The Bookhunter’s Guide to Ljubljana

Ask a booklover about their favorite hunting grounds, and you’ll see two conflicting urges start to fight one another. On one hand, we like to keep our best spots secret, so that nobody else will ever find them and we’ll get to keep all the loot for ourselves. On the other hand, however, a second-hand bookstore is of no use to anyone if it goes out of business. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are usually not very profitable institutions, and the more customers they have, the longer they’ll manage to stay afloat. Hence, by advertising our favorite stores, we indirectly do ourselves a favor as well. We just have to hope that none of the other visitors will be after the exact same books that we are…

When I travel abroad, I often spend some time snooping around for books, and I often end up slightly disappointed at the paucity of whatever the town in question has to offer. At the same time, I live in Ljubljana, I’ve been a fan of rare books for many years, and yet I’ve only discovered two of the stores mentioned below last year! In a city of 300,000 people! Hence, my inability to find much of interest in [insert foreign town] probably isn’t the fault of local booksellers, but of my own incompetence. To all the similarly incompetent booklovers from outside of Ljubljana (and even those inside it), I trust the following guide will be of use.

My personal favorite bookstore in Ljubljana was of course Bukvarna, the legendary non-profit store to which I have already dedicated a post, but I never shunned the other shops either. During the winter of 2020/21, all the bookstores in the Slovenian capital were closed due to the Covid pandemic. Once they finally reopened in the springtime, I was more than happy to make a round trip across all of them, snapping some pictures and, well, not avoiding the book-buying aspect of the trip either. Most of these places have a weak online presence, and a few don’t bother at all, so if you want to inspect the merchandise, you’ll need to show up in person.

“The Ljubljana Bookstore” was a short-lived publisher from the 1940s. If we ever start a campaign to promote the city’s bookstores, could we please revive this cute little dragon and use it as the logo?

Should my non-Slovenian-speaking readers care about this post? Well, some places have a large selection of foreign-language material and some don’t, but none of them cater exclusively to Slovenian buyers. German, English, and Serbo-Croatian are especially common, and of course, the less common a language is, the cheaper the books. If you offer the seller 1 euro for each of their Lithuanian books, she’ll be overjoyed that the books have finally found a customer.

Since the Slovenian market is relatively small, no bookstore in Ljubljana (or elsewhere in the country) specializes exclusively in rare books. “By appointment only” is a phrase that you’ll never hear when looking for books in Ljubljana. Nonetheless, I organized the bookstores into three roughly delineated sections: the “fancy” antiquarian stores, the regular second-hand stores, and the charity / bargain stores. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t all worth checking out, regardless of what we are looking for. As the old booksellers’ adage goes, “anything can be anywhere.”

1. Rare-book specialists

To give a category a name like this is to risk offending those who aren’t included in it. In my defence, what makes the following two bookstores special is that each of them holds regular auctions of rare books on Slovenia-related topics. Glavan also serves as the country’s only official court appraiser of rare books, and Trubarjev antikvariat is often referred to unofficially as a go-to place for book valuations. If you find a box of 18th-century Slovenian rarities in your grandma’s attic, these are the guys you should probably see to get them appraised.

Trubarjev Antikvariat

Primož Trubar founded Slovenian culture in 1550 when he brought out our first two books, a primer and a catechism. “Trubar’s Antiquarian Bookstore” was founded long after his death, and as far as I know there is no special connection between the man and the bookstore. However, Trubar’s is the oldest in Ljubljana, it was indeed the only one until competition started increasing in the 1980s, and it might just be the best-known. Whether you like it or not, it’s also the most commercial nowadays, after having been taken over by the publishing giant Mladinska knjiga a decade ago. At least this means the store is buffered, to a large extent, against the vagaries of the second-hand book market. For decades, Trubarjev antikvariat was run by Ms Stanka Golob, a friendly old lady who could probably serve as the personification of Slovenian bookselling. She officially retired several years ago, but she’s still around at the bookstore on most days, so you’ll get to see her with a bit of luck.

A scene from Trubar’s Bookstore in the 1970s, when it had no competition in Ljubljana. A magazine article at the time claimed that Slovenia had “5 or 6 bibliophiles,” with the only serious customers for antiquarian books being libraries. Thankfully, times can also change for the better.

Trubar’s is located right in the city centre, in a 17th century building opposite the city hall. The store itself isn’t very big, but it manages to offer a fairly decent selection of literature and the humanities, mostly in Slovenian but a lot of it in English and German as well. Before entering, it pays to check out the one-euro selection in front of the door; oftentimes the shelf will be stacked will real gems, and there isn’t a European language that isn’t represented there. As for the rare books inside the shop, Trubar’s tends to save up all the really cool ones for the auctions, but whatever isn’t sold at auction is offered for a fixed price afterwards and displayed in the shop window – yours truly’s favourite spot for window-shopping in Ljubljana. On rare occasions, Trubar’s also hold outdoor sales in their building’s courtyard; even if this isn’t the case during your visit, it still pays to take a peek into the cute sunlit space.

Antikvariat Glavan

Trubar’s bookstore is located in the oldest part of town and named after a 16th century writer; Glavan’s is named after its still-living founder and located in an underground passage in Ljubljana’s central shopping mall, the Maximarket. Rok Glavan used to be an apprentice at Trubar’s, but then he broke off and founded his own store in the early 2000s. As part of his modern-bookseller image, he also ran a blog for some time, the only blog by a Slovenian bookseller that I am aware of. Unfortunately, the readership apparently wasn’t too big, and the blog stopped updating several years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever get any company in the Slovenian antiquarian-book blogosphere.

If Trubar’s bookstore is small, Glavan’s is positively tiny, just a few bookcases displaying the cream of what he has to offer, with everything else packed in the warehouse. As a consequence, he often participates in fairs abroad, and he takes online sales rather seriously as well. The regular-priced books can be bought online (though perhaps no great bargains there), while just like at Trubar’s, there is a small one-euro bookcase in front of Glavan’s brick-and-mortar store, where your blogger has found some enviable beauties over the years. At the other end of the price range, Glavan’s auctions have a reputation for being fun, not an adjective you’d immediately associate with an auction. Their last one so far was on April 1st, not a joke, though thanks to an unexpected surge in Covid cases, the country briefly went into lockdown again and the auction became their first to be executed online.

As you leave the main hall of Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana’s central cultural venue, you bump directly into Glavan on the way out.

2. Regular second-hand bookstores

What unites all of the following is that they don’t specialize in rare antiquarian items, neither do they hold auctions, but they do offer a wide selection of old and modern books for normal second-hand prices. In a radio interview some years ago, the Croatian rare-book dealer Danijel Glavan (no relation to Rok Glavan, I think) compared the diversity of second-hand bookstores in Zagreb favorably with the “three bookstores” supposedly existing in Slovenia. He could hardly have been more wrong. Ljubljana alone can boast more than half a dozen, and the following ones all have the added perk of being close together in the city center. In order not to repeat myself ad nauseam, let me also state here that all of them have a bargain corner outside the front door, which it always pays to check out.

Cunjak’s bookstores

Bookselling magnate Dušan Cunjak would probably deserve a post of his own, since he’s definitely the biggest outlier in this country’s bookselling world. Other booksellers have one store; he has three second-hand bookstores in Ljubljana, as well as several others in smaller Slovenian towns. The number keeps oscillating, as he keeps being pushed out of one town by debts and rent hikes, just to open a bookstore in another one. I have no idea how he does it, and I hope that one day I’ll learn what his secret was.

Cunjak originally came to Slovenia from Serbia and dabbled in several trades before he entered the book world in the late 1980s. He first opened a publishing house with a surprisingly good taste in modern authors, but it nonetheless went bankrupt in a couple of years. After that, Cunjak became known as the king of street bookselling, eventually amassing enough money and reputation to open a brick-and-mortar store in the late nineties. After ten years or so, he added a second one, and from there on the number increased exponentially. He had four stores in Ljubljana at the peak, but one of them had to close and later reopened under new management as Vodnikov antikvariat (below).

The “original” bookstore, on the bank of the Ljubljanica River, is still with us today. Running several bookstores a few hundred meters apart inevitably leads to some specialization, so this one took up the function of Cunjak’s “budget bookstore,” where everything is generally priced from 1 to 5 euros. It’s still run by the old man himself, in accordance with his personal biorhythm. The store is rarely open before 11 or 12, but it stays open long into the evening. Even in June, it’s not unusual to have to squint at the small type while browsing the books on the tables in front, as the sun quietly sets behind the houses on the other bank of the river.

Cunjak’s store is easily accessible by boat.

Bookstore #2 is located on a parallel street to #1, back-to-back with the first one, so that if I understand the satellite image correctly, they share a central courtyard and presumably also own a common storage space. I like to think that Cunjak got his inspiration from Foucault’s Pendulum, where Garamond the publisher clandestinely runs two different publishing houses, a respectable one and a vanity press, with different entrances from parallel streets and the two businesses connected by a “secret” corridor. Be that as it may, Cunjak’s “regular-price” bookstore shares quite a few features with its twin brother, not least among them being erratic opening times. Very erratic. I remember some years ago I happened to spend New Year’s Eve in the center of town, and around 10 PM, I strolled down past Cunjak’s bookstore. Amazingly, the lights were on, there were people inside, and there was a sheet of paper pasted over the opening hours on the front door. Written on it: “We will work until we die!”

The last of Cunjak’s three Ljubljana bookstores is the only store in town that specializes in a foreign language; in this case, Cunjak’s native Serbo-Croatian. During the 70-or-so years of Yugoslavia’s existence, Serbo-Croatian was the first foreign language taught in schools, which means that it was also the language of choice for reading books which were not available in Slovenian. Even more books were brought into the country by the many Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian immigrants who arrived to Slovenia.

