When I first came to this country, I carried with me several books squeezed into my suitcase that had sand in their spines and pages made crackly by the hard Mediterranean sun. I had appropriated these books from the ‘take one, give one back’ shelf at the hostel where I’d been pulling beers over the summer, prior to landing in rainy Düsseldorf to begin the German adventure. Of course, I hadn’t necessarily ‘given one back’ because I cannot bear to give books away, even the truly awful ones. I had, to be quite candid, simply staked out the shelf from my position behind the bar, and every time a different coloured spine appeared on the shelf, I would slide over, suss it out and if I liked the look of it, slip it into my bag. I never saw anyone else at that book shelf, although a big, pink Candice Bushnell disappeared with alarming speed, so there must have been someone else participating in the book stake out as well, or at least someone who needed a plane-read and Candice fit the bill.
Upon arriving in Münster, I sussed out a couple of bookshops in the city and quickly realised paperbacks, like wine, in this country are far, far less expensive than they are in Australia. 8€ for fresh, crisp new novel, 3€ for a classic. I began to feed my habit with relish. I went on crime binges – Germans love crime, they fill the shelves – barely finishing one before I was back in the bookshop ringing up another. I couldn’t believe books were less than 10€, just like I couldn’t believe a completely drinkable bottle of red hovered around the 3€ mark. My book collection grew. The torn, sandy, crackly books purloined from a hostel shelf in Santorini, were joined by new, straight-backed novels with barely-cracked spines.
Then we moved to Weiden. The bookshops in town were a little smaller, their English sections smaller still. I had read a lot of the books they offered. I turned to Amazon, where the selection was vast, the delivery speedy and the price tag of a second hand book always around 3€. I chewed through series and authors. There was something about receiving these used books, as if the baton was being passed on to me and these wrinkly-spined copies were now finding a final resting place on my shelves. Next to the sandy, crackly ones and the straight-backed ones with barely cracked spines.
Our first time living in Kiel, I discovered a ‘take one, give one back’ shelf at work, and both a discount bookshop and a big shiny Thalia just around the corner from work. I took (and gave two back this time) and bought and read and my collection grew bigger still. Reading, a once pricey habit to support in Sydney, was now one I could feed on as regular a basis as I needed.
Back in Sydney this year, I pulled all of my books out of storage and purchased extra luggage to cart them back over to Germany. Of our nearly 100kg of luggage that came back to Germany with us, at least 40kg of it were books. Books from home and other travels that now rub covers with the Greek ones and the Münsteranian ones and Amazon ones. Books from high school and university and birthdays that I was never going to let go of, because I can’t throw books out, nor give them away.
This time in Kiel, we have moved within a stone’s throw of three book Antiquariats, where I can regularly binge on 2.50€ paperbacks. Book Antiquariats, purveyors of second hand books, are seemingly beloved by Germans. But of course they are because – and why has it taken this long to sink in? – because Germans love books. They love reading. There seems to be room enough for the Amazon buyers, the big shiny bookshop buyers and the Antiquariats. There are huge tables of books at the monthly flea-markets, little tables outside of shops otherwise completely unrelated to books (like the little fish shop down our street). Here, in Kiel, I can buy as many books as my little heart desires. Reading isn’t an expensive habit, it is an enabled one, it is an encouraged one.
This weekend I went into one of the Antiquariats near us for the first time, cheating on my regular (although the current English shelf at my regular is a little depleted, so I had reason). It was floor to ceiling books. Books papered the walls, were stacked precariously along the crammed aisles. The owner sat, reading, behind a table covered in books, using an old computer that was balanced on a few books, its mouse resting on a hip-high stack of books. To see him, we had to peer over a mountain of Brothers Grimm dictionaries. The bookshelves themselves were so high, stools were scattered about to reach the top books, but I don’t think even then I’d manage. We bought three books for 9.50€. You wouldn’t get out of three Fritz colas at a cafe for less than 9.50€, with tip.
For all of our differences – we can’t agree on what constitutes good coffee, for example – Germany and I love to read. We love an abundance of books, old and new, available at every turn, for a fair price, or indeed no price at all if we’re talking about the ‘take one, give one back’ system, my abuse of which has led SG to come to the conclusion (while he was reading The Book Thief) that I am the book thief. But I have not thieved for some time (weeks, at least) from the communal work bookshelf. The only books left are in Spanish, and besides, I have a new source to burrow into. Along with the man behind the mountain of Brothers Grimm dictionaries.