Vanessa Remoquillo profiles one of Berlin’s longest serving English-language bookstores…
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and customers are slowly trickling in and out of St George’s bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg.
A man and his young daughter idly browse the shop’s impressive selection of books; the daughter begins to wander, lost in a collection of fairy tales. Two women stand at the front, discussing the merits of old books they want to trade for store credit.
I’m sitting with Paul Gurner, who started the store in 2001 with his brother Daniel, on the well-worn leather couch that’s squeezed into the back room.
The store’s books are written in English and in most cases are secondhand, and can be found stacked along the shop’s vertiginous floor to ceiling shelving, arranged temptingly on display tables and explode silently from cardboard boxes.
One finds here the unique blend of higgledy-piggledy mayhem and inscrutable organisation common to many long-running neighbourhood establishments. It feels impossible not to find the book you need or fancy here and it’s disturbingly easy to lose whole hours tucked away in one of the comfortable nooks.
Paul sits on the sofa, enumerating authors as we chat with the same ease one names old friends. As with many good things in Berlin, the store came about by accident. Paul and Daniel were closing an unsuccessful bookshop in Brighton and decided to keep the remaining stocks in a warehouse in Germany, where storage was inexpensive.
Instead of letting hundreds of books languish in crates, it occurred to them that there was an opportunity to give them a second life in Berlin. Today, 80% of St George’s inventory, numbering about 30,000, are used. The collection began with a small number of new editions in 2010 as “mostly an afterthought,” states Paul, blossoming into the impressive montage it is today.
St George’s connects mainly with British booksellers for its supply. Gurner and his team regularly visit and carefully comb through the stocks of their favorite vendors. The bookshop gets between 1,000 to 1,500 secondhand books every month, delivered in multiple shipments from the U.K.
Meticulous curation has been the key to their success. ”St George’s has been a progressive thing. It has grown naturally,” explains Paul. “You can’t just fill a bookshop with books; that’s not how a bookshop works.” He describes his clientele of Germans and non-Germans alike as “scary intelligent. They don’t believe the hype. They know what they want.”
St George’s especially prides itself on its rare and out-of-print collections. “We are the only place in town where you can get these hard-to-source books,” said Gurner. “For the Eastern European translations, for example, you can’t just find them anywhere else.”
Impressively, there are nearly 200 translations from German into English, featuring the likes of Tucholsky, Sebald, Bernhard, Heiner and Herta Mueller.
There’s Fallada and Heinrich, Weiss and Thomas Mann. Paul claims that their philosophy collection is also unparalleled, and they also carry some classy magazine titles, such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and n+1.
While British bookstores are lamentably shuttering in ever greater numbers, St George’s has become, if anything, an increasingly rare haven, as well as an essential extension of many books’ lives.
Paul states that there’s also an environmentally-conscious component to the used-books business. ”I go to warehouses and see books upon books in pallets. And still people are making more, putting on new covers to sell them to a new crowd. It is a total waste,” said Gurner. “With a used book, I would like to think we are helping the world.”
At a time when similar establishments face challenges to their longevity, St George’s stands out as an example of the attraction, the simplicity—even the sincerity—of bookshops. It remains interesting and relevant simply for doing what it does best.
Paul, a father, also derives personal joy from running his shop: his young daughter comes to St George’s after school and passes the time reading in her nook there. “I had an early connection to books. I want to share that with my daughter,” said Gurner, “If bookshops did not exist like this, I think that would be a shame.”
St. George’s Bookshop