In the independence year of 1991, Serbo-Croatian was kicked out of schools, the demand for these books suddenly collapsed, and you could build yourself a fine library for a pittance. I don’t think the interest in Serbo-Croatian literature ever really rebounded. The problem is that immigrants tend to cluster into two groups: the ones who integrate so well that they drop their native tongue along the way, and the ones who don’t really read a lot of books in the first place… Cunjak, however, seems to believe there is still a market for these books. The name of the bookstore is “Slovenian-Serbian Club,” envisaged by the owner as a space for cultural events as well as bookselling, though I’m not sure if much ever came out of this.

Antikvariat Alef and Bukvarna Antika

If “Alef” bookstore ever changes its name to “Bet,” these two could market themselves with the convenient acronym ABBA. It’s common for bookstores to be located close to one another, to attract more customers as a group, but this pair is indeed like Siamese twins. The two of them occasionally even advertise themselves together, as a sort of union bookstore, hoping to gain more customers from the synergy. From the bank of the Ljubljanica, a few minutes’ walk from Cunjak, you enter a narrow corridor, climb a few stairs, and on each side you have the door to one of the bookstores.

A poster at the bottom of the steps that lead to both bookstores. “Bookshop Quarter” might be overselling it a bit, but it would be awesome if these two stores became the nucleus of a Slovenian version of the bouquinistes.

Both are equally small, just a single room flooded with books, though Alef has subdivided this small space into two even smaller ones. Apart from this spatial symmetry-breaking, there is also a temporal one: Antika is very often closed, for reasons which I am not quite aware of. In the first draft of this post, I even suggested that it went out of business due to Covid, but then after a few sightings of the store being open, I have updated the post accordingly. Both stores have a very fine humanities section – I often found modern editions here which all the other stores claimed to be unprocurable –  and huge carts with bargain books that are placed on the river bank outside on sunny days. The inside of both stores is fairly dark, but well-ordered. Indeed, if I had to make a pick, I’d probably choose Alef for the title of Ljubljana’s cutest second-hand bookstore.

Vodnikov antikvariat

As far as I know, Vodnik’s Bookstore is the latest newcomer to Ljubljana’s second-hand-book market. Apparently, the store in question had been destined by Fate to sell books, but who should be doing the bookselling, and how, remains contentious. First the store was one of the nodes of Cunjak’s bookselling empire (see above), then it functioned for some time as the “Little Prince” bookstore, specializing in second-hand children’s books, and presently it bears the name of Valentin Vodnik. In this case, the choice of name is kind of obvious. The store is located on Vodnik Square, right next to Vodnik’s statue (and a minute away from the Vodnik Hall restaurant). Vodnik wrote the first Slovenian poetry, as well as the first cookbook, so he’s kind of an obvious candidate to name these places after.

The bookstore in question probably enjoys the best location in town, right next to the central market and opposite the cathedral. Inside, it’s relatively spacious and airy, a curious contrast with all the other, mostly cramped and overflowing, bookstores; I wonder how it will look like after 10 more years of book acquisitions, though. They also do a small side business in remaindered books. There used to be one more bookstore which dealt with remainders, but they went out of business and now I think Vodnik’s is the only one of its kind in Ljubljana.

Unlike some of the other bookstores, Vodnik’s is really hard to miss.

The flea market at Breg

There are two flea markets (Slovenian: bolšji sejem or bolšjak) in Ljubljana. One is well-known, located in the center of town, and caters to a large extent to tourists. The other one is less known; situated on a plot on the outskirts of town, near the highway, you’re unlikely to happen upon it by chance. The latter, working-class one, is arguably more fun, or at least a more interesting tourist experience. However, I will discuss it in the next section, so for now let’s talk about about the market which takes place every Sunday morning at Breg, along the bank of Ljubljanica.

Before Covid arrived, one could quickly walk down along the river bank on Sunday morning and stop at only one or two stands, or none, that caught one’s interest. Nowadays, the system is sneakier. To be able to record the number of daily visitors, the organizers cordoned off the long row of stalls from the rest of the pedestrian zone, and set up an entry point where a security guard looms over a bottle of hand disinfectant. The indirect consequence was that now one has to move across slowly and cast at least a few glances at every stall along the line. Not so great for visitors in a hurry, but at least the new system helped me to overcome an old misconception: that the central flea market was expensive.

The dividing line between normal people and collectors has become literal along the Ljubljanica river.

There are all sorts of sellers, some with an emphasis on modern books, others selling antiquarian material and ephemera, and still others specializing further into areas such as military history. A common trait is that almost nobody sells only books. I trust that my readers enjoy looking at different other kinds of historical objects, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem; there are plenty of old stamps, banknotes, postcards, posters, old newspapers, and other prints and paper objects. Apart from the eclecticism of the seller’s stock, going to a flea market has one more benefit: it’s the only place in Ljubljana where one can buy books on a Sunday.

There are very few books about the history of book collecting and bookselling in Slovenia, so I will use the opportunity here to recommend one of them to my Slovenian-speaking readers. Stories from the Flea Market (Slovenian: Zgodbe z bolšjaka) is a collection of tales by Ciril Ulčar, one of the pioneers of flea marketeering in Slovenia. Just like the flea market itself, the stories are all over the place, yet this is their asset: Ulčar’s book reads like an FAQ about the flea market. The profiles of sellers and buyers, cases of theft and fraud, how and where to acquire your merchandise, stories of treasures that slipped away…it’s all in there. A few of the stories, where Ulčar talks about valuable books and historical documents that he saved from the trash, are especially close to the subject matter of this blog. I’ll probably come back to Stories from the Flea Market in future posts.

Unsurprisingly, Ulčar’s book is sold out and heavily sought after among collectors.

3. Bargain Spots

Some booklovers prefer to do their deals at auctions and via their personal book scouts; others enjoy snooping around piles of dusty bargains, hoping to strike gold. I humbly confess to being much closer to the latter group, so I’m glad that Ljubljana has a bunch of places where one can indulge in this kind of snooping. Some of the following are bona fide charities and some aren’t, but apart from the flea market, they can all be classified as non-profits.

Center ponovne uporabe

The Center for Reuse (CPU) was founded by the municipal trash collecting company (“Snaga”) as part of their drive to minimize the amount of trash that ended up in a landfill, or had to be recycled. The company organizes collection of bulky waste (Slovenian: kosovni odvoz), which can be ordered by citizens twice a year; you pile the trash onto the pavement and Snaga comes in the morning and picks it up. The idea behind CPU was to select objects from these trash piles, such as furniture, clothes, and of course, books, repair them if necessary, and offer them for sale at the store. The financial aspect of the operation was less important than its impact on trash reduction.

Unfortunately, things have gone downhill since then. CPU used to have a really great policy where they would first offer books at fixed prices (mostly one euro per book), the unsold ones were moved to a large pile where they were sold for one euro per kilo, and the ones that still wouldn’t sell would then eventually be moved to a little free library outside the front door. This way, almost every book ended up finding an owner. Recently, they scrapped all this and switched to a different policy. Books are offered for sale on the shelves for a few months…and then the shelves are swept clean and all the books are trashed and replaced with new ones. While this might be “better” in a financial sense, it is completely against the stated purpose of CPU to reduce waste. I’ve asked the shopkeepers a bunch of times to move back to the old system or at least stop trashing the unsold books, but so far all I’ve gotten in response is a bunch of shrugs and mumbles. I know people often donate books directly to the CPU – note that this might not be in the best interest of the books’ long-term survival…

It’s a shame because otherwise the CPU looks really cool – when it comes to Ljubljana’s second-hand bookstores, they could probably receive the “Hipster’s Choice” award. All the furniture, doors, and decorative objects had come from the trash, and many of them were repainted and redecorated by in-house artisans. One of the rooms inside is dedicated entirely to books; especially commendable is the English section, from which I’ve picked up a hefty pile of paperbacks over the years.

The CPU was designed so that you could not just shop for books, but also read one or two along the way.

The CPU is about 15 minutes’ walk away from the center, next to one of Snaga’s trash-sorting facilities and a stone’s throw from the Ljubljanica. (Why are so many of these places located next to the river?) After the one in Ljubljana became successful, other CPU’s opened in various other towns in Slovenia, so keep that in mind when travelling across the country.

Stara roba nova raba

“Old stuff new use” is a shop run by the Kings of the Street (Slovenian: Kralji ulice) association, which gives homeless people jobs to help them get back on their feet. Their most famous project, which most people know them by, is the Kralji ulice magazine; you’ll often see homeless people around town offering this one-euro publication on street corners. The second-hand store is a less-known side project of theirs. About a third of the shop is given over to books which people donate to them, the rest are clothes and decorative objects.

As this is charity shop, I’m including it in the present section, although the prices are perfectly “normal,” with the exception of the one-euro boxes next to the door. I’ll be honest and admit that this is probably the least impressive second-hand bookstore in Ljubljana. However, it’s close to the city center, almost next to the Ljubljanica (again!), and perfectly worth checking out.

The flea market at Cesta dveh cesarjev

The flea market at Breg, mentioned above, is the sort of flea market you could easily find in Germany, or Norway, or Japan, or anyplace in the West. Just like all the bookstores I have been talking about so far, the flea market in the center of Ljubljana is nice and tidy. Travel down to Cesta dveh cesarjev at the outskirts of town, however, and you’ll find yourself transported to the heart of the Balkans. A gravel plot tucked between the central waste-processing plant and the used-car fair – the place feels like a Gypsy camp from an old movie. Much more than antiques is on offer here: old appliances, car parts, toys, clothes, and any other second-hand material that can still hope to find a buyer. A lot of the merchandise comes from the trash, especially from the piles of bulky waste that people leave for Snaga to collect (see above). As an occasional dumpster diver, I of course heartily approve.

