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 got 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 atrium 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 atrium, 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.

Sources:

Notes:

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.

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