Our interview partner for today’s Literary Field Kaleidoscope post is Maria-Christina Piwowarski who runs “ocelot, not just another bookstore” with her team. She runs this exceptional bookshop in the heart of Berlin with an infectious passion, an amazing knowledge of all things bookish, and a political compass that I wish for in every bookshop. At ocelot, I encountered carefully chosen books in German and English, a newspaper and magazine corner, excellent recommendations by an up to date book shop team – I kept eavesdropping on their recommendations and my reading list grew at an alarming pace – and space and peace to read and roam and have coffee. For our blog, Maria-Christina Piwowarski talked to Sandra van Lente about politics, communication, book events and the transformative power of books and bookshops.
(Eine deutsche Version (pdf) unseres Interviews gibt es am Seitenende.)
Recently, we covered the #indiebookchallenge on Literary Field Kaleidoscope and admired your special recommendations on Instagram. Do you participate that intensely in many book events and activities? What about the independent bookshop week (Woche unabhängiger Buchhandlungen (WUB)) in November for instance? And what drives you to be so active?
I think the number of cooperations, campaigns, festivals and other activities one can join in is amazing! We have decided to heavily celebrate the indiebookday and the Women in Translation Month in August because we find both incredibly important. However, you have to make a choice – our resources are limited and we cannot participate to a large extent in these kinds of activities every month. After all, we also have to run a shop on the side! (laughs)
We are not participating in the German indiependent bookshop week (WUB) in November because we are simply no independent bookshop. I take this very seriously. I think it’s terrible when books that are not published by indies are showcased during the indiebookday or the indiebookchallenge. And thus, I can’t join the independent book week when in fact, we are owned by a company that runs some other bookshops as well. You have to be authentic, otherwise it becomes rather random.
And while I know and appreciate the WUB, I would have wished for a more cooperative and less isolated act. The German indiebookday, initiated by the independent publisher mairisch Verlag, has been creating excellent marketing at a very high level. One could have used this in order to join forces with the bookshops instead of creating a separate event. Everyone can participate in the indiebookday and the communication channels work very well – we could have emphasized independent bookshops in this context and even we could have participated to some extent.
How do your customers like your activities?
They love it! The indiebookday has become an integral part of our work to the extent that the people who come here to buy their books and have coffee, those who know us well and like us expect that we create something great for every indiebookday in March. And I must say we have set the bar rather high… When we started many years ago, we only had a table with indie books on display and then it grew every year – with the exception of March 2015 when or shop was closed. Last year, we had readings from indie books from noon until 11 at night. What proved to be a lot of fun was that every indie publisher had to introduce another one. This created many interesting connections – but was also a ton of work.
Let’s see what we’ll come up with next time! For me, an integral part of the indiebookday is to have a large number of books available; and to use the opportunity to introduce indie publishers and their authors to the audience in order to present the amount and diversity of indie publishing on the German market.
And how do people react to that?
The feedback is great – and, in fact, people now expect it. This year, we have increased our social media activities. In the past, we communicated a lot via our shop window. Indiebookday and Women in Translation Month (#WiT) both peak in March and August respectively, but we can see the effects throughout the year. In conversations we wonder, for example, why one should not rather look for a female author or a book from an independent publisher.
Is that a question you ask yourselves or are these questions your customers ask?
It’s both. We are more aware of these aspects. For example, I cannot post a list of books I want to recommend and then realise that there are only male authors – and leave it at that. In addition, our customers also ask for more female authors and indie books directly – and not just during these events [indiebookday and #WiT]. While we plant the seeds on those days, we reap the effects throughout the year.
I’m glad to hear that – as so many people fight to make this change happen, e.g. also at the university or the women in publishing (BücherFrauen). I’m excited to hear about your experience and that activities like indiebookday and WiT month really seem to change people’s awareness and reading behaviour.
I believe that sometimes, these things take a lot of time. But, in the end, the constant repetition might do the trick.
You said earlier that ocelot is not independent any more. How does this affect your work routine and decisions, e.g. like what you stock and which events you host?
I have been here before we changed owners and to be quite honest, I expected that a lot of things were about to change, while at the same time I was happy that the bookshop was saved. When the new owners asked us whether we would like to continue working here, we all thought about it very carefully and expected strict specifications and the like. But the board in Heidelberg approved of what we had done so far, told us to keep up the good work and to approach them if we had any queries. And this is how we work until today: we enjoy the advantages of a large network and don’t have to maintain a back office; we can send them our invoices and have less paperwork. Thus, I have a lot more time for the things that matter because they take care of the rest: I have more time to manage and motivate my team and service our customers. My team and I get to decide what we stock, which events we want to organise, who we want to invite… We do consult the board for human resource decisions, e.g. if we want to hire a new apprentice, but usually we get a green light.
