Edo Torkar: Tales of a Book Rescuer

This post is also available in Slovenian. / Ta objava je na voljo tudi v slovenščini.

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One day in the late 1980s, Miran Ivan Knez and Edo Torkar happened to arrive at the same time to one of the waste paper dumps in Ljubljana. Knez was already famous back then as the founder of Bukvarna, the “book asylum” for rescuing discarded books; Torkar was just starting out as a second-hand bookseller. That day, they had the same objective – rescuing a large shipment of old books which had just arrived to the dump. However, their approach was slightly different.

Knez first went up to the workers and began to lambast them for helping destroy the nation’s cultural heritage. Books are our greatest treasureif we stop reading, we’ll stop being – worthy sentiments, which Knez could weave into arbitrarily long impromptu speeches. Meanwhile, Torkar slid up and down the courtyard, sifted through the piles of paper, and quietly filled up the trunk of his car. By the time the trunk was full, Knez was still at the other side of the courtyard, hectoring anyone who wasn’t able to run away quickly enough. The next time a large amount of books arrived at the dump, only Torkar received a tip-off.

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Already as a kid, Torkar knew that he wanted to be his own boss one day and run a business. Nowadays, schools will go out of their way to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in their pupils, but back in the fifties this was a very obscure career choice, about as popular and encouraged as becoming a rabbi or a sexologist. Instead, Torkar graduated from metallurgical school, worked for some time as a sailor, wrote a few books of short stories, occasionally smuggled coffee across the border, and finally started making inroads into the world of business when the flea market in Ljubljana opened in the 1980s. For a time, he was supposedly the most popular seller of books there, thanks to his jovial personality and his crazy prices. After a few years of flea marketeering, he decided to go a level up and opened his own brick-and-mortar bookstore. He hasn’t left the business since then.

Nowadays, Torkar is technically retired, but he still spends most of the time at his second-hand store, the “Bukvarna Radovljica[1] in northwestern Slovenia. This is the home planet, from which he makes attempts to colonize the rest of the Gorenjska region. A store of his in Kranj recently went out of business, whereas another one in Jesenice is still holding out. Even if that one ultimately fails, though, his central location is more than enviable. The store’s name could easily also be “Antikvariat Linhart,” since it’s located inside the birth house of the eponymous author of the first Slovenian play. Three rooms are filled with books, plus a bookshelf-lined former corridor which feels like a time capsule from Linhart’s day. It isn’t all cold stone and 18th century, though – sitting on a chair close to the entrance, I was repeatedly assaulted by the most cuddle-loving cat I’ve ever met.

This is a different cat of theirs, but it looks just a cuddly.

There are plenty of antiquarian booksellers in this country, and with a few exceptions they all have cute stores. The real reason why Torkar is getting his own post is that unlike most book dealers, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – in a good way. While most dealers are used to having books brought to them at the store, Torkar spent most of his career prowling around dumps and paper mills, trash collections and the occasional dumpster, rescuing and reselling many tons of books. He’s also a fellow blogger, and when I read a short post of his about his book-rescuing days, I figured my blog’s readership would be interested in what he has to say.

Torkar is quite frank that unlike yours truly, his approach to rescuing books is pragmatic. He always took what he could resell for a decent profit, and left behind the rest. He doesn’t really identify as a bibliophile or a collector; when people talk about books too much, it gets on his nerves. At the same time, he was often able to get inside dumps and paper mills that were barred to other, sneakier and shiftier booksellers. He says it was probably his naïve attitude which helped him gain the workers’ confidence. He wasn’t trying to rip anyone off or break the law; he was just looking for nice books.

I asked Torkar if he minded having his picture taken. “Oh no, not at all, actually my one weakness is that I’m very vain.”

When you spent over twenty years dumpster diving for waste paper, what are the most amazing finds that you can boast of? The first thing that came to Torkar’s mind was the archive of the Hygiene Foundation (Higienski zavod), a pre-war Ljubljana-based institution which did surveys of the Slovenian countryside. Inside were over a thousand original photographs of rural houses; many of these homes didn’t survive WWII, and of course very few of them still stand today. A dozen of these photos would have overjoyed any local-history collector, yet Torkar found himself with enough of the snapshots to open another store. Fortunately, the collection was bought en bloc by the Ethnography department at Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts, a happy end to this particular dumpster story.

