else, including the shelves and all the furniture we stored with this amazing friend who said we could use her premises that she wasn’t using at the time. We said: “Brilliant, six weeks and we’ll be out of here!”…which turned into nearly six months. But she remained absolutely amazing.

Dave: She had a big room that wasn’t being used, which we filled floor to ceiling with all these bookcases, all of the chairs, furniture from our events, tables…she was so generous.

If you had to guess, do you know roughly how many boxes of books you filled?

Dave: Maybe a hundred?

And all this happened during the pandemic?

Orla: Yeah, it wasn’t a good time. We couldn’t open before Christmas and Christmas is, obviously, as for any other shop, quite a big deal, because January and February are traditionally quieter.

How was it with the pandemic at the old location? Was business affected greatly by the lockdown?

Orla: We had our last event in the shop at the very beginning of March 2020 and someone contacted us a couple of weeks later saying that they’d been in contact with someone at that event that day and that they’d tested for Corona. This was weeks later so there wasn’t even any chance of worrying, so we were like, let’s just close and really think about this and what we’re going to do. We stayed closed for about a week or ten days.

Dave: And we didn’t know a lot about the virus at that time.

Orla: Exactly. I think at that point there were four cases in Berlin and we knew one of them, so we were like “Oh shit.” So we closed for a while and then bookshops were allowed to stay open during the lockdown as we were considered essential businesses. But we had very reduced hours so mainly did a lot of deliveries.

Dave: We did a click-and-collect for March and April and opened for just two hours. We tried to make a little barrier with the postcard stands but people were still climbing over it to browse, and you’re like [sighs] okay…

Orla: People were incredibly supportive of us, they really were, it was amazing. Even if it meant waiting a bit of time for their books, and then with the pandemic, well I guess this was a little bit later on, the issues with Brexit and then there were those paper shortages and it was just this combination. I mean Brexit was at the beginning, but it then became a problem later. All of that kind of came to a head and meant that there were a lot of books that were just not being reprinted, like really common books that people would buy all the time. And our regular customers, and even people who weren’t regular customer were just so patient and really willing to wait, even though in some cases they could’ve gone online and gotten it somewhere else. We also just cycled around and delivered, and I actually quite enjoyed that part.

Dave: Orla did more of the cycling than I did. I was just answering emails, answering emails, and answering emails…we never had so many emails before! But yeah, figures worldwide show that bookshops did well out of the pandemic. In some ways, it was the only cultural thing that was still going on. And apart from a bike shop, one of the only places where you could go and have an interaction. You’re not going to have a chat with Frau Netto as she doesn’t have the time, but you can always go into a bookshop and have a little chat. I think even with the masks and everything people were still availing of that.

What was the process of finding this new location like?

Orla: The week we found out that we were leaving, we just put up a post online saying “We have to be out of here by such and such a date. And then that day, a couple came into the shop, very lively and happy, and they said, “we have this premises.” It wasn’t renovated and was in a cellar, and we really had to think about it. It was a complete shell with soil on the ground. No lighting, no plumbing. A lot of pipes hanging down from the ceiling, so we needed a bit imagination for sure. Actually we could imagine it being renovated but we couldn’t imagine having to deal with the stairs and people coming in. But another bookshop we knew actually sent us a message, without knowing anything about the new space, saying “in case you ever see a souterrain don’t dismiss it, we moved to one and it didn’t have a massive impact on us”… I just thought that was such a lovely and thoughtful message to write.

How did the prices of the new places you looked at compare to the 2013 prices, i.e. when you founded the first shop?

Dave: Three times the price. I mean there were places we looked at that were 16-18 euros per square meter, but we also saw places that were 25-36 euros per square meter that were not special at all. Not in a dream location, nothing. Like a side street in Neukölln and you’re like “guys…come on…get real…”

What’s your favourite thing about this new location?

Orla: I love the square, the way the sun comes in the door, it’s like being in a little town or a little village. Everyone seems to know each other, everybody’s outside, you can just stand watching the progression of little kids learning to ride their bikes. They’re getting better every day, and also out on their roller blades, it’s a real community feeling. If you take away cars from an area it creates this incredible space that people immediately utilise. I think that’s my favourite thing. We don’t have to listen to the drone of cars all day and we don’t have to dust off the black dust that’s on all the books coming in from the exhaust fumes [laughs].

Dave: I really like our mural above the steps by John Rooney. Coming in every time I see it I’m like “ahhh…” [pleased sigh]. He’s a northern Irish artist who sadly left Berlin a few weeks ago, and he’s one of our good mates so the mural was a little parting gift. I love his art anyway and it’s so nice to see it every time I come in.

You had some great events in Neukoelln. What were your favourites, and do you plan to resume events at the new location?

Dave: We used to hold a monthly poetry event called Isn’t Everything Poetry? This was always a packed event with guest poets and an open mic and we saw so many talented poets and writers over the years at this. We also held a monthly quiz night. Bloomsday on June 16th was always a highlight for us. We’ve had book launches for local publishers like James Conway of Rixdorf Editions, Marcel Krueger and STB’s own Paul Sullivan for their book Berlin : A Literary Guide for Travellers, and for Paul Scraton‘s Built On Sand. We also held events during Litera-Tour Neukölln, the literary festival run by the independent bookshops in Neukölln, for which we had writers such as Julia Bell, Katherine Angel, translators and publishers Amanda de Marco and James Conway in conversation.

We have two things planned at the new shop for the end of August / early September. One will be a walking reading in the neighbourhood, which I think will be great. The other will be a reading in the shop and will be the first thing we do indoors in the new place; we’ll see how it goes.

Do you have any future plans outside of running Curious Fox?

Dave: It’s very hard to think beyond the shop. One does tend to get a little obsessed with it. I think any small business owner would feel the same. I have my little hobbies, like doing collage art and playing music with my friend, both of which I would like to get better at. But most of all, I’m hoping Orla and I can have more time away from the shop and do some travelling.

Orla: Yeah, we definitely want to make more time for travel in the future. I would love to do some long-distance cycling trips.

What’s something you wish more people knew about being a bookstore owner or operator?

Orla: I think the whole thing with using Amazon and online places like that. I just wish people knew how awful they are, and how much we appreciate it when somebody comes in and says “Can I order a book from you, I don’t want to get it online.” Conversely, it is quite disheartening when we don’t have a book in stock but we can get it next day and they say “No, no, I can order it myself online.” Luckily enough, a lot of our books are cheaper than Amazon, and quicker too.

But the treatment of people who work for Amazon is just so awful and especially in Germany where one warehouse had a neo-nazi group of security guys. How can you support something like that? Or when somebody is selling their book, they’ve just written a book and they send us an email wanting to advertise it and would we have it, and they send us an amazon link and I’m like, what do you expect us to do with that? We can’t order your book on Amazon… I just don’t understand then how a writer cannot know this process. I understand that people are self-publishing and Amazon does have a self-publishing part of their business, but you can’t send an Amazon link to a bookshop!

I also wish people would realise what an impact it has on a small business when people steal from us. We’re a small business with no protection from theft, and people steal from us all the time. That’s literally money out of our pockets, you might as well be stealing from a wallet, there’s no difference. That’s always kind of astounding to me, that people will steal from a small bookshop. I don’t get it.

Dave: Yeah, people not understanding the Amazon thing definitely. I get it, if Amazon is cheaper you’d rather keep your money, I completely understand—but you don’t have to say it to us. You don’t have to go “Well, it’s cheaper on Amazon and I’m taking my money there” ‘cause that just hurts our feelings a little bit…

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