Czechs and books

Annual Book Fair, Frankfurt, photo: CTK

Until Monday, all bookworms' eyes were on the German city of Frankfurt where the annual Book Fair, the world's largest trade fair for books and multimedia, took place. Newspapers reported that this year was somewhat more modest than previous years, reflecting an economic recession in Germany. Czech publishers and booksellers are facing tough times too, as many publishing houses and shops were flooded and those which were not have to fight for customers who have turned away from books.

Before 1989, books just like many other goods were in short supplies. Some titles were banned and some - usually translations of western authors were printed in very few copies and some people would do almost everything to have them. Jan Kanzelsberger comes from an old family of booksellers. Today his family run dozens of shops around the country, including a several-storey bookstore in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Jan Kanzelsberger jr. remembers what book-shopping was like in the old days.

"Queues for books - that's history. It will never come back and I'm happy it will never come back. Well, I don't remember it too much because I'm too young for that but my father who has been a bookseller for forty years and all my family who were booksellers - they have been telling me about queues of hundreds of metres, maybe a thousand people queuing for one book while the number of copies in the shop was fifty or seventy. And the thousand people were still queuing and waiting, maybe they will get something. This has completely changed and now we have ten or twelve times more books coming on the market every year. That means there is a necessity to have large bookshops and more and more larger bookshops are appearing and I think that's a natural development."

After 1989 the market was flooded with new titles and people no longer had to queue for books. Booksellers have learnt they need to care for their customers and offer more than their competition.

"Today's customers want to have their comfort. They want to shop in a nice environment. They need to have time for their choice. If you now have, say 250 books on gardening, you need some time to choose. Years ago, during the communist times, around 20 books were published in six months so it was quite easy to choose. It was usual that some people bought every book that was published. In those days there were these book-collectors - people who really bought every book that was published. Now it is not possible, of course, because no one has such a large bookcase at home."

Not only people's bookcases at home but bookshops too have become too small to contain the enormous amount of books suddenly available on the market. The Kanzelsberger family were the first to open a sort of mega-store four years ago in Prague. How did people appreciate such a sudden change, having always shopped in small bookshops round the corner?

"At the very beginning it was something completely new for people. You mentioned the word mega-store. We always call it a bookstore because for the audience to the West of our borders it is normal size. There was an old problem of bookshops in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia - the problem was lack of space. Bookshops were always small and full of people, crowded. We had a dream to open a large book house. At the very beginning it was something new for people but in a very short time customers found the advantage of such a book house and within the last three years we started to have a problem with not enough space for our books again and we decided this year to open three new floors and double our room."

To take a book from a shelf, browse through it, sit down and read a few pages - that was something unimaginable before 1989. Today more and more bookshops function as literary cafes where readings and book-signings take place and people are invited to leaf through books over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

"Today, the absolute necessity is to have a free choice of books, that means the customers can go anywhere to touch any book and to open it, sit down and read. That was something unheard of during communism because at that time shopping and the shops themselves were on a very bad level. We think that our new three floors are enough to offer shopping comfort to the customers and we hope that will like it and they will be coming back to our bookhouse."

People's taste changed a great deal after the fall of communism with the great diversity of titles and genres available.

"Absolutely. That has also changed completely. During the communist times there was a strong censorship - which books will be published and which not and certain fields of literature were absolutely not presented on the market. At this moment we can say there is a very large demand for New Age publications, books on health and natural medicine, some spiritual sciences and so on. After the fall of communism we thought it was just a trend which would end after a few years but we see now that it's going on and these books are part of our offer."

But it's not only trashy literature that is attracting an increasing number of readers. Books are no longer only a pastime for Czechs.

"We see a great demand for books concerning languages; textbooks or books teaching how to learn languages. We see a large interest in books in foreign languages. English literature is very much demanded not only by foreigners living in Prague or foreigners but a large part of the books are purchased by local people and language students. We see, on the contrary, a trend not to buy so much children's literature. We are not happy for that but it is really so. We think that the book as a medium has a large competition: TV, radio, magazines, computers, games etc. and children have now much more choice. We think that it's maybe the role of their parents to lead them to books and literature a little bit."

But do the parents themselves have time to read? Walking through the store I asked people whether they read more or less than they used to before the fall of communism.

"I think I read less than before 1989. Maybe because I have less time. And don't forget that books are much more expensive than they used to be."

"I think I have much less time to read today than before."

"As a little boy I used to read several books a week. Today I read much much less. But I spend a lot of money on books; I buy close to fifty titles a year."

"I think I still read a lot but I usually borrow the books because they are very expensive."

And what does Jan Kanzelsberger as a bookseller think, do Czechs read more or less than they used to?

"I think they still read a lot. Our nation has always been traditional in its relationship to books. The book has been always something special in our culture. In recent years it was mainly because of the communist censorship and way of life. But I think that Czech people like to read, they like books and it is still seen at this moment. Maybe you cannot see it in the print run - publishers don't sell thousands and thousands of copies of each title but in comparison with the number of titles they are offering - it is approximately 12,000 new titles every year, we think that people really read a lot and bookselling has a good future in the Czech Republic."