A change that came with the new ownership was the connection to the online shop “genialokal”. I think it is great: it is easy to maintain and we can post our recommendations, upload team pictures and highlight works that we want to emphasise and draw more attention to. At the same time, it provides the logistics of a sound online shop. You can even reserve books from the store and the shop show you which books we have on site. We have experimented with different webshops in the past, but this has by far been the best experience.
Furthermore, we are now connected to the purchasing association Einkaufsgemeinschaft eBuch. We buy the majority of stock via libri – and what I buy straight from the publishers what I can’t get via libri. These are some things that have made our work easier indeed.
Do you sell ebooks via your online shop only or do you also sell them on site?
We have a cooperation with Tolino and also showcase some of their devices. This way we can show our customers on site how the Tolino works. However, selling ebooks in our (offline) store does not make any sense. We thought about it, but if you look around, you can see that everyone has their own laptop and smartphone – and I think they would stare at me incredulously if I were to set up a download hub in my store. They prefer to buy their ebooks via their own devices and rarely need technical support. This might be a side effect of our location.
Some years ago, I spotted beautifully designed cards with book covers and QR codes at the Frankfurt Book Fair. These cards were meant as gift cards for ebooks and thus make giving away ebooks as presents easier – and prettier. I always wondered what happened to them…
I really don’t know. It might be a good idea for publishers or online shops to develop this a bit further, because it would be convenient as a gift. Having said that: if you buy an ebook in our online shop, you get a gift certificate that you can print out.
Which opportunities does Berlin and your particular location offer you?
Our bookshop is situated where Mitte, Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg meet. Thus, we can unite the best out of these three very different neighbourhoods. If you walk one way, the area gets more middle-class, the other way more touristy and further North in Wedding, people are more adventurous. And the people who live and work on this corner, they don’t complain about book prices. They know why they cost what they cost and they usually can afford them. Here, at the centre, we have a table with a lot of illustrated books on display that are a bit pricier and get picked up as presents for friends. This is quite a luxury for us and we really appreciate it. This helps us to fund experiments like our poetry section. We maintain this poetry section because we think it is important to display these books and have them on site. There may be five titles that permanently sell well, but I also buy the others because I want my customers to be able to browse through poetry collections. So we tend to finance one with the other. The customers’ response is amazing, no matter how many of the collections we sell.
In addition – well, this is Berlin Mitte – our English section is growing constantly. I could add shelves all the time. In the beginning, we expected some educated Mitte customers to ask for the new Paul Auster in the original. Now, we see that many of our customers prefer to read their books in the original version. In addition, we have some tourist customers because our bookshop made it into some travel guides, e.g. a Dutch travel guide that our customers proudly showed us. And then, the general audience in Berlin is so international that English-language literature sells quite well.
Another thing I can afford here, but might not be able to somewhere else: we just got rid of our crime fiction section! We just included them alphabetically on in the fiction shelves because we don’t believe that thinking in these kinds of boxes is very helpful. We want to make it all about literature, not categories. We want our customers to keep an open mind – and they do.
In fact, there is a lot happening right now: Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, even Karl Ove Knausgård, Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sonntag – how do you categorise their work? I’m still having a hard time getting rid of the non-fiction section. But I want people to question the categories and engage with the literature.
And your audience?
The audience appreciates it – and this is such a simple measure. We want to change the expectations, e.g. that crime fiction is separated from the rest or that paperbacks and hardbacks are kept separately like in some bookshops.
Brexit has been a reoccurring topic on our blog. What’s the effect on your bookshop?
After the referendum, we were all shocked. And we ordered books that dealt with the situation – similar to what we did after Trump’s election and the last General Election in Germany. We now carry more books about migration politics, antiracist ideas and the political context. However, our customers seem less interested in Brexit.
Speaking of the purchasing of books from the UK, our Penguin Random House sales rep is very relaxed, so we are too. And I am against panicking in general. In addition, we don’t only buy our English books in the UK. We’ll just wait and see.
You take an explicit political stand through the books you display and the posters on your walls, such as #unteilbar (demonstration against all kinds of discrimination and for a pluralist society) and “don’t play with fire” (against racism and populism) by the German Booksellers’ Association. What is important to you and how do you decide which initiatives you support?
We have always seen ourselves as progressive and educational, and clearly identify as politically on the left. And not just since the latest events. There are quite a lot of initiatives – and the problem is not a new one. Unfortunately. We supported #publishersagainstracism (#verlagegegenrechts) through our selections and dedicated a large window display to the cause. Also, you will not find Sarrazin’s book here. End of story.
