In his 2001 novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman writes: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.” Luckily, Bucharest is big and fortunate enough to have quite a few of them, and while the city prides itself on having one of the biggest, prettiest and most photographed bookshops in Eastern Europe, it’s actually the rather small Cărturești & friends (9, Edgar Quinet Street) that catches the eye, if you know where to look. A mere 45 square metre space, the dainty cultural hotspot is home to Anthony Frost English-language bookshop and Studio Receptor illustration gallery.
What is now one of the biggest bookshop chains in Romania, Cărturești started in 2000 with a small bookshop in the very same place that today hosts Cărturești & friends. In the almost 19 years of existence they took over the country and now have 26 stores spread across Romania.
Always showing a strong interest in product quality, architecture, design, and art in general, it’s no wonder that, in 2017, the Cărturești people were keen on associating themselves with the renown Anthony Frost English bookshop and the quite new—at the time—Studio Receptor illustration gallery. The former brought to the table solid experience in bookselling and curating an eclectic range of books, the latter—dynamism, freshness and diversity, with Cărturești providing the venue for the new concept.
The books: Vlad Niculescu and Anthony Frost
Together with two other friends, Vlad Niculescu opened Anthony Frost bookshop in downtown Bucharest in 2007 and the place quickly became a favourite spot for tourists and the expat community, as well as the locals. The excellent selection of books—latest and finest fiction in English, Romanian authors in English translation, nonfiction, art, design and architecture books, comics— turned Anthony Frost into a unique bookshop, often praised as one of the best English language bookshops in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, as it has happened to many independent bookshops lately, the place needed to close after almost ten years. Luckily, the collaboration with Cărturești—which started in November 2017, several months apart from the closing of the previous bookshop—gave Anthony Frost another chance, and here they are, in a new location and a new format, but with the same passion for books.
Talking about the customers of Cărturești & friends, Vlad says that even though some people come in without previously knowing anything about it, most clients are more than just clients. The regular customers know exactly what this bookshop is, and choose to buy from a brick and mortar place because they understand the need and importance of such a place, understand the philosophy behind it, the time and sacrifice it takes to build a bookshop. And it gives him hope and joy to see children and young people exposed to art and literature in a place that could possibly free their mind, as opposed to most places where people lose their identity.
Vlad doesn’t believe in consulting lists, when choosing what books to sell in the bookshop. He says you just need to be prepared—always be surrounded by books, always rummage through magazines and articles, so that you get the best perspective. For instance, many books that are sold in the bookshop are mentioned in New York Review of Books, a magazine he trusts for its quality and longevity, and the high standards Barbara Epstein and Robert B. Silvers—the founders of the magazine—set for book reviewing. Of course there’s always the chance of not being on the safe side when selecting books that are not to be found in every bookshop, books which might not be the latest bestsellers, not translated into Romanian or authored by less known writers. But they’re always carefully chosen and always books that he, as a bookseller and a reader, believes in.
The illustrations: Ramona Chirica and Studio Receptor
Talking about how she started in the illustration world, Ramona says she always had the bug, browsing the internet for pictures and artists, liking and sharing illustrations and whatnots on Tumblr. But it was in 2013 when she started working in a print gallery where she learnt about everything: from basic Photoshop skills that allowed her to manage the small gallery’s website to client service, content, promotion, artist management and curation, which led to organising many events, exhibitions, art fairs and—most importantly—meeting lots of artists and creating important and lasting connections.
Feeling ready to take matters into her own hands, and even more, having a strong desire to become an artist representative, Ramona founded her own online gallery and illustration agency—Studio Receptor—in 2016. As luck would have it, one of her friends recommended her to the Cărturești people just when she was looking for a space to show the actual works.
Through Cărturești & friends the micro-gallery Receptor sells original illustrations but also organises collective and individual exhibitions for the artists Ramona works with. Adelina Butnaru, Anna Florea, Alexandra Mîrzac, Ana Ban Ana, Anca Dima Cristina Barsony, Irina Dobrescu, Iulia Ignat, Livia Coloji, Mădălina Andronic, Mihaela Paraschivu, Mura, Oana Ispir, Ruxandra Șerbănoiu, and Veronica Neacșu are some of the illustrators whose work you can find in the shop. Ramona prefers to have a small portfolio of artists, focusing on quality rather than quantity. What makes the concept work, she says, is a combination between friendship, mutual trust, and her own aesthetic and ethical principles.