They always say that you should visit flea markets early in the morning. In this case, the old wisdom holds double: the best items from Cesta dveh cesarjev are often bought up early on Sunday to be resold later in the day at the flea market at Breg. Your correspondent is lazy and likes to sleep in the morning, but coming just before closing time also has its perks, since many sellers will reduce their prices then.

Ever get annoyed that you can’t shop for books and bicycle tires at the same store? Here’s the solution!

The prices, of course, tend to be appropriate for the setting, one or two euros usually. On average, about a dozen sellers offer books as well, some of them really unimpressive, but with gems strewn around every now and then. The plot isn’t very large, and you probably won’t spend all morning there, but in case you get hungry, there is a makeshift hamburger stand in the center to keep visitors happy.

Ironically, the flea market site can be a bit hard to find, even though the entire area is a flat treeless plain. Even more ironically, alone among the bookselling spots discussed in this post, Ljubljana’s second flea market charges an entrance fee (one euro). Think of it as not just another bookselling spot, though, but as a unique tourist experience. From the entrance booth, as you are being handed your ticket, you can already hear the blaring of radios and the cries of some particularly energetic sellers. If I tried to personify the flea market at Cesta dveh cesarjev, I probably couldn’t do any better that the toothless old regular next to the fence who likes to yell his motto towards potential customers: “ooooooold stuff…beeeeeest stuff!”

A line in front of the kiosk for flea market tickets. Online, the market is almost invisible – many people in Ljubljana have never heard of it – yet on sunny days it manages to draw quite a crowd.

The City Library

The present post wouldn’t be quite complete without mentioning Ljubljana’s City Library (Mestna knjižnica Ljubljana), which also runs a tiny side business selling discarded and donated books. The books that the library doesn’t want are mostly donated to the public during a few special occasions each year (for which the librarians deserve some hearty praise), but a few are hand-picked and offered for sale in bookcases close to the entrance. I sometimes feel that the library isn’t trying very hard to maximize sales; unsellable books often languish on the shelves for years, whereas many fairly attractive donated titles seem to be sent directly to the giveaway pile.

For the books themselves, this is a relief, though. The library has an unsavory tradition of putting the prices on colorful stickers which are glued onto the half-titles of the books. If you’re buying a reading copy, fine, but I shudder to think of all the times I have painstakingly tried to remove stickers from otherwise intact rare volumes and signed first editions… The City Library has over a dozen subsidiaries, but only five of them deal in second-hand books: Knjižnica Otona Župančiča (KOŽ), Knjižnica Bežigrad, Knjižnica Prežihov Voranc, Knjižnica Jožeta Mazovca and Knjižnica Šiška. The prices can vary, but most of the books cost less than four euros, and one euro is the most common price.


Even now, I haven’t quite exhausted all the venues for second-hand book buying in Ljubljana. A few ordinary bookstores have second-hand-book corners, there is a regular open-air “garage sale” in the Tabor district where books are also offered, and occasionally booksellers’ stands might pop up outside of the two flea markets. Of course, there is also a large online bookselling world, to the chagrin of all the brick-and-mortar sellers out there. A few “bookstores” operate entirely from cyberspace, including rare-book-specialists and friends-of-the-blog Maks Viktor. There are several bustling bookselling groups on Facebook, as well as an almost inexhaustible supply of books on Bolha, the Slovenian version of eBay. When looking for a specific Slovenian title, Bolha is definitely one of the places you should check.

A common complaint I used to hear from foreign visitors in Ljubljana was that it didn’t take long to see everything; one or two days, and the city was “done.” Now, admittedly, the average tourist isn’t much of a book hunter. But if you are, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Leaving aside all the museums, galleries, and historic libraries, just checking out the above book-buying spots can easily take a few days. And if you do happen to “do” Ljubljana, make a trip to Maribor and check out Bukvarna Ciproš. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Names and locations

Ljubljana is small, so if you just randomly walk around and keep your eyes open, you’ll probably find most of the above spots on your own. Some of them are harder to locate, though. Here are the addresses.

  • Trubarjev Antikvariat: Mestni trg 25
  • Antikvariat Glavan: Trg republike 2 (underground passage)
  • Antikvariat Cunjak (#1): Gallusovo nabrežje 21
  • Antikvariat Cunjak (#2): Stari trg 22
  • Slovensko-srbski klub (Cunjak #3): Trubarjeva cesta 19
  • Vodnikov antikvariat: Ciril-Metodov trg 15
  • Antikvariat Alef: Hribarjevo nabrežje 13
  • Bukvarna Antika: Hribarjevo nabrežje 13
  • Center ponovne uporabe: Povšetova ulica 4
  • Stara roba nova raba: Poljanska cesta 14
  • Flea Market (centre of Ljubljana): Breg
  • Flea Market (Cesta dveh cesarjev): 46.0623° N, 14.4741° E


To Break a Book: Bibliophiles as Book Enemies

On Facebook, I recently came across a book that I never expected to see for sale outside of an auction or a fancy rare-book dealer. The book in question was one of the four volumes of the first edition of The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, printed in 1689. The book’s author, Janez Vajkard (German spelling: Johann Weikhart) Valvasor, used to gaze at Slovenians from the 20-tolar banknote; nowadays we have the euro, but a bunch of places across Slovenia, ranging from libraries to restaurants and mountain cabins, continue to carry his name. It makes sense: Glory is an unprecedented magnum opus that summarized just about everything there was to know about the Slovenian heartland province of Carniola. A full set of the recent Slovenian translation will cost you several thousand euros, as will a well-preserved set of the 19th-century reprint. However, the seller of this first-edition volume admitted quite candidly that he wasn’t sure if his book was worth anything at all.

Where’s the catch? It’s true that the binding was almost gone, but that’s what we have bookbinders for. Even a rebound copy of a rare book can still be worth a lot of money. The real problem was that the book was extremely incomplete. Not only were all the fold-out panoramas and maps missing from it, but a bunch of pages with text were gone as well, so that you couldn’t even really call it a reading copy anymore. The title page was present, and you could still use the book to boast that you have a Valvasor first edition at home. However, for most bibliophiles, having such a miserable gutted volume on the shelf would simply be…sad.

Even at this poor level of preservation, the title page of Valvasor’s book looks fairly impressive.

So, how did this happen? Sometimes kids will play around with books and cut interesting pictures from them, or very unscrupulous adults will cut an entire page out to save time on making notes. In this case, though, there is no need for such an implausible explanation. The answer is quite simple: somebody cut out all the maps and the pages with illustrations in order to sell them separately to collectors. Even though the remaining book is almost worthless, selling the illustrations separately probably brought in more money than a complete book would have fetched. In most cases, destroying books is obviously a waste of money, but in this particular case, book destruction is literally a for-profit activity.

Most people who haven’t ventured far into book collecting, or who focus on modern editions, are barely aware that antiquarian bookstores often offer a selection of old maps apart from the books themselves. Nowadays, maps tend to be printed as separate objects, if they’re printed on paper at all. During the 20th century, if large maps or similar illustrations were included in books, they were usually tucked in at the back and could be removed without damaging the book itself. By contrast, early modern books usually had their maps bound inside, and it was less common for a map to be printed and sold separately. This means that most old prints which you see at rare book stores had once been cut out of a rare book.

Returning to the example of Valvasor, you can find a bunch of ads for his works online. Mostly, these aren’t ads for entire books, but for individual pages from them. This is quite logical: a single book has hundreds of illustrations, and when somebody cuts a book up, this will results in hundreds of online listings. So the question now is, who is buying all this? Do people genuinely think that these images were originally printed separately? Or, more likely, do they push moral quandaries aside when presented with the opportunity to own a (literal) fragment of history for a very accessible price?

Valvasor’s panorama of Ljubljana is especially sought after, since it’s by far the most detailed depiction of the town from before the 1800s.

1. The Arguments

The practice of cutting out illustrations from old volumes is called “breaking up” books, and it’s probably clear by now just how much I am against it. However, let’s start with the arguments in favour of this practice. Probably the main argument is that it allows ordinary people to own a piece of history that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. An entire Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the world’s most famous incunabula, costs as much as a small apartment. A single page from the book, however, might be had for 30 euros. Wouldn’t it be something to get a 15th century print under your Christmas tree?

To this, my answer is: there are already perfectly enough old books for everyone out there! (Even if you’re not rich!) Assuming you merely wish to own a historical artefact, you can easily find books from the early 1800s for a few euros apiece, or a 17th century book (without missing pages, of course) for perhaps 50 euros. Even incunabula aren’t that expensive, with some of them being sold for less than 1000 euros. People overestimate how expensive old books are. Yes, collecting Renaissance-era books is not cheap, because given that you are a collector, you will presumably want to buy more than just a couple of them. However, there are relatively few people out there who couldn’t afford to buy even a single rare book at some point in their life, if they wanted to.

(Also, there are already tons of broken-up books around the world. Even if you specifically want to own an image that used to be part of an old book, there is no need to continue breaking up books for this.)

The other argument is that if a book is already in poor condition, breaking it up can improve the condition of its parts. Imagine you have a book which is for some reason already missing a few maps, or perhaps the last page. You can either have an obviously incomplete copy, or break it up and thus acquire several “complete” maps and illustrations.  

My answer to this is that the less a book is mutilated, the easier it is to find the missing parts and fix it. In this sense, think of a book as the equivalent of a vintage car. Assuming a book is not very rare, it’s still plausible to hope to find one missing part, but once you’re lost 100 small parts, you’re increased the entropy so much that it’s just not possible anymore to bring them all back together in anyone’s lifetime. And if a book is very rare to begin with, then you definitely shouldn’t be cutting it up and scattering the parts against the winds!