Another time, Torkar fished out a large pile of archives of National Liberation Councils (Narodnoosvobodilni odbori), local administrative bodies from the early post-war era, from the Slovenian littoral region. He offered the collection to a few institutions, but there wasn’t much interest, so he started selling them off piecemeal. It turned out there was a lot of interest for that: lots of people were curious about what their families and fellow villagers did during the transition from Nazism to socialism. Suddenly, Torkar got a call from the local archive in the Slovenian littoral. They were willing to have the documents back – for free. When Torkar objected to this very generous proposal, they threatened a lawsuit. He still didn’t budge, though, so they started haggling. In the end, the archives managed to return to the institution whose subsidiary had sent them to the paper mill.

What happened when Torkar was on holiday, or busy at the store? Did he have any helpers in the dumpster diving business? Sort of, but not really. A few of the workers from the dump would try bringing him books, but they didn’t know what was valuable and what wasn’t, so they were usually disappointed at the payment they received. In Ljubljana, you can often see Roma picking through piles of bulky waste, but apparently they don’t show up in the Gorenjska region that often. Torkar still has an old lady from town who does rounds on her bike, inspects waste paper containers and brings him two or three books at a time. The books are rarely worth much, but he buys them nonetheless, because she seems like she needs the money and because he doesn’t want to chase her away.

Torkar jokes that the above lady is the only person from whom he still buys small amounts of books. Like all dumpster divers (yours truly included), he’s a bit spoiled when it comes to spending money on things. Nowadays, he gets most of his books in bulk purchases from estates and libraries, where the price he pays per book is generally very small. It’s telling that when I mentioned some of my own amazing dumpster finds and bargain purchases, he merely nodded, unimpressed; however, when I mentioned an occasion when an online seller demanded 200 euros for a booklet worth perhaps 20, Torkar almost jumped off his chair.

If you want to sell him a dozen books, though, he is always willing to exchange them for store credit. He showed me the only book which has been sitting in the store from the very beginning: a large address-book, filled with names, dates and sums. You can acquire 30 euros of store credit and spend it ten years from now, if you want to. If Torkar started buying books for cash again, however, he says he’d probably have a line of people stretching from the door to the edge of town.

At least you have a large selection of books to buy with your store credit. Pictured are both halves of the room next to the entrance; the two other rooms, plus the former corridor, are further back.

There weren’t many dumpster divers in the Gorenjska region, apparently, but Torkar still got to know a few from Ljubljana. One of them once arrived with an eye-popping pile of papers: official mail sent out by Gorenjski odred, a WWII resistance unit operating in NW Slovenia. Slovenian resistance was extremely well organized: they had their own clandestine hospitals, schools, printing presses, radio stations, and a mail delivery system, all while the country was occupied by the Germans and Italians. Mail was delivered via couriers, usually young boys who were a popular hunting target for Nazis and their local collaborators. Nonetheless, this particular heap of papers made it through and Torkar offered them to various museums and archives. There was some interest, but mostly they wanted the archive for free or for a very modest sum. In the end, Torkar managed to find a serious buyer: the enfant terrible of Slovenian collecting, politician, provocator, gun nut and self-declared aristocrat, Zmago Jelinčič.

One of Jelinčič’s many weird contradictions is that he is a far-right politician who has occasionally threatened to shoot immigrants, yet he also praises the wartime communist resistance and despises their collaborationist opponents. I asked Torkar whether bookbuyers’ tastes have changed during his career. Now that the generation which fought WWII is almost gone, and it has been 30 years since the losers gained the right to voice their side of the story, is the demand for WWII-themed books declining? Surprisingly, Torkar’s answer is “no.” For better or worse, grandchildren are often just as interested in the war as the old belligerents themselves. At the same time, there is never a shortage of doofuses who cart off rarities directly to the dump. Torkar says he vividly remembers the time a guy brought a knee-high pile of wartime collaborationist material as waste paper – rare magazines such as Slovensko domobranstvo which rarely last more than a day in any bookstore before being grabbed up by collectors. I couldn’t help salivating a bit.

The guy with the beard is Leon Rupnik, “president” of the occupied Province of Ljubljana and personification of Slovenian collaboration during WWII.

