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

Sources

1 thought on “The Bookhunter’s Guide to Ljubljana

  1. Thanks for the enticing photos and descriptions — it makes me want to hop on a plane! I hope all these stores survive and thrive (and the CPU stops trashing unsold books).

    Like

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