I crossed the threshold into Another Country and thought: Another universe would be a more fitting name.
It had been more than a decade since I first came here and stumbled upon an interesting storefront in Kreuzberg, the Bohemian district in West Berlin. It instantly intrigued me. Outside hung a sign, decorated with a Beardsley graphic of a reclining and reading lady, announcing that the store was called:
Bookstore, Library & English Language Club
I pushed open the heavy, red door and walked in, surveying the room. The elaborate Belle Époques ceiling moldings and 1o feet high bookshelves with rolling ladders were painted bright turquoise, offset with burgundy red. Several rooms led one into another in typical 19th-century architectural fashion. Books were everywhere, on shelves bending under their weight or in high stacks on the floor. A curio collection of unusual antiques adorned the rooms. A 1950’s mannequin with a fringed, flower-embroidered silk scarf around its shoulders had a WWI helmet on its head. A brightly painted Indian plaster goddess presided over a small dried-out fountain that held a few dusty copper coins. An old grey top hat, probably once worn to the Ascot races, sat up on a stack of books as though a patron had just forgotten it. Stuffed birds of prey, mounted above a doorway, menacingly stared down at visitors with their beady, black glass eyes.
The first time I had come, an eccentric Englishman with long hair and an even longer beard named Alan had sat behind a desk on his computer, reading a digital edition of The Guardian. Now, ten years later, Sophie, a 60-ish woman who looked like someone’s elderly, frumpy but favorite auntie, took that seat. She was busily composing Facebook messages to her friends.
Alan had been a smart dresser, always in immaculately ironed silk shirts. Sophie’s clothes were more the wash and wear kind. Alan had the advantage of living with a conscientious Hausfrau partner, considering it her womanly duty to iron his shirts. Sophie had neither a husband nor a wife, and she found housekeeping chores genuinely onerous.
I found Alan was intelligent and knowledgeable as I got to know him. Being well read, he knew something about everything. He was a gifted poet with an excellent British public school education, but he’d had difficulty finding a job he liked in England. Rare books were his passion, and when he told his family that he would use his share of the family trust fund to open an ex-pat-lit store in Berlin, they were delighted; he finally seemed to have found his true vocation. But there was a dark side to him; more than once, I had observed him angrily lashing out at customers who’d brought a book to the desk to pay for it. Alan would take one look at it and berate the client: “You do not want to read this book. Don’t even think of it. It is complete rubbish!” To the customer’s look of confusion, Alan would demand: “Put it over there” and point at a stack of books with a sign in front printed with big red, blood-oozing letters: EVIL BOOKS. The pile included popular self-help books and biographies of socialites – anything Alan disliked. Sitting on top to guard the stack was a black plastic rat that had survived the last Halloween party.
I plonked down on an empire-style sofa covered with faded pink Fleur de Lille patterned silk. I heard a creak and instantly regretted doing so, remembering that the sofa had endured much wear and tear back when an extraordinarily talented African- American filmmaker had come to Berlin because the most prestigious German TV station had offered him a lucrative contract which he turned down. After reviewing the details, he understood that he was being asked to deal in stereotypes of racial and socio-economic classes, which violated his artistic integrity. Before his visa expired, he had used the time to explore Berlin by night and made up for his sleep deprivation by taking naps on this sofa.
I got up and wandered around the room. Noticing a three-quarters empty bottle of sherry behind a stack of books, the thought amused me that the older English Gentleman mentioned on page 2873 of ‘Burke’s Peerage’, had left it behind. He was always impeccably dressed in a vintage, worn-shiny Savile Row suit and a threadbare Chesterfield coat. One winter, when Harold was unable to face the tedium of firing up the coal oven in his rent-controlled studio apartment; he’d shown up daily at Another Country to indulge his fancy for obscure gumshoe novels. Overconsumption of countless counterfeit Dunhill cigarettes and ever-present bottles of English Sherry facilitated his sudden departure and demise. Seeing the bottle made me thirsty for a drink, and I ventured down there, hoping some wine was left after last night’s poetry reading in the basement.
I recalled once having my Ukrainian handyman help me to carry a table here that I had promised to give to Alan. We had struggled to take it down the narrow stairs to the cavernous space where the poetry readings were held. It was still there, heavily wax-encrusted, silver candelabras, and a cardboard box filled with empty wine bottles stood amidst more bottles that, surprisingly, had not been all drained. It bore witness to the midnight oil being burned more than once in
When the light was off, glowing arrows painted along the walls were still visible. The basement had been used as a WWII bomb shelter, and the fluorescent paint had guided the occupants when the electricity failed. My handyman, a bulky, no-nonsense man with a shaved head and a drooping eyelid, had been a KGB prison guard in the Soviet days. He looked around the bookstore disapprovingly before finally settling his good eye on the stuffed birds.
He told me curtly: “I go now,” and strode outside.