It can be hard for a collector to understand how clueless some people can be about old books. “Do you really find that many banknotes inside?” a worker at the paper dump asked Torkar one day. “Huh?” … It turned out the poor man couldn’t understand why anyone would possibly be interested in these books, so he figured Torkar’s real objective must be the euros, francs and dollars that people accidentally leave inside. On one occasion, the worker’s naïve wisdom turned out to be correct, though. Torkar found a large sum of money in German marks, a currency which was already defunct then but which can even now be exchanged for euros at major banks in Germany. He made a trip to Munich and came back with over 1000 euros, a sum for which he would otherwise have needed to sell quite a few books.  

Even people who should know better sometimes send valuable books to the paper mill. Publishers, for example. In the Slovenian online bookselling world, where I regularly snoop around for antiquarian books, a few authors consistently sell like hotcakes. At the top of the list are JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and Douglas Adams, all in Slovenian translation, of course. Well, Torkar once managed to arrive at the paper mill just as a consignment of Adams’ books was being unloaded, straight from the warehouse. If the publisher was unable to sell these books, what kind of books were they capable of selling then, for Christ’s sake? Torkar also found lots of other titles over the years that had come straight from the printing press to the paper mill. One of the occasions, when he came across a shipment of poems by Seamus Heaney, was mentioned on his blog – one small source for a history of book destruction in Slovenia…

Hitchhiker’s Guide and Dirk Gently: two perennial favourites of Slovenian bookworms.

Has the number of books that land in dumpsters changed in any way during the last few decades? Torkar thinks it has decreased somewhat, thanks to the shops run by local trash collecting companies. In his own Radovljica, the workers at the trash sorting facility supposedly stop anyone who arrives with trash to dispose of, and ask the visitors whether they have anything which might still be usable, such as books. The material then goes to the next-door shop, usually called komunalna trgovina, where it is sold for a modest price. In theory, the Center ponovne uporabe store in Ljubljana has the same system, and I have my doubts about how well it works, but I will agree that some books are spared this way.

I was looking forward to taking a few pictures of Torkar’s awesome trash finds, but he says he has already sold them all. He put his dumpster diving career on hold almost ten years ago, and he has barely acquired any books from the trash since then. He says he doesn’t really need to – he has first dibs on material brought to many of the abovementioned trash companies’ shops, as well as on donated material that is passed over by the regional libraries. On top of that, he is a household name in the region, so of course people offer him entire libraries all the time. Add to this a full warehouse and his advancing years, and it’s hard to begrudge him for not picking through the trash anymore. When he wrote about dumpster diving on his blog, though, he said he hoped his writing would inspire someone else to take up the mantle after his departure. There is profit, as well as a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to be made in diving for books. Let’s hope his words didn’t fall on deaf ears.

At the end of the day, Edo Torkar is first of all a pragmatist. He mentioned how some time ago, a lady stopped at his store and offered him a trunkload of old books. Torkar went out to inspect the books and recognized them at once, since he was the one who had thrown them into the dumpster… Of course, I can’t endorse him here, but I can’t really judge him either. The episode just goes to show that we need more non-profits (such as Bukvarna Ciproš) whose mission is to preserve old volumes and pass them on, regardless of their market value. Second-hand booksellers are great, but you can only expect so much from them. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the dumpster diver, or the bookseller, or the auctioneer that we expect our book collection, but from their regard to their own interest.

***

Do I recommend visiting Bukvarna Radovljica? Well, not only does it have a great location and atmosphere, is it probably also the largest for-profit second-hand bookstore in the country. Most of the stock is listed online, so you needn’t come in person if you don’t have time. If you do visit, however, you can also rummage through the discounted books, which aren’t listed online, and if you buy several items, Torkar will probably give you an additional discount. He also claims to have the largest selection of English paperbacks in Slovenia, most of them going for 3 euros apiece. Radovljica might be a small town in the countryside, but it’s also located right next to the undisputed capital of Slovenian tourism, Bled. If you’re planning to visit Lake Bled, and if you enjoy snooping around for books, this is the place to stop at.

“Bukvarna: Open”

[1] In most cases, a “bukvarna” is a non-profit institution whose main objective is to preserve books; however, the term can also refer to an ordinary, for-profit second-hand bookstore, which would more commonly be called “antikvariat.” There is still a difference in prestige between both terms: an “antikvariat” will usually be pickier about the kinds of books it offers.

2 thoughts on “Edo Torkar: Tales of a Book Rescuer

  1. Pingback: Why YOU Should Take Up Dumpster Diving

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