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What They Aren't Reading on the Other Side

December 30, 1990|ALAN D. BOSTICK | Bostick, a journalist, is studying German reunification in Cologne.

BERLIN — In the cramped stockroom of a tiny bookstore two blocks off Unter den Linden, East Berlin's wide and elegant east-west avenue, the young bookseller shrugged her shoulders.

"Earlier, East Germany was a 'Land of Readers,' a country proud of its poets and playwrights," she said. "Everyone read, whenever there was time, anywhere.

"Today, it's not the same. People have other things to do."

This was not an answer anyone might have expected. Before the wall dividing the two Germanys collapsed in late 1989, East German readers had to content themselves with those books both allowed by government censor and physically available--Russian history and literature, German classics, carefully constructed studies of European history and the occasional translation of a Bellow or a P. D. James. All else--from Nietzsche to Stephen King--was simply not to be had.

Now that the German Democratic Republic has ceased to exist and readers can select their own books for the first time in decades, one might be tempted to conclude that bookstores could not stock their shelves fast enough to meet the surging demand. The old East German hardbacks, with pages the color and consistency of a paper towel, would now serve as doorstops or, when stacked, as inexpensive and durable supports for outdoor remainder displays. The handsome Western editions, representing an entire world of fresh ideas, would meanwhile be finding their way into the most remote Saxon farmhouse. In other words, a reader's and a bookseller's dream. And yet--as one can infer from 22-year-old bookseller Martina Nagora's lament--it's closer to a nightmare.

Across the former Communist state, book sales have dropped considerably since the government's demise. According to Bernhard Wosnitzka, manager of East Berlin's Das Internationale Buch, the largest bookstore in East Germany, his sales have fallen 20% in the last year. Buchhandlung am Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, the much smaller store managed by Nagora, has experienced a 50% reduction in sales.

It's certainly not want of books or service that's causing the drought. Das Internationale Buch, for instance, boasts an impressive selection of titles, from highly technical computer literature to the most sophisticated contemporary fiction. Only the better American bookstores offer as varied a menu. Eager to assist and advise, clerks stand almost at attention at 15-foot intervals--perhaps a faint taste of old Prussia. The furnishings are plain with bare floors below and exposed wires overhead, but still attractive by East German standards.

When customers do decide to buy books, they are taking home travel books, cookbooks, how-to books, children's books and foreign-language dictionaries and cassettes. Books representing 40 years' worth of previously unavailable history, science, literature and theology are, for the most part, collecting dust. In a land that can claim one of the world's most brilliant intellectual traditions, Walt Disney is preferred to Walter Benjamin, hot-pasta recipes to Cold War studies.

In Nagora's shop, the top three categories of books sold are how-to books, such as the hugely popular "1,000 Completely Legal Ways to Reduce Your Taxes"; foreign-language dictionaries, especially German-English, and paperbacks of popular fiction by authors such as King, Danielle Steel, James Clavell and Ephraim Kishon, a Hungarian-born satirist somewhere between Woody Allen and Lewis Grizzard. Also in demand are travel books to all points beyond the German border, and colorful hardcover children's books: "Snow White," "Alice in Wonderland" and a whole series on "Alf."

Among the more serious American authors now read are Salinger, Updike, Irving, Kerouac and Bukowski. Irving's "Garp" ranks third on the best-seller list at Das Internationale Buch. Asked why these specific authors--whose best-known work dates from several years back--are now of interest, Nagora said: "In the West, they are always waiting for new writers, the latest from Latin America, for example. Over here, they first have to read what they could not get earlier."

One needn't probe too deeply to uncover possible explanations for the buying trends and slow sales. In the first place, East Germans don't have much money. The unemployment rate is soaring, and the salaries of those who do have jobs have not kept pace with sudden increases in the price of consumer goods, such as books. As recently as 14 months ago, a paperback could be had for the equivalent of $1; today, most cost about $6. Hardbacks sold for $8 then; now they start at $25.

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