March 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Guest Blog: Book Scouting in Bulgaria

Book Scouting in Bulgaria

A guest blog by Zhenya Dzhavgova

Downtown Kazanlak

Scouting for books during my recent trip to Bulgaria was supposed to be secondary to seeing my family for the first time in 8 years. Besides, as I had previously said in my interview with Fine Books, I did not think the antiquarian book trade was particularly thriving in my country. On my second day in Kazanlak, my hometown, I had the bright idea of stopping by the old downtown library I had so loved as a child. It looked exactly the same as I remembered it, but something new caught my eye - a small, somewhat sorry-looking shelf of books by the door with a sign "These books are for sale" on it. Though common practice in the US, I had never before seen Bulgarian libraries selling donated books. I approached the two librarians and hesitated... I did not know how to introduce myself and what their reaction would be after I told them I lived in the US and I was an antiquarian book dealer. Half-expecting to be ignored or told to "go back where you chose to run to" I told the women who I was. Their faces lit up. They called the children's librarian to the festivities, too. I was bombarded with questions about my specializing in Slavic literature and the institutions and libraries I worked with. Then, one of them told me to follow her behind the counter and I was shown a small space where the really good books for sale were. The librarian laconically told me that, in fact, people had started donating books in the last few years, but nobody bought them and the library really did not have a place to display them. I was in heaven. The sad part of my visit was the news I received that the only antiquarian bookshop in my hometown had closed its doors years ago.

The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

On the other hand, an online search revealed that there were several stores in Sofia I wanted to check out. Armed with directions and trying to remember my way around the capital city from my college days I waded through the dirty snow in search of the most promising one of the shops. To say I was surprised by the inventory would be an understatement. The beautiful shelves crammed with thousands of antiquarian books and the friendly owner promptly set me at ease and I happily began browsing. After a while, seeing that I would most probably spend the day there, I told the proprietor I would get lunch and come back later. "Hmmm, maybe I could give you my card...just in case," he said and I realized with a jolt he thought I was trying to get out without buying anything. While assuring him I really truly was coming back I wondered how many people had used that same phrase and never shown up again. I was also having the same doubts about revealing what I did for a living I'd had at the library. The sad truth was that not many, but some, businessmen in Bulgaria tended to "adjust" their prices at the mentioning of people from abroad and the envisioning of US dollars. Returning to the bookshop and meeting the second co-owner made up my mind. Pulling out one of my business cards I asked them about specific subjects I was interested in. "My God, this is so cool, we have to do business together, I will give you a discount on everything, wait here, I am going to our storage..." babbled one of the guys and bolted out the door. The second one sat me down and began talking about the book trends in Bulgaria. As it turned out, the trade had been slowly picking up speed in the last few years with online sales taking up the majority of the business transactions. Most antiquarian shops were in Sofia and the biggest number of sales was conducted in Europe. I did buy some great Communist Era books but more importantly - I made friends and business partners for years to come.

My next stop was the giant outdoor book market on Slaveikov Plaza, which I remembered as a place to buy new bestsellers and textbooks, but was assured had sprouted a few antiquarian booths in the last several years. While digging through a box of interesting pamphlets, I was approached by the seller who informed me they had an open shop nearby where I could negotiate a bulk purchase price with his boss if interested. Upon entering the store I had a fleeting urge to turn around and run. The only problem was the turning around part -- it was that crowded and claustrophobic. The shelves were not of the overstuffed, but alluring and inviting kind but of the piled, thrown-together, neglected variety. As hard as I tried, I could not see the owner so I settled for talking to the disembodied voice coming from behind the avalanche-waiting-to-happen. I asked for books on a particular topic and was handed a few insignificant and grossly overpriced items. I politely handed them back while saying I would just look around some more. "Yea, no looking, I thought you were buying, I am busy and don't have time to deal with people like you!" Normally not known to back down, I was momentarily stunned by such unprofessional rudeness. That "dealer" had just botched the sale of one, and possibly more, boxes of items. What a difference it was between the owners of the stores I had previously visited.

IMG_3917.JPGThe Shipka Memorial Monument, in the Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria, build in honor of the Bulgarian and Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78

And then there were the books that relatives and friends kept dragging out of forgotten libraries and collections. I was surprised to find some real gems among the offered materials. In the end, I could honestly say the trip was a success. I scouted, I bought, I laughed, I was horrified, and I am looking forward to the next time.

Many thanks to Zhenya Dzhavgova, proprietor of ZH Books in California who we recently profiled for the Bright Young Things series on the blog.