I followed him, asking: “Viorel, what on earth is the matter?”
“This bad place with black magic,” he explained.
I tried to reassure him with: “That’s silly! The stuff in here is only for decoration.”
But he insisted: “No… I come from village in Carpathian Mountains. You know…Count Dracula?” Lowering his voice, he added: “My people know about devil.”
I laughed off his concern: “Oh, come on now. Don’t be silly!” But for a moment, I had a sense of unease. I had noticed that Alan often wore an Aleister Crowley t-shirt under his silk shirt. He did Tarot card readings from Crowley’s Book of Thoth deck at Halloween. Had this simple man instinctively sensed something I had not picked up on?
I came back up from the basement, placed my glass of leftover wine on Sophie’s desk, and sat in the chair next to her. For one season, a blonde in her girlish, flower-patterned frocks that were always a bit too short, especially when she sat down, had occupied that chair. She had come to Berlin with a boyfriend twenty years her senior, but the romance had cooled once his money ran out, and she turned into a serial dater. With her soft, enchanting British accent, she wrought havoc on males who came to the store. Eventually, somebody, unable to resist the temptation, had forcefully taken what seemed offered but was not given. Everyone at the bookstore felt sorry and was especially nice to her.
Over the years, Another Country‘s fame grew as Berlin became a mecca for travelers looking for fresh thrills beyond the well-trodden tourist routes of London, Paris, and Prague. Visiting Journalists wrote about it as a secret destination on the roads less traveled. Alan had appeared on the cover of a local ex-pat publication, Ex-Berliner, and the bookstore was featured in several movies. Soon mainstream publications like The New York Times and obscure ones like Forbes of India published articles about the place and its owner.
Another Country was even voted onto the list of ‘10 Best Bookstores in the World in the prestigious Lonely Planet guidebooks, along with Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. I was fond of the place but felt that the general chaos and lack of hygiene did not warrant such an honor, and thought:
Maybe the reviewers ate one too many of the brownies that Alan bakes and keeps in a tin hidden under his counter. As a rule, I did not eat anything in the bookstore, but I’d heard that the brownies were orgasmic due to a secret ingredient. He made them available to only the people he liked. I suspected they contained something sold in little plastic bags from the dodgy-looking guys hanging out in nearby Hasenheide Park.
I was gazing at Sophie, wearing, as usual, her signature Sloan Ranger-style twinset and pearls. A Liberty patterned skirt that would have made a handsome cover for the chintz sofa and a pair of black leather sneakers in an extra-wide, large size complimented them.
I looked around fondly, thinking: This looks like an English-lit place, but it’s so much more. Sophie is really the queen of all those who come here searching for things that aren’t out there. They’re not just looking for obscure books but also artistic inspiration, unusual experiences, or even a new identity. In Sophie’s kingdom, any outlandish theory or nonsensible things can be voiced, and new world orders can be dreamed up, all without the speaker getting judged.
“It’s so good to see you, Sophie,” I gushed while giving her a big hug. “I missed you!”
Returning the hug, Sophie responded warmly: “I missed you too.”
I studied the room, looking for Sophie’s faithful companion:
“Where is Orla?”
Orla had been a tremendous help to Sophie by efficiently organizing events. Somehow she had found the time, even though most of it was taken up by lovingly caring for her brood of children. Sophie responded:
“She has her own book store now, Curious Fox.”
“Ah, in her quiet way, she has slipped into the role of becoming your heiress of the Berlin’s ex-pat lit scene,” I remarked.
“Yes, I have supported her to set up shop in the new urban pioneering frontier of Neukölln.” With a twinkle in her eyes, she added: “But I am not ready to go yet. After all, I am still young as a woman.”
Wanting to hear more gossip, I picked up a book on her desk. Reading the title ‘Grandma Gets Laid,’ I commented:
“Ah…I see our friend finally finished his latest book.”
“And he’s no longer welcome here!” Sophie said grimly.
Astonished to see so much anger in the otherwise mild-mannered woman, I queried: “What has he done?”
“He said that I’m not a real woman,” Sophie responded.
“Oh, I am so sorry for you. He is such a brute, hurting a girl’s feelings like that!” I took Sophie’s hand. “We have done so many fun girlfriend things together. Remember when we went to buy your first training bra? Noticing Sophie’s earrings, I added: “I’m so glad that you are still wearing those adorable silver butterfly studs that I gave you for your birthday.”
Sophie smiled. “You sent me to your Turkish electrolysis beautician. She removed my beard so perfectly.”
Giggling, I added: “How embarrassed we were when we went to that naughty store together.”
Sophie affirmed: “Yes, we had such good times… And surely there will be more!”
I confessed: “You know, I never told you this, but I think Alan could be such a nasty guy. You, Sophie, are so sweet. I am glad you dumped him and discovered your true nature. It’s truly wonderful that you are one of us girls now”.
And with that, I gave her another big, sisterly hug.