Indeed, my main argument is that breaking up books irretrievably destroys their historical meaning and context. A rare book is an object with a story and a provenance; almost every book from before the 18th century has a signature somewhere, which can often be traced to some historical personality. There are also marginalia, notes, stamps from long-gone libraries, and sometimes entire essays about someone’s life, written at the back of a book, from back when paper was expensive and hard to come by. An illustration that is removed from such a book will have its history erased, becoming just another identical copy on the market. Technically, nothing is destroyed by cutting up a book into pieces, but the rump that stays behind will be shunned by most collectors, and is at considerable risk of eventually landing in the trash.

Anyway, all of these arguments were more or less based on the assumption that the books in question are not so well preserved, and not so very rare, either. Oftentimes, the people who break up books cannot even cling to such flimsy excuses.

2. Book Breaking in Practice

In William Blades’ classic work The Enemies of Books, he lists the eponymous enemies in order from least to most conscious of what they are doing. We begin with fire and water, move on to worms, then rats, little children, and up to ignorant owners. Close to the end of the list are bookbinders – never missing a chance to trim the margins of a rare book – and after them come…collectors. Apparently, each booklover has their own interpretation of what it means to love books, and in some cases, the love in question might be a very deadly one.

The patron saint of perverted booklovers is John Bagford, an 18th-century antiquarian who set it upon himself to compile a history of printing. With this in mind, he travelled across Britain, visiting libraries and bringing home a few title pages of old books from each visit, having torn them out as souvenirs. He then glued these pages into special scrapbooks, which might have served a modest educational purpose back when it wasn’t yet possible to photograph books or print reproductions from them. Nowadays, however, the scrapbooks merely serve as a testament to the author’s barbarity. I have no idea how Bagford pulled this off, given that even then, I imagine librarians weren’t exactly indifferent to people tearing out pages from library books. Perhaps Bagford was helped in his enterprise by having been one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries. I imagine him as the Society’s equivalent of Salazar Slytherin – one whose dark influence still continues today.

There are no surviving full copies left of the tenth edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but there remains a piece of a title page, which John Bagford cut out and pasted into one of his scrapbooks. Er…thanks?

If William Blades’ was the Victorian era’s foremost advocate of the book, this torch has now passed to Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes is known primarily as a chronicler of the world of book auctions and loaded collectors, which he has described in A Gentle Madness. However, he is a passionate defender of both the valuable and the more “plebeian” sort of old books against all kinds of enemies. In his immensely readable book A Splendor of Letters, he raises his voice against modern-day biblioclasts, and so it’s from Basbanes’ book that I have lifted two stories of egregious abuses.

During his book-cutting spree, John Bagford seems to have been fairly indiscriminate in choice of victims. The latter-day Bagfords, by contrast, all seem to be after the same prey. A highly desired prey are the Birds of America, the ornithologist J. J. Audobon’s 1830s magnum opus which is considered to be one of the most beautiful books of all time. It’s also one of the most valuable, but that doesn’t prevent people from making even more money by breaking the book up. In the early 2000s, an intact four-volume set would cost you nearly 10 million dollars, while each of the 435 individual plates went for $3,000 to $150,000 – adding up to more than 10 million, of course.

Basbanes also presents some even more shocking numbers. At the time of his writing, about 125 of the original 200 sets were known to be preserved intact. This suggests that around 75 sets had already been broken up (books this valuable will seldom just disappear from the record). However, only around 15 complete copies were known to reside outside of institutions at that time. Assuming that libraries don’t cut up their books, this would imply that 4 out of 5 copies outside of an institution had already been broken up! You’d think a book as elite as Birds of America would be unlikely to ever come to grief – in reality, a Bible is safer at a Satanist meeting than Audobon’s book is in the hands of a book dealer.

There are no elephants in Birds of America, but the format of the book isn’t called “elephant folio” for nothing.

At least there will always be a few complete copies of Birds of America somewhere, residing in a library if perhaps not with a private collector. The same cannot be said anymore for the Shahnameh, one of the most beautiful Persian manuscripts of all time. The “Book of Kings” was written by the poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century and copied in several lavish manuscripts before printing (re)arrived to Persia in the 17th century. Perhaps the most famous is the volume produced in the 1500s for king Tahmāsp I, which is nowadays known as the “Houghton Shahnameh.” Basbanes compares this unfortunate moniker to the Parthenon marbles having been named after lord Elgin, who had them dismantled and shipped them off to Britain. Perhaps it would be a better comparison to say that calling it the “Houghton Shahnameh” is kind of like if we referred to the former Temple of Arthemis at Ephesus as “Herostratus’ Temple.”

As it happens, Houghton was the last in a long line of illustrious owners of the Shahnameh. He acquired the book in 1959, by which time his reputation as a rich collector and donator to major institutions had already been established. He bought the Shahnameh at an auction and loaned it out to Harvard University, with the understanding that their library would produce a facsimile edition, and with the unspoken implication that Houghton might end up turning the loan into a donation.

What happened next is rather confusing. Apparently, Harvard made very little progress with the facsimile edition, and in the meantime the IRS began to investigate Houghton’s practise of donating rare books to major libraries – since this resulted in tax breaks, and the amount of tax reduction was usually based on Houghton’s own generous valuation of the donated books, his donations tended to effect his overall financial status quite favourably. Frustrated with both of these setbacks, Houghton withdrew the Shahnameh from Harvard and did what Basbanes interprets as a “let me show you what my books are really worth” gesture: he broke it up into individual plates and first donated part of them to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The museum had not expected this at all, so regardless of what they might have thought about Houghton’s decision, they didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

At that point, there was still hope that the leaves of the Shahnameh might remain together, but Houghton quickly dashed these hopes by putting a few of the leaves up for auction. They fetched very high prices, which Houghton gladly used as a retroactive justification of the tax break he had got for the donation to the Met. Finally, the remaining plates were offered to the new Iranian Islamic government, which was eager to have at least part of a national treasure repatriated, and gladly traded them for a piece of modern art which used to belong to the recently deposed Shah.

Sometime after all of this transpired, Harvard finally shook itself out of its slumber and brought out a luxurious facsimile edition of the “Houghton Shahnameh.” By then, the facsimile was uniquely valuable, since it represented a book which did not exist anymore, at least not as a single object. In order not to anger their almost-donator, the compilers of the introduction carefully sidestepped the issue of the book’s destruction. Despite its technical proficiency and detailed scholarship, this gives the book a rather Soviet tinge – one of those self-censored texts that only make sense if one reads them between the lines.

Priced at $2000 (in 1981 dollars!), the facsimile edition of “The Houghton Shahnameh” was almost as inaccesible as the original.

In the first story I’ve presented, individual leaves were removed from books; in the second story, dozens of leaves at once; in the third one, all the leaves. The logical conclusion would be to go even further and cut up even individual leaves into pieces. Needless to say, this too has been done. A British handbag manufacturer offers special, £2500-apiece products which distinguish themselves from ordinary handbags by containing a small piece of an original letter by Charles Dickens. I’ve heard of some crazy shit, but this one left even me stunned.

In this case, nobody can even pretend anymore that there is some kind of interest to collectors being served. The closest analogy I can think of are the relics of saints that were such a prominent feature of medieval Catholicism. The bones of a saint were broken up and scattered across European churches to help the saints with interceding in their supplicants’ lives. What is Dickens protecting his wearers against? Writer’s block?

At least the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations was a peaceful soul and probably wouldn’t bother to haunt whoever happens to wear the remains of his manuscripts. The same company also produces handbags containing vandalized bits of handwriting by Queen Victoria and by King Frederick William III of Prussia, among others. As I recall, Prussian monarchs were never exactly famous for their ability to remain indifferent to insults…

Anyway, whoever ends up compiling the next edition of Dickens’ collected works might encounter some awkward moments when they’ll have to update the present locations of our writer’s manuscripts. We’re all used to reading that a certain historically important document was “lost during WWII” or “destroyed in a fire,” but how exactly do you phrase that a manuscript has been cut up and turned into handbags?

Original handwriting by Charles Dickens from the year 1857“…the way they phrased it, it almost sounds like Dickens scribbled a few words onto a piece of paper specifically for this handbag. I wonder if the average buyer thinks this as well?


Given how few people seem to be opposed to “book art,” which involves cutting up perfectly good old books and turning them into collages and statues (compared to which John Bagford’s title-page-scrapbooks seem positively benign), I have little hope that book-breaking will become any less popular during our lifetimes. If anything, it might become even commoner. Increasingly few people seem to be interested in collecting books, just as fewer and fewer still read them (at least on paper); on the other hand, the market for art doesn’t seem to be in any danger of decline. The combination of these two trends might lead increasingly more people to “liberate” works of art from their book-prison, hang them up on a wall, and discard the useless books themselves…

For more conscientious booklovers, the question remains, what to do with the cut-outs already in our possession? This is the same problem faced by collectors of archaeological material: you can have it displayed in your living room, but then you need to constantly explain that no, these swords weren’t dug up illegally, or looted from some museum, they had been in your family for generations… Anyway, my suggestion is to keep displaying these maps and foldouts (if perhaps in some corner which encounters fewer visitors). After all, you’re honouring the illustrators, mapmakers, and printers, not the people who cut these books up. At the same time, however, do exercise caution when buying cut-out material. Make sure not to feed the wolves.


Inside the Dark Library: A Review of Book Tombs by Erik W. Steinhauer

Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.

Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.

Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.

He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.

Human bones could also be present in libraries as a memento mori; St. Jerome is usually depicted in his study with a skull nearby, such as in this painiting by Jan Massys.

Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.

One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.

If it weren’t for the Egyptians, we wouldn’t have the Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis. The only extant book in the Etruscan language, written on cloth, was reused at some point as mummy wrappings.

Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.

In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.

He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.

Deaccessioning in action at the Humboldt University Library in Berlin.

Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.

If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.

It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.

Rag paper looks and feels much better than paper made of wood, but its beauty was paid for with the health of paper-mill workers. This makes it particularly ironic that one of the oldest books in my collection is a treatise on lung disease.

This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.


The Most Amazing Books People Found in a Dumpster

I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.

I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.

Pictured: The 99%.

If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:

1. Tartars in the Library

To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.

Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.

It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.

The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.

Left: title page of Chorographia Tartariae. Right: coat of arms of the Khisl family and the dedication to Hans Jakob and Karl Khisl.

The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.

The entrance to Fužine castle. Above the portal is the Khisls’ coat of arms.

The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.

Megiser look as angry as you’d expect from someone whose books are getting trashed.

In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.

This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.

2. 1812 All Over Again

There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.

Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.

Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.

Left: the inscription on the book’s inner flyleaf. Right: title page of the book in question, On Wisdom by Pierre Charron.

He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.

This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.

Jefferson as a pensioner in 1821. He probably never had more time to read in his life – the biggest distraction were all the tourists who had already started flocking to his Monticello home.

The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.

As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.

Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.

Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case.  When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.

3. What does Montaigne know?

Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”

Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.

One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.

The inside of Dali’s ilustrated version of Montaigne’s Essays.

Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.

The dumpster from which Dali’s Montaigne was rescued.

For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.

4. Accio Rare Book!

The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.

The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.

This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…

The battered first edition of Harry Potter recovered from the trash (center), along with two other early Harry Potter editions.

The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.

About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.

The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.


When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.

I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.

At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!


“I Can’t Believe You Still Have That Book in Stock!”

There are two kinds of bookstores in the world: regular ones, and second-hand bookstores. Each of these has its own aesthetic, its own special smell, its own type of bookseller, and, to a large extent, its own clientele. When you are searching for a book, you will easily know which of the two kinds of bookstore to visit. If the book came out in the last 5-10 years or so, you will go to a regular bookstore; otherwise, it’ll be the second-hand one. There are some businesses that dabble in both, especially if they combine second-hand books with remaindered ones, but these stores are rare enough for the binary division to remain valid. After a certain period of time, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, a book will not be sold by regular bookstores anymore. This was not always so.

In this particular case, an obscure and seemingly unrelated legal decision is to blame for massive changes that occurred in the bookselling world. In Thor Power Tool Co. v. Commissioner in 1979, the US Supreme Court ruled that a business is only allowed to depreciate its inventory for tax purposes if it proceeds to actually offer the goods for a reduced price. In more accessible English, this means that if a publisher continues to sell a book at the initial price, they must also pay a correspondingly high tax for each year that they keep the book in storage.

Previously, the publishers had been able to reduce the accounting value of unsold books, and hence the tax they paid, every year, simply due to the fact that with each subsequent year, the remaining books in storage were less likely to sell. After 1979, all this changed and it suddenly became unprofitable to store books for more than a couple of years after they were published. Huge amounts of books suddenly found themselves remaindered, or more likely, pulped, soon after release. Knowingly or not, the US Supreme Court thus managed to destroy more books than did many of the great tyrants of history.

Of course, the world isn’t just America. However, the Justices’ decision affected every bookseller who imported books from the USA and who would suddenly find the previous decade’s titles unprocurable. More importantly, other countries passed similar regulations over the years, increasing the taxes that publishers had to pay for unsold stock. During the course of the 20th century, it thus became increasingly less common to find old books still in stock with the publisher.

The Guinness Book of Records includes the record for “slowest-selling book”, which is currently held by the 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins, published by the Oxford University Press. The book remained in stock for 191 years, with the last copy eventually being sold in 1907. It is easy to understand why this particular record hasn’t been broken in over a century. By the time the daring publisher were finally presented with a Guinness Record certificate for their slow-selling book title, the publisher in question would have paid dozens of times the retail value of the books just in taxes.

Title page of David Wilkins’ 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic to Latin.

Fortunately, some countries are friendlier towards publishers. However, even when taxes on unsold books are low, storage costs mean that publishers need to pay for each extra year that they keep an old title in stock. As a consequence, you will tend to still find very old titles in stock mostly at government-owned institutions which have their own – free – warehouses. Let’s have a look at some of the oldest titles still in stock with publishers from Slovenia and the nearby area.

The Slovenska Matica publishing house is one of the country’s largest academic publishers and the second oldest publisher in Slovenia – indeed, it’s the oldest one to still occupy the same headquarters, and never to change its name. Fittingly, Slovenska Matica is also known for never letting go of its stock. Apart from new titles, they also regularly offer unsold books from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s at book fairs at reduced prices. At the time of writing, they still have a special offer of older editions for 2 euros apiece – from this selection, I bought a new copy of Lavo Čermelj’s Between the First and the Second Trieste Tribunal, printed in 1972.

Čermelj’s memoir of the Fascist era devotes considerable attention to the travails of Slovenian-language publishers between both world wars in Italian-occupied western Slovenia. He also describes his personal experience with libricide – he probably holds the Slovenian record for the number of separate occasions on which his books were burned – which means that I’ll probably return to this memoir in one of my coming posts. Slovenian speakers are advised to use the opportunity and check out not just Čermelj, but the entire discounted selection.

Between the First and the Second Trieste Tribunal by Lavo Čermelj.

A few minutes’ walk from Slovenska Matica is the National Museum of Slovenia, which has also been in the publishing business since the 19th century. The oldest title still in the museum store is a 1957 volume in Serbo-Croatian, discussing a set of medieval remains in modern-day Croatia. While I don’t have a copy of this book myself, I do have a copy of the oldest Slovenian-language book still on offer: Brezje by Karl Kromer, brought out in 1959. To be more precise, the book is a bilingual German-Slovenian edition, a catalogue of Iron Age finds from the Slovenian village of Brezje.

Reading the catalogue has a rather melancholy feeling to it, as none of the finds discussed inside are in Slovenia anymore. The excavations took place before WWI, in Austro-Hungarian times, and even though the excavators were Slovenian, the unearthed items quickly found themselves carted off to Vienna, where they reside to the present day. If we can’t behold the ancient helmets in Ljubljana anymore, we can at least check out their depictions in this book; it continues to be available both at the museum shop and by mail order.

Brezje by Karl Kromer.

Older still is the stock at the Technical Museum of Slovenia, an amazing institution that is located within the building of a former monastery in the village of Bistra. The museum was founded in 1951 and began publishing books the following year. Most of the early titles are sold out, but the museum shop still has some copies of Idrija’s “Kamšt”, a 1954 booklet by Albert Struna. The booklet is a short guide to the water supply system which was used to provide power for Idrija’s mercury mines; despite its brevity, it remains the most extensive treatment of the subject so far.

Even though the booklet isn’t technically for sale anymore, I’m including it in the list, as the museum shop still has a few copies set aside for researchers who can’t find the book anywhere else. Unfortunately, they’ve run out entirely of their beautiful 1956 book Vigenjc, illustrating the history of nail production in NW Slovenia. However, I managed to get myself a copy during a visit some years ago, a mere 50 years after the book’s publication.

Left: Idrija’s Kamšt by Albert Struna; right, Vigenjc by Jože Gašperšič.

Slovenians might not like this very much, but this time it’s the Croatian publishers who take the cake. The winner is the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, which still has copies of its 1945 book The Fortress Vučedol in stock. This book itself suffices for a story of its own, albeit more of an archaeological than a bibliophile story. The book discusses the Vučedol culture, which is nowadays recognized as one of the major Copper Age cultures in the Balkans, with some viewing it as an early Indo-European society.

The remains at Vučedol village were first excavated in the late 1930s by a team of German and Yugoslav archaeologists, which of course produced tensions concerning the distribution of the finds. After the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Himmler stepped in and demanded that the most impressive finds, including the famous “Vučedol dove,” be located, packed up, and sent to Germany. Interestingly, the local Croatian fascists managed to get Himmler to change his mind – being the only other country in Europe with its own death camps for Jews, Croatia was a very valuable ally. The local authorities instead mustered funding for a German-language monograph about the investigations at Vučedol, and brought the book out just before liberation in 1945.

Die Burg Vučedol, as the book is titled, is still for sale 75 years after its publication. The price is a relatively hefty 200 HRK, which is about 30 euros. This is a bit much for me, given that the book wouldn’t really be a key element of my collection, but I don’t despair. Sometime in the next 50 years, the museum is bound to have a sale and offer the book for a reduced price – and then I’ll snatch it!

Left: excavations at Vučedol in 1938; right, Die Burg Vučedol by R. R. Schmidt.


I’m a bit indecisive about what the take-home message of today’s post should be. On one hand, I appreciate that the above publishers have kept their books in stock for 50 years and more, and never succumbed to the temptation of emptying their warehouses to make room for new merchandise. Hence, I am rewarding them with the free promotion above. On the other hand, I don’t really want to see all the books that I just mentioned become suddenly sold out. If you’re reading this, and are thinking of buying one of the above-mentioned books, go ahead, but please make sure that it’s not the last copy in stock. If we all exercise some restraint and refrain from buying the last available copies of these books, then maybe, just maybe, one of these Slovenian/Croatian publishers might eventually manage to break David Wilkins’ 191-year record.


A Well-Armed Bibliophile: The Story of Vid Ambrožič

Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.

His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.

To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.

He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.

Ambrožič as a handsome army officer in 1918.

Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.

When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.

The book that turns honest men into thieves: a first edition of Poezije by France Prešeren.

Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.

The paper mill at Vevče in 1933. It is not known whether any of the human figures in the picture represents Ambrožič.

Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.

Bishop Anton Martin Slomšek’s Blaže and Nežica: a rare and coveted book both in Ambrožič’s time and today.

In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.

Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.

Ambrožič as a nerdy policeman in 1935.

Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.

For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.

This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.

The ruins of Mirna castle in 1947.

Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.

Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.


The Books Buried Under the Berlin Wall

When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and communist regimes started falling all over Eastern Europe, one of the targets of people’s anger at communism were books and libraries. The fate of books in post-communist Europe is a large topic and definitely deserves more than one blog post, so in this one I’ll focus on East Germany. For now, let’s just say that communist-era books had it rough pretty much everywhere after the regimes that printed them went down.

1. The Land of Reading

Publishing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a combination of high intellectual standards, government meddling, and technological limitations. As a result of shortages, it is not uncommon to see relatively prestigious books printed on surprisingly low-quality paper, and in some cases the industry resorted to wartime solutions for decades after 1945. An example is a cheap type of paper that was common in Germany during WWII but remained in use in the GDR at least until the 1970s – one side of the paper would yellow much more quickly than the other, so that when you read these books today, one pair of pages is always white and the next pair yellow, and so on, which is quite a strain on the eyes.

Unsurprisingly, books were also a major channel for propagating official ideology. Apart from highly technical publications, most books had a Marxist tint; however, once the editors had paid their lip service to Marxism in the introduction, the remainder of the text was usually of high quality. I recently came across an essay by the New Yorker columnist Richard Brody in which he discusses the lure of book collecting. One of the bibliophile mementoes he singled out was “from my 1983 visit to East Berlin, where I changed more money than was required for entry in order to purchase several orange clothbound Leipzig Teubner classical editions.” He is referring to the GDR’s clever way to acquire foreign currency: every visitor would have to exchange a minimum amount of money into GDR Marks. To spend this money, two types of commodities were a popular choice among Westerners: cameras and books, especially editions of classics, brought out by publishing houses like Teubner and Reclam.

A few GDR editions from my library. From left to right: an older (Marx/Engels) and a newer (Mann) design of Reclam‘s Universal Library series; a book from Volk und Welt‘s Spektrum series (Dürrenmatt) and a volume of Aufbau Verlag‘s Library of World Literature (Goethe).

These same books were of course also much-read in their land of origin. In a country where travel was limited and many luxuries expensive, books served both as a popular pastime and as a substitute for visiting foreign lands in person. The state did its part and supported reading by instituting a very wide net of libraries which were free for everyone. At the same time, books were often the first medium through which sensitive topics like homosexuality, abortion, or envy of the Western lifestyle, were breached and discussed in public. Because the authorities sometimes did an about-face and banned a controversial book after it had already been published, it was common for such books to be grabbed up immediately after release, just in case. A commonly used phrase was that the GDR is a “Leseland”, a “land of reading.”

2. The Cemetery of Unwanted Books

Fast forward to 1993, when the New York Times published a long article about East German literature’s status within the unified country, titled “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” This summarizes well the radical change that occurred as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. After forty years of being denied bananas, jeans and Volkswagens, East Germans craved for everything Western and tried to shed everything that smacked of communism. Not just political or ideological books, but pretty much the entire domestic production suddenly found itself unsellable. Entire print runs were abandoned by publishers before they had even been sent out to bookstores. In his novel Himmelfarb, which takes place in the early nineties, Michael Krüger’s protagonist is a grumpy old professor who lives on the outskirts of Munich. He comments as he browses through a newly acquired copy of the selected works of Alexander Humboldt:

[a] beautiful, intelligently edited book, sent to me by the publisher, as the eastern states, which had apparently banned reading after unification with the land of plenty, were either selling it below price or sending it to the paper mill, and in Leipzig of all places.”

Leipzig had been the first major centre of German publishing, and in 1991, it made headlines with another first – probably the world’s first book dump. Initially, unwanted books from the main East German warehouse for literature were sent to paper mills, and when the latter reached capacity, the books were burned as fuel in power stations. At last, whatever remained was transported to a waste deposit site at the town of Espenhain, where on May 1, 1991, a group of students uncovered around 500 tons (!) of books and other printed material deposited under a layer of construction and municipal waste. Among the few organizations to raise their voice in protest was the Union of German Writers, in whose name the poet Dieter Mucke reminded the German public of Heine’s dictum, “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people too.”

A pile of books at a German landfill in 1991.

Altogether, it is estimated that about three million new books were sent directly to the scrap heaps immediately after reunification, which alone would make this one of the largest single episodes of book destruction in world history. Even more was to come during the 1990s, when the network of public libraries, which had been maintained by the East German state, was mostly dismantled. About 8000 libraries, or more than half of the total, were closed, and most of their books were sent to the dump. It is estimated that around 80 million (!!) books were destroyed in the process. This is such a huge number that I find it hard to really wrap my head around it. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine it as roughly 1600 km of books, enough to fill up a bookshelf stretching from Germany’s southern border to the North Sea – and back again. I have never come across such a huge number in any other episode of book destruction that I ever read of.

3. The Book Pastor

Fortunately, at least a few of these books survived. Among their saviours, pride of place goes to the pastor Martin Weskott from the West German village of Katlenburg, just next to the former border between the two Germanies. Weskott’s life changed in 1991 when a friend showed him a picture in a local newspaper, depicting the “book cemetery” at Plottendorf in Saxony. Weskott was amazed that this could be going on in a civilized country, and since it wasn’t clear from the picture what kind of books were being dumped, he drove down to Saxony with two of his friends to see more precisely what was going on.

Having arrived to Plottendorf, the three friends found a hole in the wire fence and climbed inside the dump. They quickly found themselves standing on enough reading material for several lifetimes. Among the titles dumped, there were the staples of Western culture: world classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, German ones such as Heinrich Mann and Stefan Heym, books by the Latin American revolutionary Eduardo Galeano were lying alongside the King of Prussia Frederick II, the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslaw Seifert, several of the Reclam classics editions, as well as children’s books, maps and books on history and architecture.

Pastor Martin Weskott with a few of the books he had saved.

Weskott’s next step was to rent out a truck, make a number of return trips to the dump and transport as many of the books as he could back to his parish. He was lucky to have ample space at the parish to store them all, and soon afterwards he founded the Katlenburg Bücherburg, a non-profit where visitors could browse through his rescued books and take them home in exchange for a contribution to charity. After one year, Weskott estimated that he had already saved about 80,000 books, and he had made it a habit to travel down the East German countryside once a month, poking around for discarded and unwanted books.

Eventually, Weskott became known as the Book Pastor, a title which he has carried to the present day. In the nineties, the Bücherburg became a site of literary evenings, pointedly titled “The Garbage Writers are Reading,” where East German writers would present their work to a both cis- and transmural audience. As the destruction of GDR heritage subsided during the nineties, Weskott expanded his focus. He now also gathers Western books, as well as books that pre-and postdate the German division, and foreign books. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to climb around scrap heaps any longer, as most of the books now come directly from libraries, from individuals cleaning their attics, and from publishers’ unsold stock. After almost 30 years and several hundred book-gathering trips, the Bücherburg remains a must-visit for German-speaking bibliomaniacs.

A close-up of one of the medieval windows of Bücherburg.

4. A Library in Banana Boxes

Another approach to saving East German printed heritage was taken by Peter Sodann, a politician and actor who became famous for his role in the TV-series Tatort. Like Weskott, Sodann is also an unlikely candidate to fight for preserving the communist past. He spent time in GDR jails himself for counterrevolutionary behaviour, after having staged an irreverent play as a student. Nonetheless, Sodann had been an avid reader his entire life, and in the beginning of the nineties, he had a formative experience similar to that of Weskott. The library in Halle had dumped a huge amount of GDR-produced books soon after reunification, among them Goethe, Thomas Mann and Max Frisch. By the time Sodann heard of this, it was too late to save the books, but he pledged to save others which were about to be disposed of, and to bring them together into a library of his own.

Peter Sodann, in a photograph inscribed to one of his fans.

Sodann began a drive to gather East German books, and with the help of around 250 donors, among them libraries, publishers and individuals, he ended up amassing more than half a million books. With intended irony, these were first stored in banana boxes: before 1989, bananas were a rare luxury item. When Western visitors are guided around the library by Sodann today, however, he likes to tease them that by storing Eastern literature in Western cardboard boxes, he is combining the best of both worlds.

It took a long time to find a space to properly house and present the books, since Sodann could offer a library but no money. During two decades of wandering, he had to sell his parents’ home to finance storage costs, part of the book collection became a victim of arson, and the others were endangered by the damp conditions in which they were often stored. Finally, Sodann’s pleas were heard by the mayor of the small town of Stauchitz in Saxony, and in 2011 they struck a deal to open one of the largest private libraries in Europe to the public.

In 2012, the Peter-Sodann-Library was officially opened inside a local mansion. The library includes a small movie theatre and a second-hand store, where duplicates are sold, while still more books are being stored in several warehouses around the country. There is also a nearby hotel which caters to visitors, and a number of buses continue bringing them to Stauchitz. Sodann likes to brag about requests he gets for books: libraries looking for missing copies, academics who need specific editions, publishers who don’t have some of their own books in their archive.

While there are several museums of communism scattered around Eastern Europe, this is the only specialized library I am aware of, and we definitely need more of them. The main excuse why nobody wanted to host Sodann was that all the GDR books were already in the national library in Leipzig, and thus his library was unnecessary. However, there is a difference between a national library and the kind of institution Sodann is building. A national library is a repository of texts, and the texts aren’t really meant to be accessed too often. In Stauchnitz, on the other hand, visitors can roam around the stacks, leaf through the books at will, and buy a few for themselves on the way out. It’s closer to a museum, or even a theme park, and much better equipped to give visitors a wholesome view of literature and culture in the former GDR.


In other Eastern European countries, the downfall of communism was accompanied by public bonfires of books, the torching of entire libraries, or official orders to purge the stacks. By contrast, the East German libricide was both quiet and spontaneous, and left very few traces in the national memory compared to the book burnings of half a century earlier. Nonetheless, it was a major event that deserves a mention in every history of the reunification. Germans tend to be good at learning from their own history; I hope they learn something from this too.


Traces of World War I in My Library

There are plenty of books about World War I in my collection, as well as books that were printed during the war years – however, these aren’t what I am referring to in the title of today’s post. Instead, I’m interested in how the war left its mark in books through notes and annotations made by readers. The stories and images printed within our books have the power to move us, but sometimes it’s the little marginalia that can be the most memorable, and even the most moving.

Perhaps this is especially true for the first book on the list, a prayer book titled Kvišku srca! (Rise, Hearts!), which is also one of the smallest items in my collection, and among the rarer ones. Not even the National Library of Slovenia holds a copy of this tiny book, printed in 1906 and luxuriously bound in soft, padded covers. There was even a clasp, but it had fallen off, hence the book’s affordability. Pencilled inside is a signature by Mici Marinko from “Rudnik near Ljubljana” (nowadays very much a part of Ljubljana). We don’t know who Mici was, but given that she came from a smallish village, her prospects in life were probably rather modest.

On the page opposite her signature, there is another, brief inscription: “Vojska se je pričela 27/6 1914.” = “The war began on 27/6 1914.” Nothing else is written anywhere else in the book, which makes the owner’s short comment all the more sinister. Did she write it down to remind herself to pray for her relatives at the front? In any case, the date she wrote down is completely wrong. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, and what Mici had in mind was probably the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which happened on June 28, 1914. This error makes me think of a schoolgirl who was perhaps too young in 1914 to fully register or care about the outbreak of hostilities. As the years dragged on, the population of Ljubljana would be increasingly affected by the war – food shortages, Italian air raids, and a climbing death toll – and might increasingly turn to God to help bring the nightmare to an end.

Left: cover of “Kvišku srca!”; center: Mici’s inscription about the beginning of the war; right: title page of the prayer book.

In the case of the second book, we know a bit more about how the fighting had changed the owner’s life. The book in question is Svetloba in senca (Light and Shadow), a 1916 tale by Fran Detela, a now almost forgotten turn-of-the-century author. Detela was a conservative Catholic, which made him ideally suited to write for the Hermagoras Society (Družba sv. Mohorja) publishing house, by far the largest publisher in pre-WWI Slovenia. This particular copy of one of their books is signed by Ana Rozman on the title page, and on the reverse, there is the following inscription:

Ignaz Volčič / Kriegsgefangener in / Kolonien Gubernie / Hersonski / Russland

Or translated: “Ignaz Volčič, prisoner of war in a colony in Kherson governorate, Russia.” I suppose that when news came of the location of their relative, the closest paper object at hand was this book, and hence the owners wrote down his whereabouts inside. Alternatively, they could have noted his address in order to have it at hand when writing letters and sending parcels. In any case, nothing else is written beneath to indicate whether Ignaz survived the POW camp, or how he fared during the Russian Revolution.

Left: title page of “Svetloba in senca”; right: reverse of title page with the address of POW Ignaz Volčič.

The next book has less of an emotional impact, but it provides us with more of a window on what was actually read during the war. It is a schoolbook, titled Homeri Iliadis Epitome or Excerpts from Homer’s Iliad, and published in Vienna in 1915. “Norbert Dolinschek” signed himself inside, along with noting the school year 1917/18: the last year when he would have to sign himself with a Germanized version of his name. Since he took Greek classes, he apparently went to one of the classical high schools in the Slovenian territory, and between October and January, his class was working through selected passages from Homer. We know this because Norbert wrote dates next to a number of the passages, which probably means that he had to study or memorize them until the specified date.

On October 15, they were making their way through Book VI, The Episode of Hector and Andromache, where Hector rallies the Trojans and saves the defenders of Troy from being routed by the Greeks. A month later, on November 23, the students started book IX, The Embassy to Achilles. At this point in the epic, the tables are turned, the Trojans have chased the Greeks back to their ships, and the Greeks are desperately petitioning their gods for help. There are a bunch of annotations, mostly in Greek, but none of them refer to the world outside of the book.

During the time these students were analysing the siege of Troy, the game-changing Battle of Caporetto (Kobarid) took place to the west of Ljubljana: lasting from October 24 to November 19, it repelled the Italian army from Slovenian territory and pushed them over a hundred kilometres back to the river Piave. After two years of exile, the inhabitants of western Slovenian borderlands, some of whom might have been Norbert’s classmates, could finally start returning home. For a while, the breakthrough on the Italian front, and the capitulation of Russia, even made it seem that victory was imminent for the Central Powers. It’s hard to know whether the students, or their teachers, liked to draw parallels between the fictional war between the covers and the very real war outside their windows.

Left: cover of “Homeri Iliadis Epitome”; right: beginning of Book VI of the Iliad, with the date October 15, 1917 noted beside it.

The last of my selection probably wasn’t annotated during WWI, but it serves as a fitting coda to my post. The book itself, which came out in 1887, is titled Zvončeki (Snowdrops) and it is an anthology of poems suitable for schoolchildren. The selection isn’t too strict, and most major Slovenian poets are represented inside, though didactic ones such as bishop Slomšek receive pride of place. Before I acquired it, the book had spent the previous decade or two in a library, but earlier than that its provenance is unknown, and there are no signatures anywhere.

Whoever the previous owners were, at one point they decided that some of the poems weren’t suitable for young people anymore. With a pencil, they crossed out the first eleven poems, which praise the Habsburg monarchy in general, and several members of the royal family in particular. This could in theory have happened at any point after WWI. It could even have happened during or before it, but most likely it took place just after the monarchy’s collapse, when emotions were still running high and the Habsburg family was personally blamed for all the suffering that had taken place during the war.

A number of books came out immediately after 1918, describing both real and fabricated abuses committed by the Habsburgs. The physical environment of Slovenian towns was also considerably changed, as numerous monuments were taken down and sent to museums or foundries. Within this context, the pencilled defacement of Zvončeki probably happened as well. By the mid-1920s, the anti-Habsburg sentiment had receded, as it became clear that the family wasn’t coming back. In its stead, a number of new threats, such as Italian fascism, Hungarian revanchism, and Serbian centralism, had come to haunt the Slovenian public.

Left: cover of “Zvončeki”; right: the poem “To His Majesty Franz Joseph I. Upon His Arrival to Ljubljana on July 11, 1883” (author: Simon Gregorčič) crossed out with a pencil.

Miran Ivan Knez, the Bukvarna, and the Quest to Ban Destruction of Books

“Bukvarna” is a slightly archaic Slovenian word which could mean either “library”, “bookstore” or “publishing house” at different times. In recent decades it has come to stand for a specific type of non-profit bookstore which is, to my knowledge, a very specific Slovenian phenomenon. A bukvarna is an NGO that gathers unwanted books from the public or discarded books from libraries and then offers them for sale for relatively symbolic prices. Its aim is to preserve books, hence it also accepts and stores less popular books which would be rejected or trashed by regular second-hand bookstores. There are a few bukvarnas currently in operation around the country, including a huge one in Maribor which deserves its own post, but the first one (with a capital B) was the one in Ljubljana.

The story of Bukvarna in Ljubljana is inseparable from the person of Miran Ivan Knez, a larger-than-life figure who set up the book-saving operation and ran it until his death. Knez was a lawyer by profession, but his big passion were books and in 1986, he founded the Slovenian Bibliophile Society (Slovensko bibliofilsko društvo). Although he always spoke in plural, it was clear that the society was his personal project and he ran all the correspondence with the media. I don’t know of any other publicly visible member of the society, though Knez claimed in 1998 that there were around 50 “more active” members, alongside almost 1400 members in total.

Miran Ivan Knez in 1995.

Soon after the society’s founding, it opened up their Bukvarna, a brick-and-mortar shop which passed on the books acquired by the society. There was already an advertisement in the Delo newspaper in 1989, inviting booklovers to visit Bukvarna. While I can’t find any information about where the initial stock of books came from, the society got a large publicity boost in November that year. After a major purge in the city’s libraries, about 10 tons of books had been sent to the paper mill, and Knez found about this in time to inform the media and save about 4 tons of the weeded books. Back then, local library policy was first to offer discarded material to other libraries, then to a single nearby second-hand bookstore, and if they didn’t want to buy the books, these were trashed. Offering them to anyone else was not an option. Fortunately, enough people in Slovenia disagreed with such an uncharitable policy, and the dumped books made it to the front page of Delo, with Bukvarna mentioned in the article.

An exchange of letters to the editor followed, with city librarians defending their policy with the usual empty rhetoric (“we’re the experts, so you should always trust us”), and Knez responding in a baroque style that would remain a trademark of the Bibliophile Society. The final score of these exchanges was 0:0, but enough publicity was generated along the way to give Bukvarna a boost. Before the end of the year, the city council allotted them new headquarters at Emonska vrata (“The Gates of Emona”), at the side of Congress Square in Ljubljana.

The books for sale weren’t stamped at Bukvarna, but the Slovenian Bibliophile Society also had its own reference library; one of its books ended up in my collection several years later.

The Emonska vrata gallery was an amazing location, but just about the worst place to locate a bookstore. Having previously been used as an exhibition space, it was an underground gallery located within the remains of the northern gate of the ancient Roman town of Emona, the predecessor of Ljubljana. The visitor would descend a small staircase into a narrow courtyard about 3 metres below ground level, which was divided in half by a well-preserved section of the wall. After climbing through an opening in the wall into the second part of the courtyard, one faced a large lattice window. In front of the window, there was a line of boxes filled with free books, and next to them, a door which opened into Bukvarna.

While all of this might sound like a cool place for a lapidarium or a medieval-themed pub, it meant a very damp environment for the books, as well as little natural light for their buyers. The constant hum of ventilation was mixed with an occasional shaking of the ceiling as a bus drove down Slovenska cesta, the main city street which was just above Bukvarna. In addition, since the layout of the space was governed by archaeological constraints, Bukvarna was divided into two halves. Connecting them was a very narrow corridor not more than a meter wide which probably limited access to many an obese visitor, let alone the unfortunate booklovers on wheelchairs. Never once during my visits to Bukvarna did I find myself in this second area with another person, and many visitors probably never even realized that there were more books at the end of this dusky passageway. As a result, the books piled up much more quickly than they were sold, and several of them eventually got damaged by the damp.

The former entrance into Bukvarna. Left is a section of the Roman wall, and above is Slovenska cesta.

I assume that Emonska vrata was simply the only large-enough location that was available to the Bibliophile Society at the time, and this outweighed all other considerations. Indeed, Knez would later fight newspaper wars against archaeologists who wanted to use the space for exhibitions once again. The Bibliophile Society also embraced its new connection with antiquity during their brief venture into publishing in the nineties. One of the books they brought out was a translation of Emona, a work of revisionist history by the 19th century archaeologist Alfons Müllner. Inside, the author claims that the real Roman town of Emona was located to the south of Ljubljana around present-day Ig, whereas the ruins beneath Ljubljana belong to another town whose name was lost to history. Knez always enjoyed playing the contrarian in everything he did, but if he actually believed in Müllner’s thesis, this would mean his own bookstore would also have to change its name – “The Unnamed Gates?”

Two of the books published by the Slovenian Bibliophile Society: left, “Emona” by Alfons Müllner; right, “A History of Noricum and Friuli” by Martin Bauzer.

In 1990, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society launched a campaign which to my knowledge has no parallel anywhere else in the world. To the Slovenian national assembly, which was then still a regional organ within the Yugoslav federation, they proposed a law which would prohibit the destruction of books. Unfortunately, no draft of the proposed law remains publicly available anywhere. All I know is that despite its utopian nature, the law wasn’t dismissed out of hand, and it was actually given a pretty decent hearing.

After an initial rejection in 1990, the proposal was debated again in 1992 at the Committee for Culture within the national assembly of the newly independent Slovenia. The committee ordered the Ministry of Culture to “find a solution to the question of protecting books, based on the principle that books are objects of cultural heritage,” which was pretty close to the Bibliophile Society’s own position. In 1993, this same committee passed a resolution agreeing that books “should be protected against destruction to the greatest possible extent,” and again charged the Ministry of Culture to update the law accordingly.

Later in 1993, the ministry finally produced a response in which they officially recommended that libraries and waste paper companies refrain from pulping books. Instead, books should be donated to organisations willing to take them, for example to the Slovenian Bibliophile Society. However, the ministry rejected a ban on book destruction, as this would infringe on private property. The Bibliophile Society expressed disagreement with this lukewarm response, but pledged to continue its struggle against libricide.

An absolute ban on destroying books probably wouldn’t be feasible, even from my perspective as a booklover, and even if it only applied to libraries and other state-owned institutions. However, there are definitely way too many books pulped daily around the world – and there aren’t many organisations out there that would raise a voice against this as much as the old Slovenian Bibliophile Society did. Just about anywhere else in the world, the idea of banning book destruction would probably have you laughed out of any government institution. It speaks well for Slovenian culture that the proposal was taken at least somewhat seriously.

(If any readers know of any similar initiatives to legally curtail destruction of books, please contact me. I’d love to write about this in the blog.)

By the time I first visited Bukvarna in the early 2000s, it had become a fixture of Ljubljana bookselling. Entering through the door, you were greeted by Knez himself, sitting behind a huge book-covered table, with a collection of busts of famous Slovenians on the shelf above. Just as he was in writing, he was long-winded and florid in his speech, and would assault you with a lecture about all the important functions performed by the Bibliophile Society, and about the benefits of membership. Your best bet was to bring a friend who would bear the brunt of the attack, while you quietly slid away to inspect the shelves.

A membership card of the Slovenian Bibliophile Society. At the bottom are verses from the poem To The Book by Severin Šali. “From Your pages, comfort breathes to me / in silent hours, when the heart is sad / when everything is turning miserable and empty / You enrichen me, my silent acquaintance.”

I don’t think Knez was much of a Marxist, but Bukvarna had a very communist feel to it, with a number of slogans in red paint that lined the walls. “Every unread book is a new book” and “Books are our greatest treasure” would motivate you to be greedy while you rummaged through the stacks and slowly receded into the murky interior. Bukvarna had a policy of paying by weight, so it was smart to focus on paperbacks and pocket editions, and I’m not sure if Knez ever managed to sell an encyclopaedia set. All the while, you were accompanied by the radio playing loud Slovenian folk music, which is just about as far as you can get from the kind of music usually played in bookstores. Having returned to your friend, who was still bogged down in conversation, you then paid whatever small fee the scales indicated, and as you exited ancient Emona’s northern gate, it was hard not to think that there isn’t a bookstore like this anywhere on Earth.

During the 2000s, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society acquired a small website (unfortunately long since taken down) and a few more mentions in the media, but to my knowledge it didn’t get engulfed in any more newspaper battles against libraries. Part of the reason were changing library practices, since public libraries in the Ljubljana region finally took the hint and started donating books instead of trashing them. The weirdest thing that happened during the decade was a burglary in 2005, when an unknown thief broke into the store at night and left with several hundred kilos of mostly unexceptional books, including a selection of Karl May’s adventure novels. Perhaps a librarian wanted revenge for having been called out in the media? Whoever the book-loving thief was, he never struck again.

There had long been plans to revitalize Congress Square, which was being used as a parking lot in the 2000s, but they were suddenly accelerated in 2006 when Zoran Janković became the new mayor of Ljubljana. Janković campaigned with the promise to close the city centre for traffic, which included removing parking areas from the main squares and redirecting the cars into newly-built garages. This was overall a great idea and would contribute to the Ljubljana tourist boom in the 2010s, but for Bukvarna it spelt the beginning of the end. One of the entrances to the planned garage under Congress Square would be located right next to the entrance of Bukvarna. Even though the area of the bookstore itself would not be included in the garage, the planners proposed that Bukvarna should go.

I last visited Bukvarna in 2009. Whatever the negotiations between the Slovenian Bibliophile Society and the city council looked like, they took a heavy toll on Knez, who had become a cartoonish portrait of a grumpy old miser. Usually I had spent an hour or two inside the store, but this time I was almost chased out after 15 minutes, and after having paid the price of a new edition for a very mediocre second-hand book. Bukvarna was obviously in a bad shape, and you could guess that it wouldn’t last much longer. After the reception I got, I never visited again.

I’m unsure how exactly the Bukvarna in Ljubljana came to an end, but apparently the city council got fed up with Knez’s refusal to move the books, and sometime in 2010 or perhaps 2011 they simply barred the entrance to the store. Had the city offered an alternative location, and was Knez just too stubborn to play by someone else’s rules? Or was he indeed fighting for the very existence of Bukvarna? Whatever the answer was, losing the store was a heavy blow for Knez, and he died in the end of 2011. Since he never really had a successor, this also meant the end of the Slovenian Bibliophile Society, which was officially disbanded and deleted from the registry of societies in the following years.

There must have been at least 100,000 books inside Bukvarna, and I have no idea what happened to them. Hopefully they were given over to one of the local second-hand bookstores, or saved from destruction in some other way1. All I know is that they are not inside the former Bukvarna anymore. In 2016, the dilapidated space was finally given over to archaeologists who are working on a new exhibition about Ljubljana’s ancient past. No trace remains of the bookshelves today, but both the exhibition area and the entrance to the garage have kept the name Bukvarna, as the only reminder of the book paradise that used to exist beneath Slovenska cesta.

The entrance to the underground garage next to the site of the former Bukvarna.

For a decade now, Ljubljana has been without its own bukvarna. In a twist of fate, a part of its responsibilities has been taken over by the city library. Nowadays, the library accepts any and all donations, includes a small number of the books into its own collection, and donates the rest to the public during special giveaway days a few times per year. Nonetheless, the Slovenian Bibliophile Society will be missed. Miran Ivan Knez was an inveterate campaigner for the preservation of books, and the world needs more people like him. His story deserves to be more widely known outside of Slovenian borders as well.



1 A friendly reader wrote to me about the eventual fate of Bukvarna’s books. Sometime around 2015, they were sold to the bookselling magnate Dušan Cunjak. However, Cunjak seems to have inherited both Knez’s modus operandi and his bad luck. A few years later, after he had failed to comply with several eviction notices, one of his warehouses was torn down with part of the books still inside. The owner of the warehouse, who had ordered Cunjak’s eviction, was the municipality of Ljubljana.

The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell: A Review

I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?

Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.

At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.

In occupied Prague, the Nazis looted books from Jews and sent them to libraries back home. The poster boasts: “1.362.945 books have already been gathered. This is enough to fully equip 2.600 libraries.”

The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.

The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.

As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.

A pile of books looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Riga, Latvia, in 1943.

Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.

This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.

At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.

Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.


  • Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
  • Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.