Quiet Irritating Rustle of Pages

19 April 2023

Jakub Kornhauser

A famous Cracovian poet once wrote, “the girl looking after the business has a blasé expression / there is no more soul in bookstores / the quiet irritating rustle of pages has disappeared”.

Much has changed since, in terms of indifference, souls, and perhaps even the rustling. It might seem that the main shift has been in the business model: after all, running a bookshop is hardly a gravy train, and it’s not like there’s much point in looking out for thieves – no-one in their right mind would nick books, right? And yet there’s no shortage of bookshops – they tempt with dazzling covers, sometimes fancy pens, coffee and cakes, quiet zones and unusual interiors. And they are growing in numbers, some hopeful of an introduction of a price cap, some selling discounted books from publishing houses, museums and other cultural centres, others to fulfil the owner’s childhood dream, rooted in the belief that books bring knowledge, hope for a better future and daily joy. It’s just a shame that those hopes frequently turn out to be as enduring as pulp novels…

So, what is the deal with bookshops in Kraków? Sure, some people moan that it’s not like in the good old days – just a couple of decades ago there were dozens of bookshops scattered all over the city. Weekend rituals revolved around visiting stores in the city centre: Hetmańska, Baran and Suszczyński, Empik on the Main Market Square, Znak on Sławkowska and a few others in the Old Town. It was hard to find a space free of books, fend off their attack, return home not burdened by bags filled with volumes. And while we can bemoan the loss of stores which have been devoured by capitalism, on the flip side nothing is ever really lost, and new places suddenly pop up here and there; the bad old analogue days are over, when the only way of finding the latest releases was rummaging through bookshelves, going on waiting lists and placing orders in dogeared notebooks guarded by watchful booksellers.

The fact is that many people prophesied the end of brick-and-mortar bookshops: although online shopping is easier, there are more promotions and a greater selection, people still flock to bookshops, sniff around, read excerpts, compare, await the latest releases and keep an eye out for rarities. And they will keep coming, because bookshops are changing in front of our very eyes, becoming meeting spaces and autonomous cultural centres where authors join readers, readers join publishers, and everyone is joined by philologists, critics and bloggers. The success of many of them – from those which have survived for decades, such as Pod Globusem, Naukowa at Podwale Street and Academicka, to the more recently-founded favourites such as De Revolutionibus, Karakter, Bonobo and Lokator – is the result of tightening ties between people. Sure, bookshops are about books, but they are even more about people: those from covers and notes, of course, but also those who make authors and translators kathe most interesting releases during the era of distractions and lack of time, and encourage us to devote our attention to dozens of books instead of just one.

We’ve poured optimism into our hearts and want to shout “again! again!”, but something is bugging us – and it’s not moths or bookworms or any other book-devouring critter. When we talk about Cracovian bookshops, we tend to focus too much on those within the circumference of Planty Park, or perhaps in Kazimierz, Kleparz and so on; we don’t generally head further afield, as though we know instinctively that there is less demand and that while people lap up yet another indie or chain bakery or corner shop, books aren’t quite the priority. There is some truth in it – there are certainly no cities where the book industry is more lively in the suburbs than in the centre – but then again Kraków is unusual in its diverse urbanist structure and layout. This is largely down to Nowa Huta.

It would be impossible to write about Cracovian bookshops without mentioning those in Nowa Huta, just as it’s impossible to write about Nowa Huta’s identity without talking about past and present spaces selling books. We should start with the legendary Skarbnica: for many years it was something of a heart of Centralny Square and a key navigation point, while for locals and visitors from other districts, coming from near and far on recce missions, it was a symbol above all others. During its six decades of existence (from the 1950s until 2014), it was an indelible part of Nowa Huta’s landscape, just like Stylowa restaurant and the steelworks – with good reason.

Skarbnica [Treasury – trans.] fully deserved its name: as well as the latest releases, you could find discontinued titles, and its vast interiors held rarities from major and tiny, independent publishing houses. I remember rummaging in a cardboard box to find Daniil Kharms’s cult volume from the series Tales of the Vinegar Wasteland; another time I was exploring the robust cartographic section to come across a dusty map of the Drawsko Lake District, which served me for many years to come. I could name dozens such sentimental incidents, but the zenith was at the shop window at Skarbnica, many years ago, when I found my debut volume of poetry – not to be found anywhere else since it was released by a tiny publisher in Rzeszów without any fanfare. I still wonder how I deserved such an honour, but, truth be told, Skarbnica was great for unexpected finds, and its booksellers frequently promoted up-and-coming authors by placing their books in the window to be admired by locals and visitors.

But Skarbnica wasn’t the only cult bookshop in the district. Based on the Stalowe Estate, As sells textbooks and kids’ literature as well as toys, stationery and school supplies; another branch of As has more recently opened at Teatralne Estate. The most important spot on the literary map of Nowa Huta is Ratuszowy Park: a good few years ago the Czytanie bookshop opened at Przyjaźni Avenue – part of a popular chain, it goes some way towards filling the gap left behind Skarbnica. Café NOWA opened quite recently at 7 Zgody Estate, becoming an instant hit with locals and visitors. Its friendly, welcoming atmosphere, comfortable, relaxed space and a huge selection of books (with a particular focus on children’s literature, filling shelves from floor to ceiling) have made it a firm favourite, and it also hosts cosy meetings with artists, bringing in packed audiences.

The achievements of Café NOWA, including its accolade in the Cracovian plebiscite “Bookshop of the Year” (in the “Best Books” category), are a simple consequence of the way we think about our city: representatives of geopoetics circles might mention decentralisation, which – as you can see – doesn’t just apply to administrative issues, but even more so to the development of local communities supporting culture. The interest in Nowa Huta, both in its real daily life and its mythicised and sanitised past, is reflected in fiction by Elżbieta Łapczyńska and Igor Jarek and in essays by Renata Radłowska, Katarzyna Kobylarczyk and other chroniclers of life on and around Centralny Square – and this means we must choose a significant reference point. Café NOWA is perfect in this role, having taken over from Skarbnica. In this context, the bookstore isn’t just a shop whose goal is to maximise profits, but rather a space bringing a promise of the unknown. After all, even poets must admit that while the bookselling industry is facing something of a crisis, each reader has a spark of a prospector in them: “gardens badly overgrown with prickly thorns of hawthorns / I enter them taking risks / the hollering of pages devours me”.

Fragments of Julian Kornhauser’s poem Bookstores translated by Piotr Florczyk (from the volume Julian Kornhauser, Been and Gone, translated and edited by Piotr Florczyk, foreword by Adam Zagajewski, Marick Press, Grosse Pointe Farms 2009, p. 47).

Jakub Kornhauser
Poet, essayist, translator, editor, literature scholar. Founder of the Avantgarde Research Centre at the Jagiellonian University. Winner of the Wisława Szymborska Prize for a volume of prose poetry (2015) and the “Znaczenia” Prize for a collection of essays on Kraków and cycling (2020). 

Illustrations: Zofia Różycka

The article published in the 1/2023 issue of "Kraków Culture" quarterly.




Kraków Travel
Kids in Kraków
Close We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.