Conversations with a Bibliophile
Orinoco is a bookstore you rarely come across. It fills a blank spot in the east of Leipzig and builds on neighborhood support. incite talked with founder Karel about his inspiration, the community concept of his store and the genre of book-music.
Orinoco bookstore / photos by Karel
If you happened to be walking down the Mariannenstrasse on October 29th, you might have stumbled across a small ad-hoc living room concert taking place on the street corner in front of Orinoco books. Behind the wrapped up bodies of the cosy crowd you could hear the medley of instruments and voices of a ‘book shop band’. With songs about the ancient library of Alexandria, Virginia Woolf, and bibliophilic attraction, the songs marked a passion for literature and books. A passion that had brought this small community together on a cold autumn night.
With such a diverse and multi-linguistic community, it’s surprising that Orinoco books is the first of its kind in the area. I remember stumbling upon it back then in the early period and it appearing to me with the tension between novelty and custom of something that should have always been there. Inserted into a gap that had been waiting. Certainly the spirits on that evening seemed to testify to a project in the right place at the right time.
I decided to meet up with Karel, the founder, to find out more about the project. A week later we were warming our hands on mugs of tea, talking about books and the bookstore in the bustle of the Mariannenstrasse.
incite: Tell me about how it all started. How did the process of opening the store begin?
Karel: It started when I put all my books at my mum’s place in Amsterdam. At some point a young boy who wanted to get his ball back he kicked in our garden, had to go through the room with all the books in it. He said: ‘I didn’t know there was a bookstore in this street!’ That sort of stuck in my head. When I moved to Leipzig I realized after a few days that there was in fact no place where you could get second hand English books or books in any other language than German and I thought, that’s a caveat, someone should fill that void. I asked some friends and we soon had a group of about ten people involved. And here we are, a year later, still working. We all do it on a voluntary basis. As far as I know we’re the only bookstore in the east of Leipzig, which is crazy.
It is sort of a lesson in de-materialism. So, un-materializing myself, to get rid of my things.Karel
There is a membership system in your bookstore, right? Similar to a library. [More on this at the bottom] Why did you decide to do it like that?
Well I started with my own collection of books and it is sort of a lesson in de-materialism. So, un-materializing myself, to get rid of my things. But its still a step too far to just sell them. It also has a practical purpose, because it’s difficult to get the books in non-german languages – and if we offer them via a bookstore-membership we hope to get some of them back. We wanted to offer also more of a community feel.
I wondered if there were any other bookshops that inspired you, that have a similar model, be they real or fictional?
It’s not a bookstore, but do you remember Doctor Seltsam, in Leipzig? During the day they were a bike repair shop and in the evening they were a bar. I really liked this hybrid solution. I see our shop as an ode to the city also, because there’s no other place where you could start a bookstore just like this, on a whim, and just see where you end. And in Leipzig that’s possible.
There’s no other place where you could start a bookstore just like thisKarel
Map of Orinoco River, source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France
How has the first year been? What were the biggest surprises, or biggest lessons learned?
I really found surprising that there are so many people here who are so interested in participating and becoming a member. Its fascinating! Once we get around to advertising more, we hope to reach the people outside of this neighbourhood too. Many people we reach now are actually interested in English books or books in a non-german language.
Are the membership mostly people who want books in their mother tongue, or are they mostly people who are reading books in another language?
I would say its like 50/50. But I think also a lot of people see the membership as a way to support us, which is very welcome of course, to pay the rent.
And you mentioned that its a library, its a bookstore, but also that you wanted it to be a space that is open for use outside of that. How do you envisage that?
Well one example is that we started a bookstore band, where we write songs about the bookstore. And we also have a reading group that gathers here on Sundays. And a few other people are also interested in starting a reading group. And everything that is somewhat connected to books or poetry, or whatever, is welcome to start a little meeting or club at the bookstore, and that’s how we want to bring life to the community.
So we opened up a bookstore
It’s the best thing that we’ve done
We’re not in it for the money
We’re in it for the lovelyrics of the bookstore’s theme song
Tell me more about the band because I absolutely loved the concert.
When I still lived in Amsterdam I tried to make it as a song-writer for a bit. And then, as it happened, many people who were working at the bookstore either wanted to start a band or had friends who wanted to start a band, so we soon had ten people interested in starting a bookstore band. We started with one of my songs, which was nice. And it turns out that writing songs about books… its very easy. I think that its very forgiving and very… yeah, it just comes natural somehow.
Yeah they were absolutely fabulous. Musical influences?
The Dutch singer-songwriter Meindert Talma, who does song projects dedicated to certain concept albums. And maybe, in an indirect way, the Sufjan Stevens project where he wanted to write a record for each state of the united states. And maybe the other sort of indirect influence is a band called Sparks, they did a podcast somewhere in the united states called bookworm and it starts with a song about books. It’s sort of tongue in cheek melodrama. Its a good way to write.
Are there any fictional bookstores that you think about?
There was a bookstore in Amsterdam that was run by an old newspaper-guy. I think he ran one of the city papers at some point, then he started doing the bookstore. The bookstore was just one big pile of books. Not even organized. One pyramid of books. He would sit outside, and then you’d ask him ‘do you have something by D.H. Lawrence?’ and he’d say ‘yeah’ and he’d go rummaging for five or ten minutes and come back with the book. You can’t do that without the proper dedication to the concept, but it is beautiful. Many people also have come to me and asked if I have seen the comedy series ‘Black Books’. Again, the unfriendliness asks for a dedication that I like.
The unfriendliness asks for a dedication that I likeKarel
And how do you decide what gets added to the collection? How do you see your collection?
It’s been sort of building up over the last ten years. Right now we basically buy books that people seem to like and books that people ask about. And of course, we try to keep an eye on new books that are causing ripples in the store of books, but, yeah, we’re a second-hand bookstore, so without a proper budget, it’s difficult to get new books without knowing that people will be interested. You can also order new books at our store now, which helps. Although with Brexit, it takes some time.
And where does the name come from?
There are a couple of different answers there. So the Orinoco is the second longest river in South America. We named it after it because the longest river in South America is…
The Amazon river!
So that’s one reason. To juxtapose that. But also, does the name Aphra Behn ring any bells? She was a contemporary of Daniel Defoe, wrote a book titled Oroonoko, named after the same river, which is one of the first novels written in English. So that’s another reason. But also that it’s a river, and its a stream, in that we offer our books as a library, its like a streaming service if you think about it. It’s a nice word to say, also. I think that’s important.
Thanks for the Interview!
It is a nice name, with a nice rhythm, and that’s definitely one of the best back-stories I’ve ever heard. If you want to visit the proud premises of this thoroughly-thought-out name then head to Mariannenstrasse 18. There you can find not only foreign language books galore but also, if the desire so takes you, the possibility to sign yourself up to a membership system tiered according to the purchasing power of significant figures from literary history: