In March of 2016, the last independent bookstore in Long Beach closed.
It was a sadly anti-climactic event. One day, the storefront sign was up—its literariness in stark contrast to the bars, clubs, and overpriced boutique clothing stores lining the unbearably chic 2nd Avenue—and the next day, it was down. One day, it was Apostrophe, adorably named as it was, and the next, it was The Outlet, a new clothing store piled high with t-shirts, dresses, and pants culled from fashion boutiques around the Los Angeles area. One day, Long Beach had a bookstore, and the next, it didn’t.
The day one sign came down and another hoisted up, I stood there, across the street, clad in gym shorts and a tank top, my water bottle looped over two fingers, and I watched as interested college girls peered into the window. I thought of the many times, over the year, that I’d walked past the bookshop, seen their chalkboard sign propped up outside, luring customers in to their locally-owned bookstore, pretty cursive font basically begging people to put their e-readers away and come in and buy an actual book. For some reason, it seemed terribly tragic that the last bookstore in Long Beach had become just another thing of the past.
I also winced, because I was part of the problem. I had loved the idea of a bookstore, but I had never actually bought anything there either.
I remembered when my husband and I moved to Long Beach ten months ago, and how excited we were to go up and down 2nd Avenue, mentally marking off which stores we just had to visit and which restaurants we just had to try. It was nighttime, and when we passed by Apostrophe, we saw a small group of poets sitting in a circle, taking turns reading their work out loud to a small audience. We talked excitedly about bringing our students here, about getting Ryan’s graphic novel on the shelves, about holding a reading here once in a while. Apostrophe embodied what we had hoped Long Beach would provide us; in essence, we had hoped Apostrophe would help nurture the loneliness we felt having left our literary community in Tucson for new jobs in California.
In short, the job was a complete nightmare, full of negative, impossible, sexist, hostile people who hated their students and who had driven what was supposed to be a small liberal arts institution into a desperate place that lured, instead, hundreds of students from China, promising them the world, and then not delivering a thing. We never went to the bookstore. And then it closed. And then I quit my job.
And then we went to Belgrade, the mysterious capital city of Serbia. And we found our bookstores.
Belgrade is not necessarily well-known, especially in the United States. When we told people we were going there as part of a cruise with Viking River Cruises this summer, the few who had heard of Belgrade said things like, “I heard they have really great clubs there” or asked things like, “Was that part of Yugoslavia?” To be honest, I didn’t know anything at all about Belgrade—or Serbia, really—before we went, either, other than it was a stop on our itinerary and that we’d have only a day there. I can’t even tell you what I expected I’d find, as I didn’t actually have anything upon which to base any preconceived notions anyway. It was a totally blank slate. Bulgaria, the country we’d been to just before Serbia, felt like that too.
So when our ship pulled in and docked at the port, I felt ready for anything. Perhaps the city would still be war-torn, a shell of its former glorious self, massacred by Communism, by war, by injustice. Perhaps the city would be a city of contrasts, stark blocs up against new neighborhoods. Perhaps it would be a city I couldn’t even fathom, one that would wreck any notion I had of Eastern Europe cities as being just a little more haggard than many of its Western European comrades.
What I saw was this: a medieval city standing gracefully tall on the hills of the shore of the Danube River, spires and cathedral domes rising high up, the entire thing surrounded by an ancient stone foundation. As we exited the port and started walking up the stone steps toward the city center, we were told that it takes exactly 115 steps from port shore to center.
It didn’t take us long to see it: elderly ladies with scarves tied delicately around their necks reading on park benches. Outdoor cafés with patrons spanning ages, genders, and ethnicities sipping cappuccinos and perusing newspapers. Words like Kant, Marx, and Freud on the spines of paperbacks in window displays. Painters painting scenes from Serbia’s most popular new novel, Bridge on the Drina, in the middle of the pedestrian street. Kiosks set up on the sides of the road selling used titles for just a few dinar.
Belgrade was a city of books. What’s more, it was a city of bookstores.
Knez Mihailova, the city’s urban shopping district and pedestrian city center is literally full of them—over the course of one day, we spotted ten of them. Ten. Ten bookstores, on one street. Scattered in and between Zaras and H&Ms and Vero Modas, there were bookstores selling Serbian books, English language books, other foreign language books, rare books, old books, new books, used books. Art books, travel books, guidebooks, cooking books. Books I’d heard of, books I’d never heard of, books I couldn’t read, books I could.
We passed by the first one, a big, multi-leveled behemoth called Mamut. Then, we passed a littler one called Akademija and stepped in—it had a whole section devoted to Western philosophy and English-language fiction, and of history, biography, and general nonfiction. Then, we passed another one called Plato and noticed it was full of international writers, science fiction, and fantasy. We passed yet another one—Omen—that seemed to focus just as much on rare antique books as it did on comics and fantasy. Apropo, another we spotted, is attached to a coffee shop.
I was enthralled. At each one, I ran my fingers along the spines of the books, reading the English titles and wondering what the Serbian ones said. I looked at art books, photography books, philosophy books, and travel books, and my husband looked at novels and poetry. At Academija, we bought three books: the near ubiquitous Serbian novel, Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andríc; The Writing Box, a nonlinear novel by surrealist writer Milorad Pavíc; and Snippets of Serbia: An Illustrated Journey by Emma Fick, a graphic travel memoir that illustrates in sketches life in modern-day Serbia.
I couldn’t wait to get back to the ship to crack open the covers.
Our day in Belgrade was oddly meaningful, in ways I’m still trying to figure out. In fact, those three books are the only souvenirs I brought home from the entire two weeks I was in Eastern Europe, other than a small satchel of Hungarian paprika. They’re sitting on one of my bookshelves right now, crammed in and among the hundreds of other books we own. Whenever I look at them, I see Serbia—the wooden shutters rolled halfway up on so many of the windowpanes, the chopped-up cherries that looked like mosaic tile in the Moscow Mule cake we ate on the terrace of the Moscow Hotel, the server who lit up when I said “stravo!” instead of the “thank you” he’d heard from so many other tourists that day. I see my own snippets, wrapped up between those bookstores.
So, why bookstores? What did these bookstores, all lined up, shiny, and, well, populated, mean to me?
The answer, I think, is easy. One year ago, I left my beautiful little desert community—a community full of writers, artists, teachers, and like-minded souls—to take that job in Long Beach. It hadn’t been easy; in fact, I cried more times over the move than I’ll probably ever admit to anyone. Every day since we left, I had missed our potluck dinners, over which we discussed our favorite books and authors; I had missed our crochet nights, in which we talked and laughed and made scarves; I had missed our writers’ group, in which we workshopped our prose and supported each other in our craft. It wasn’t always utopia—what place is?—but it was mine, and I had purpose.
Books have always been a beacon of hope for me, both well-loved ones and crisp new ones. (I’m not exactly sure yet what my Kindle means to me…ask me in 15 years?). The well-loved ones remind me of stories I love—or loved at one point in my life—and ground me to moments in my life I won’t soon forget. New ones hold the promise of stories untold, of discovery.
In some small, unexpected way, Belgrade, a city both well-loved and crisp and new, marked a moment in transition for me–a simultaneous reminder of how grateful I was to have so much to miss, and of the promise of tomorrow.
Story and photographs by Kristin Winet.
My most gracious thanks to Viking River Cruises for hosting my recent stay in Serbia, and additional thanks to all those wonderful books out there.