Dussman das KulturKaufhaus is a massive department store in the centre of Berlin, not far from the Brandenburg Gate and hoards of tourists. It’s similar in size and location to the John Lewis on Oxford Street. In other words, it sounds like the kind of place that I would tend to avoid. The reason I just can’t keep myself away from it, though, is that while most department stores are full of clothes and appliances, homeware and haberdashery and other non-essential things, Dussman is full of all the things I love and live off: books, music, DVDs, paper and pens and more books. It’s a book city, the kind you need a map to navigate but where the back roads and little country lanes are a lot of fun to explore and the perfect place to get lost. Split over several floors (three? four? five? I just can’t remember) and featuring a sunny atrium and a garden, Dussman is the biggest bookshop in Berlin and the one-stop-shop for all your bookish needs.
Wandering around the ground floor, you’ll find novels, poetry, mass-market thrillers, classical literature and bestsellers from a wide range of mainstream and independent publishers. Quantity is the most striking feature of this
bookshop, but quality is there too; if you are looking for a special book, a particularly nice edition, an old classic, a hidden treasure or even the most specialist of genres, you can find it here. There are books by German authors, but there are also many books in translation from other languages. If, like me, you’re a lover not just of literature but of books, of paper and card and glue and vellum (not that I encounter much vellum, but I love the idea of it) then you’ll be pleased to know that between the novels, you can also find sheet music and maps. On the other side of the ground floor (am I getting across how large this bookshop is?) is the first music section, which is not just an afterthought but a wide and varied selection.
After you’ve had enough of the ground floor, you can take the lift if you’re clever to explore the others, where you’ll find every section a bookshop could possibly have: more music and film sections which have documentaries, jazz, classical and opera and world music, then books on art, cookery, gardening, humour, philosophy, sport, business, technology, education, history, languages, law, literary theory, politics, science, travel, comics, graphic novels and manga. I challenge you to name a book (or a film or an album) that this shop does not stock. On the top floor, in a rather uninspiring location next to the business and management books, I found one of my new favourite places: a couple of arm chairs pushed up against a big bay window, facing away from the shop and other browsers to look out over the rooftops of Berlin. By the time I’d made it up that far and then started to head back down again, I was quite exhausted and stopped for a bit of a rest in the excellent children’s and young people’s section.
The children who shop here must be very well-rounded as the selection of children’s books in German, English and other languages included stories and poems and lots of educational books about geography, history, science and pretty much every other subject you can imagine. I’m getting tired of listing subjects; from now on, just assume that if you can name it, Dussman has it. Watching families come into this busy bookshop and pick out new treasures to bring home and read together is the most encouraging thing to witness if you love books!
Finally, there is the English section, which is really a bookshop inside the bigger bookshop. I’m told it’s the largest collection of English books in Berlin, so it’s an absolute lifeline for ex-pats who are looking for books from home or feel that they can barely handle reading Proust at all let alone in German. It’s also great way to explore Germany’s literature even if you don’t speak the language. There is a whole section of English translations of books about Berlin and books by German writers. Before going to Berlin, I had read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories which are insightful, subtle and highly amusing, but, ultimately, are still the work of an outsider looking in. As the world gets more and more globalised, I think we have a duty to find out more about the other people we share this planet with, but you can’t do that if you only read works that came from your own small island. That is why collections like these are always so interesting – when one country curates a selection of its finest literature to present to the rest of the world, it can’t help but cause debate, and the choices are often completely different from what someone on the outside would have predicted. After roaming around through this lovely bookshop-in-a-bookshop for a good forty minutes, we bought The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which is a bit of a rite of passage for anyone interested in dense European novels. When I buy a book, I always like to find a time, as soon as possible, to sit down and admire my new purchase. At Dussman’s English bookshop, you can curl up on a sofa by the window and fondle the crisp new white pages while you look out onto the busy street below.
In a bookshop this large, it’s easy to get side-tracked and end up wandering aimlessly for hours. I say go for it. In a place with so many different possibilities, so many new things to pique your interest and make you think, you owe it to the adventurer in yourself to explore every different avenue. You have to be indiscriminate in your enjoyment, embracing the new and strange and obscure as well as the classic and best-selling and putting the two of them together. Sometimes I like to play a game with my bookshelves. I pick two books that I happen to have stuck on there beside each other and wonder what would happen if the characters were to meet. Would Stephen Dedalus play nicely with Pip? What would Dean Moriarty and King Lear talk about? It’s not the coolest game but it’s made me smile many times. At Dussman, these opportunities, questions, connections and segues are everywhere. They’re in between the pages of the book you’ve never heard of, or in the name of a German poem that makes you think of something you read when you were young, or in a travel guide to Bali. All you have to do is be patient, exploring everything you can until something exciting pops out at you.