By Amanda DeMarco
BERLIN: Spend some time browsing through the ‘Cultural Connections’ on the web site for Sharmaine Lovegrove’s online bookstore, Dialogue Books — they’re enchanting, factoid-y, perfectly suited for serial online consumption. Each connection links a book with a place, idea, film, object, or piece of art. There’s The Kite Runner‘s connection to Kabul; The Story of the Eye‘s connection to instructions on how to perfectly hard-boil an egg; Things Fall Apart’s connection to The Roots’ album of the same name.
It’s not going to compete with Amazon, and it’s not supposed to. What it does do is give Lovegrove, a lifelong bookseller and more recently a literary consultant, an opportunity to cultivate her skills and promote her brand. As she describes it, “the bookshop is a platform to engage in the notion of bookselling because, in a certain sense, bookselling doesn’t exist anymore, which is the hardest thing for me to say.”
Lovegrove got her first job as a bookseller in London at a neighborhood bookshop at 16. Later she worked for Foyles, Waterstone’s, and the London Review Bookshop, then went into publicity. “I thought I wanted to be a publicist, but talking about seven or eight books at a time was very limiting . . . As a bookseller you have to understand the core of all of the books that you sell.”
So Lovegrove moved to Berlin, a city that reminded her of the London of her childhood, and opened up her own bookstore, Dialogue Books in December, 2009. 3,500 hand-picked titles lined the walls of Lovegrove’s tiny gem of a boutique, tucked away in the back room of a cafe in the stylish Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.
Dialogue sponsored some of the hottest English-language events in the city. Interviews with Iain McGilchrist and Hans Fallada’s son, the book-launch party for Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation; Exberliner Magazine described Lovegrove’s activites as “A-list readings for the Soho House beau monde and more readings plus a book club for the plebeians.”
The store might not have had a front window, but sales were good. “I was happy and my accountant was happy. We were on an upward curve.” Lovegrove supports herself as an advisor for book-to-film projects, as well as for an academic library, so the shop simply needed to maintain itself.
But when she found herself at odds with the cafe owners over use of shared event space, she had to consider how much conflict the shop ultimately was worth. Lovegrove is ambitious and energetic, and it’s easy to see how setting up her dream store would be more satisfying to her than enjoying its continuation. “When I had this opportunity to stop, I said, ‘Am I really going to be standing behind the counter in five years?’ and I had to realize that I wasn’t going to be that person.” So Dialogue closed its doors in June 2010.
A word here about Berlin’s English-language book market: during its six-month tenure as a physical store, Dialogue was Berlin’s only English-language store specializing in new books. Another Country, recently named the sixth-best bookstore in the world by Lonely Planet, has carved out a niche among Berliners with its extensive (used) science-fiction section, as well as by functioning as a lending library (patrons pay the full price of the book, then receive all but €1.50 back if and when they return it).Berlin’s used-book market is otherwise quite pricey — stores tend to charge nearly what Dialogue charged for a new title (obviously with a better margin).
Lovegrove explained that localized perceptions of worth complicated her interactions with Berliners because “the value of things becomes really mixed up in the value of the city and the ethos of the city.” Much of Berlin’s appeal for literate foreigners is its low price-tag, a boon that’s become a veritable mystique. Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s declaration that Berlin is “poor but sexy” is now an old saw, and though the Anglophone expat community is not particularly poor, they do want to engage in the spirit of the city, and it turns out that building a quality library is just not very “Berlin.”
“The reason we didn’t open a second shop in Berlin is that I suddenly had this fear that I would have to sell Harry Potter to people who didn’t speak English very well and that I felt that would really diminish my skills as a bookseller. I want to enhance my skills.” So what’s a dyed-in-the-wool bookseller to do when she’s outgrown her boutique bookstore, but her city probably couldn’t support a shop to fit her ambitions?
She goes online. “How I describe it to people: we had a pop-up shop for six months, we got to build a mailing list, we got people to know who we are, we got to collaborate with some people, so that when we went online we were established enough that we were already getting orders. What I wanted to do was to think about how to make my skills as a bookseller accessible online.” The site keeps Lovegrove publicly engaged, important to her work as a literary consultant, and gives her a place to showcase her personal flair.
And so far, so good: “People are doing exactly what I wanted them to do on the site, they’re spending a lot of time browsing, they’re looking through the Cultural Connections.” Dialogue will continue sponsoring events, and in the next year Lovegrove will ramp up her “Book Doctor” program, which she describes as similar to a life-coach or physical trainer for people “who are struggling with forming a foundation of cultural identity and feel that they’re missing out.”
And of course it’s one more outlet for intensive interaction with books, which, for as personal and expert as Lovegrove has tried to make her website, she admits she often now seeks from her other work: “It’s really hard for me. I’m used to being a shop girl and I’m not a shop girl anymore. It’s really hard for me to get used to that.”