If you asked me to describe my perfect bookshop, it would look nothing like Ocelot. It would be small and dark, warm and quiet, disorganised and absolutely crammed with books. It would certainly not be sparse, modern or filled with what they call ‘clean lines.’ I may sounds like a curmudgeonly old person, but this is not how a bookshop is supposed to look. So why, then, do I love it so much?
I happened upon Ocelot during a morning stroll through the trendy Mitte district of Berlin. I stopped for a quick cup of tea and a croissant in uber-hip St Oberholz cafe near Rosenthaler Straße and couldn’t help but despair a bit at the sight of so many bearded young people staring at screens which ostensibly held the beginnings of their great novels, though it kind of looked like they were just playing Words with Friends. I was put in the mood for another kind of coffee shop so I made my way to Ocelot.
I’m told the coffee you can buy in the bookshop cafe is excellent, but I was more interested in the books. Still, the quiet chatter and the gently clinking of cups and spoons make for a nice atmosphere. Ocelot is not the kind of cathedral to the glory of books that I love; it’s more like a Greek agora. It’s still a serious place where great minds come together, but you’re allowed to chat and get your hands a bit dirty rather than being consigned to silence and awe. Ocelot is a fun, open and inclusive space, as any bookshop should be. It doesn’t matter why you’re there, it’s just great that you are.
The bookshelves in Ocelot are stylish and fun, with an excellent selection of hardcover books showing off their spines as they peep out of little holes and ledges that make even this dark wood seem open and keep the shop from feeling oppressive. The way they curve around the corners of the bookshop and ripple like waves makes you feel like they’re just begging for you to play, to skip along like a child in a German folk tale, deeper and deeper into the woods. Only unlike in the folk tales, there’s nothing too sinister awaiting you; you’ll quickly find the bright and beautiful clearing where you can take your shoes off, nestle down into the grass and lie in the sun letting your mind take you on any number of adventures.
One of the most interesting paths you can take is the one leading to Gestalten, an excellent German publishing house which creates big, gorgeous books (worth buying and owning in their own right and totally immune to comparison with a digital ‘book’) on a whole range of subjects. Ocelot has Gestalten books on almost every surface and in almost every section. Clearly someone here is a fan and so am I. One of my favourite things about rummaging through bins in the basements of bookshops is that I come across so many inspiring independent publishing houses that I never would have heard of otherwise. Since I’ve been writing The Matilda Project, I’ve told you about Persephone, Taschen, Herperus, Virago, Slightly Foxed, Pushkin Press, Gallic Books, Capuchin Classics and who knows how many others. These publishers do vital work, bringing books that might never have seen the light of day into our independent bookshops and, on the heels of success there, into mainstream booksellers where they can reach an even bigger audience. I tip my hat to them all, for bringing the greatest possible books to the greatest possible numbers they can. There are few pursuits in this world that I admire more.
So, Gestalten. It doesn’t matter if you’re into poetry, art, architecture, digital culture, design, history, cities, fashion, children’s books, love letters to the days of vinyl (which are returning, they say!), cooking, unusual tourist destinations, bicycles, maps, bejeweled skeleton heads, obscure facts about Lapland, seriously experimental photography or the mysteries of space. If you can think of it, Gestalten has a bizarre, amazing and hilariously specific book about it. Their brilliant an innovative books can be found in bookshops back in the UK and all over Germany. If you’re lucky enough to live in Berlin, you can go to their shop. Definitely, definitely check them out. Roaming around the stacks of Gestalten books in Ocelot, I added Little Big Books to my list of books to buy (one day). This is another big and beautiful book filled with illustrations for classic children’s books by contemporary artists. I think it’s a charming idea.
I spent quite a long time here, making my way through every section, from crime to bedtime stories. Sadly, my only hope of finding a book I could actually read was to stick to the Literally in English section of the shop, where I, along with all the other uncultured swine who haven’t read Goethe in the original German, could actually follow what was going on. And yet, while it’s always a good bit of geeky fun to compare the international covers of the bestsellers and see what German booksellers think are the English language’s representative books, I really wanted to be sitting on the cozy cushion in the little nook in amongst the children’s books, surrounded by books in a language I don’t speak but which nevertheless seem to want to say something to me. ‘Adventure on!’ they whisper, ‘Come and catch us!’ I’m still young, they remind me, though I’m sure many of my readers would never guess it from my world-weary tone. I still have time to learn German, to live in Berlin permanently, to write a novel of my own, to read Proust from start to finish. Places like Ocelot, filled with the exciting mystery of a thousand unread titles, spur me on and remind me to never stop learning. There is always another language to master. There is always another city whose special little places need to be explored. There is always another book to read. I’m going to turn off my computer right this minute and open one. Let the adventure begin.