When an annotated version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf was published in 2016, we thought long and hard about how we would handle this. I knew that the annotations weren’t questionable, but it still felt strange. The initiative “Gesicht zeigen!” reacted via a campaign they created with a big advertising agency in Berlin because they didn’t want to let it go uncommented. Out of this, the campaign “Mein Kampf – gegen Rechts” (“my fight against the right”, link) evolved in cooperation with Europa Verlag and Ogilvy & Mather. A number of people talked about their personal fight against the right and the same book was published with 11 different covers portraying the authors. In the end, we decided to do the following: we put a large Hitler face on our shop window and shut him up with a bar depicting the 11 book covers. I actually ordered “the thing”, but just because I was convinced that it will demystify itself completely. With Sarrazin, however, I don’t want anybody making any money out of it.
Are there also downsides to your location?
In Berlin, we are quite spoiled when it comes to events: if you can’t make it to a reading one night, you can attend the next one on the following day. That’s great, of course, but it also makes event planning quite hard for us. We understand that we need to do a lot more marketing compared to places with fewer events per month. I know a children’s book author who does not want to read in Berlin any more, but prefers smaller places where they draw a full house. I completely understand this. Here, it is much harder and more work to draw a similar crowd.
So do you plan on continuing your great book events? How does this “pay off” and how do you go about organising these events?
It’s a heck of a lot of work. But we shall continue. To be fair, sometimes it does not pay off financially, but I can book this as marketing. For me, events are important for the publishers and the bookshop’s profile. Ludwig Lohmann, who organises the event, and I often get together and decide, e.g., that we want to do a quadruple premiere with Verlagshaus Berlin (indie publisher for poetry and artwork) or something special for the Women in Translation Month. We invited Odile Kennel, for example, who presented her translation of Robin Coste Lewis‘ Voyage of the Sable Venus. The interest in this event was huge – it was very particular, and at the same time absolutely fantastic. To be able to facilitate these kinds of things remains very important to us.
Right now, we have more requests for event collaborations from publishers than we can manage. We have to say: “don’t call us, we’ll call you“. In order to make great events, we need to limit ourselves to two events per month. We are booked until spring 2019, but sometimes it would be nice to have some wiggle-room for spontaneous discoveries. We’re still looking for a sound balance between our enthusiasm and our (wo)manpower.
In October, for example, we decided to do something on short notice when Mareike Kaiser and Alisa Tretau from edition assemblage wanted to do an event about Nicht nur Mütter waren schwanger, a book with reports, stories, illustrations, and different formats to provide a counter-narrative to the cis/heteronormatively dominated discourse on pregnancy and raising kids. I could just not not do this. So we’re hosting this event on 21 October, a Sunday morning at 11am. My colleague and I do this in our free time, so to speak, because we both think it’s incredibly important that this crowdfunded book is exposed to a larger audience and makes it into people’s heads (link to event). There is no entrance fee, by the way, in order to make it accessible to everybody.
If you had a wish for your industry, what would it be?
Currently, there are 13 bookseller apprentices at the respective school in Kreuzberg. That is a lot for them, but, honestly, how can 13 future booksellers in Berlin be a lot?! The school has a very ambitious teacher who provides a fantastic programme and does a fabulous job. I would wish for her to be flooded by applications because bookshops were training more people again and everyone saw the future in bookselling. Sure, the bookshops only train as many people as they think might find jobs later on. I wish for bookshops to be more courageous; also to have more courage to increase their communication via social media and be more present online. There are some who have already embraced these means of communication, but there is still some room for improvement. For me, this is such an easy and direct way to present one’s bookshop and I wish more people were doing this. As is often the case in this field, everything moves rather slowly and late. I wish there was some kind of rocket mechanism for this.
You are very active on Social Media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. That’s a lot of work. What drives you?
It is also work that we enjoy. And we appreciate the immediacy. It’s important to remain authentic – people realise immediately when a publisher – most bookshops can’t afford this anyway – hire an agency to write their posts. These posts are boring, the wording is repetitive, there is no passion.
When I started, our facebook presence succeeded quickly. We just communicated a lot and were very honest. With instagram, things went through the roof. Although I have to admit that I was rather sceptical it the beginning and thought this was going to be too superficial. But then the board told me to just do it as it would be good for our google ranking – and that they would assign the task to one of their interns if I didn’t do it. That’s when I thought: “no. Before I let anyone else write our content, I’m going to sacrifice myself for the greater good.” And then I discovered that it was actually nice and a lot of fun. And books are so photogenic! So, in the end, we can now share what we did before on site, i.e. unpack wonderful books and proudly show them around, to 8,000 more people via social media – without creating expenses and without huge access barriers.
We just want people to know how bookshops work and what makes them tick, that we’re not becoming extinct, that we are great at what we do and that bookshops offer them more than they would get anywhere else.
Thank you very much for talking to us!
ocelot, not just any other bookstore
Tel.: +49 30 97894592
Hier geht es zur deutschen Fassung (pdf) des Interviews.