Even more friends
Should you follow Cărturești & friends on Instagram (which we highly recommend you do), you’ll notice not only a great array of diverse books, the pretty windows or carefully curated illustrations covering the walls, but also lots of people hanging around—readers, authors and editors gathered for book events, kids drawing on the floor or reading in a corner while their parents browse the bookshelves, far away friends of the bookshop stopping by for a book and a chat on the red sofa, or the regulars sharing a laugh, a beer and a bowl of pickles in front of the shop on a Saturday afternoon. This sense of camaraderie and community give one the feeling that the friends from Friends moved their headquarters from Central Perk to the front of the bookshop.
And a list of books
Because you can’t just talk about bookshops without mentioning books, we asked Vlad to recommend a few books about Romania or written by Romanian authors. He kindly agreed, and here are his choices:
Athene Palace: Hitler’s “New Order” Comes to Rumania
by R.G. Waldeck
Waldeck countess came to Bucharest at the end of the 1930s as a corespondent for Newsweek. Arriving from US to a country she knew little about, it’s possible that this complete fresh look helped her create one of the most spot on pictures of a society which, unfortunately, very much resembles the one today. It is a book I would publish constantly (the book was published in Romania by Humanitas but it’s out of print), because it’s a very important one. Ernest H. Latham, whom I met, married to Romanian poet Ioana Ieronim, wrote a biography of the countess, which I’m looking forward to read. While he was living in Romania, Ernest H. Latham also published a book called “Timeless and Transitory. 20th Century Relations Between Romania and the English-Speaking World” in which he gathered fragments about Romania of English-speaking authors.
Journal 1935-44: Mihail Sebastian
translated by Patrick Camiller
From the same period comes Sebastian’ Journal, admirably translated 20 years ago by Patrick Camiller, who is one of the best native English translators from Romanian; he was married to a Romanian, he lived in Mogoșoaia for quite a while for translation projects, he translated Dumitru Tsepeneag for Dalkey Archive Press. I met him in London in 2008, and he made a very good impression on me. For us, Romanians, the journal is an extraordinary document, first published in 1996 by Humanitas, which reveals an unknown Mihail Sebastian who talks not only about the condition of the Jewish intellectual of that time in Romania, but in the whole Eastern Europe. Little spicy details turned the book into a success, but we are interested, just like in Waldeck’s case, in the image of the Romanian society of the time, which is one of the most accurate.
Adventures In Immediate Irreality
by Max Blecher, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Also from the same era, “Adventures In Immediate Irreality” by Max Blecher, a friend of Sebastian’s, is one of our literature’s masterpieces that I’m very happy New Directions translated; it’s an exceptional edition of an exceptional book I always want to have in the bookshop.
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
by Nick Hunt
This book follows nowadays the steps of Patrick Leigh Fermor in the 1930s, when he was only 19. It tracks the same places, almost 60 years apart from the events described in Fermor’s book, “Between the Woods and the Water”; it is a beautiful parallel, written by a talented writer.
Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
by William Blacker
This is a very trendy book—rumour has it that Prince Charles started looking for his Romanian roots thanks to it. The writer, William Blacker, graduated a British college, left the country immediately afterwards and after spending a couple of years in Tuscany, helping with the reconstruction of a church tower, decided he didn’t want to return home and started searching for the furthest place—in terms of mentalities—in a Europe as it once was. And Maramureș, Romania, sounded perfect to him. He stayed there for four years, working side by side with a peasant’s family, fell in love and had a kid with a beautiful Roma girl, Natalia, and the book is the account of his four year stay in a country which he discovered in a British manner and managed to describe with a lot of accuracy and objectivity.
Blinding: Book One
by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter
Because Archipelago Books is a publishing house from Brooklyn I love very much, which knows how to choose from the so-called “small” literatures of the world names which—in English—haven’t created a buzz until Acrhipelago Books appeared. The translation of the first volume of the Blinding Trilogy is also very, very good; Sean Cotter is another person on the shortlist of native English speakers we should be watching, he also translated Nichita Stănescu for the same publisher.
All photos courtesy of Ramona Chirica