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Russian Books Escape a Tragic Ending

Culture: Eviction put bookshop and its 2 million tomes at risk of incineration until a salvation effort surfaced.

March 17, 2002|CHRISTINA LING | REUTERS

WASHINGTON — A member of the House and the head of the Library of Congress brokered an 11th-hour deal last week to save a unique collection of 2 million Russian books from an incinerator.

"It is a win-win for everybody," said Igor Kalageorgi, owner of the Victor Kamkin bookstore in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., after he won a temporary reprieve from eviction for his shop and kept his books from being discarded.

"There will be no book-burning, and the books will find a home," Kalageorgi added.

The bookstore was founded in 1953 by Victor Kamkin, Kalageorgi's great-uncle. During the Cold War, it represented a treasure trove virtually unparalleled in the United States as a source of Russian-language books, both classic and obscure.

Enjoying an exclusive contract with the Soviet government to import Soviet books and periodicals into the United States, the Kamkin store during its heyday was a magnet for the entire community of U.S. Slavic scholars.

But the shop had faced eviction last Monday after falling behind on its $15,000-per-month rent because of slack sales over the last year, Kalageorgi said.

Landlord Allen Kronstadt said the enormity of the task facing the Montgomery County, Md., sheriff in hauling the estimated 2 million books out onto the sidewalk and to the local dump and incinerator already had delayed the eviction date twice.

"We warned the sheriff's department early on how massive the job was," said Kronstadt, managing partner of Randolph Buildings, which rents space to Kamkin.

He said a crew of 60 men and several trucks had been slated to remove the books the day the deal was reached.

"The thought of burning these books for me personally was distasteful and I struggled with it," Kronstadt added.

After the Washington Post reported on the fate awaiting the books, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) extracted a promise from local officials not to destroy them.

Morella and Librarian of Congress James Billington, a prominent historian and Russia specialist, sat down with Kronstadt and Kalageorgi to work out the three-week reprieve on the eviction.

Kalageorgi said he will work over the coming days with Billington and Library of Congress Slavic experts to put together collections to donate to the library and other institutions throughout the country.

"There's nothing like it [in the United States]," said one Library of Congress official, noting that such obscure items as a Tagalog-Russian dictionary among Kamkin's collection deserved to be saved for future generations of researchers.

"You just don't have people importing books from Russia on the leaves of Kamchatka or 12th-century law in Ukraine."

Kronstadt said that under the deal he would write off the roughly $200,000 he says the bookstore owes him in rent, legal and other fees, and would donate to the Library of Congress any books left in his possession at the end of the three weeks.

The deal also allows the continuation of the Victor Kamkin bookstore itself, which Kalageorgi says he plans to reopen at a new location once he has finishes taking inventory and donating books.

"We don't have a definite location yet, but we're going to get that all organized in short order," Kalageorgi said.

After 10,000 customers deluged the store last weekend in fear of its closure, he no longer doubts that a market exists for it, despite competition from rivals in New York's Brighton Beach. "It tells me the power of advertising," he said.

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