Category Archives: Berlin

Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus

IMG_2535Dussman das KulturKaufhaus, Friedrichstrasse 90, 10117 Berlin, Germany

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 IMG_2526keep 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

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

Beautiful hardcover editions of German literary classics.

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.

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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 IMG_2532and 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.

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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 IMG_2531much 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 IMG_2521can 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 IMG_2525from 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.

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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 IMG_2518indiscriminate 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.IMG_2522

Ocelot

IMG_2398Ocelot, Brunnenstraße 181,10119 Berlin,Germany
 
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 IMG_2395interested 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 IMG_2392books 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 surfaIMG_2394ce 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, IMG_2393design, 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 IMG_2396to 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.
 
 
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