A literary treasure hunt around Leipzig


Editor’s note: Our intrepid  reporter Helena Fram interviewed Siegfried Lokatis, Professor in Book Studies (Buchwissenschaft) at the University of Leipzig, on convincing shops around Leipzig to do something a little different: putting historic books in their display windows to run parallel with the Leipziger Buchmesse. Read the interview, check out the photos along the text, and see if you can spot the literary treasures yourself when out and about in Leipzig. Some are yet to be discovered and are not pictured here.

(Interview, translation and photos by Helena Flam.)

HF: Dear Professor Lokatis, books should be either read or be resting afterwards in the bookshelves – either in a library or in a bookshop. To see them in display windows of department stores and restaurants is a bit of a shock. Could you tell us what inspired you to place them there?

SL: The idea developed slowly. It all began in 2013 when we wanted to exhibit posters to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Insel Bücherei. That turned out to be difficult because for shops, their display windows are the holiest of holies. Still the Adler-Apothecary in Hainstr. asked whether we per chance happened to have single Insel Bücherei books by their former apprentice Fontane. That is how it started. The city center looked like this by the time we were done [click on pinheads to see shop window displays from 2013]: http://bit.ly/1pjGjnE

HF: It seems like quite an accomplishment. How did you manage this year to convince department store and restaurant owners (for example, Breuninger, Kult Warenhaus in Petershof,  Piloten and Galeria Kaufhof) to put books in their windows?

SL: In the beginning it was very difficult. But enthusiastic individual directors, here I am thinking, for example, of Peter Becker at the Commerzbank, where our Insel posters also this year bask in the light of its display windows, stood by us. In other cases appeals to local pride, pride about Leipzig, did the job. Shops such as Zara have very little room for maneuver – they have to ask Hamburg, even Madrid, for permission. By now some shop owners put Insel books in display windows on their own initiative – they remind me when I forget. Others, when they see me, say: “Oh, Professor Lokatis, nice to see you. Is it book fair time again?” In each shop it is a bit different. One managing director was a proud owner of over 1,000 Insel books. Others could not tell which side of a book is up. With those there is a bit more of explaining to do.

HF: These are not just any books. They are books with a past. Could you tell us a bit about them?

SL: This time the display theme is “Book Fair Host GDR. The Forgotten Art of Books?” [“Messegastland DDR. Vergessene Buchkunst?”] These books were crowded out from shops in 1990 and landed often in the garbage dumps. Some survived thanks to private collectors.  Peter Sodann, an actor and theater director, collected them in his halls in Staucht by Riesa by Meißen. He packed millions of them in banana crates – “the best invention of the West” as he cheerfully remarked. [A Peter-Sodann-Bibliothek opened in 2012.]  Library experts dismissed collecting old books as so much rubbish because the German National Library [die Deutschte Nationalbibliothek] in Leipzig is obligated to acquire every German language book. This holds as a rule. But the German National Library removed the original book covers and put all books in single-color plastic covers until 1985. Texts held better, but unique book art was destroyed in the process. In the GDR, paper was of very poor quality and thus publishers concentrated their creativity – the creativity of their famous book artists – on the covers. An entire cultural layer that we simply had to save. Fortunately, as we found out, the Grassi Museum stored, hidden in its vast basements, more than 100,000 book covers. Of these we were permitted to pick 10,000 from the GDR. Unbelievable, great, totally un-bureaucratic support came from the Wüstenrot-Foundation. It has enabled us to digitalize, scan and provide a commentary about these covers – the name of the publisher, the artist, when created, etc. Without this technology, we could not have displayed so many covers, but only unique originals.

HF: Was it difficult to decide which books to pick and which to leave out this year?

SL: Yes, of course. An MA seminar this past winter focused on sorting books according to their publishers and then selected the most beautiful covers that would fit specific shops, say, in the Old City Hall, and catch the eye when placed next to shoes, jewelry or ladies’ bags.

In the GDR there existed a small group of ambitious publishing houses that occasionally received awards for exceptionally beautiful books. Ahead of all others were Reclam, Volk and Welt. But also Buchverlag der Morgen, Aufbau, Verlag der Kunst, Neues Berlin, der Satireverlag Eulenspiegel – and, of course, the Insel Bücherei. To those we dedicated a separate big window.

HF:  Who did the actual arranging of the books? The displays are very cheerful and pleasing to the eye…

SL: By now this is a task of our enthusiastic students. Jeannine Thielow and Jessica Löbner decorated already three windows. And Stephanie Müller, Friederike Kuhlmann and Amelie Möller. By now they are done with their study program, they did not participate in the MA-seminar I mentioned earlier. But they volunteered so that they could do the window with the Aufbau-Verlag. The magic window of Morgen we owe to Susan Heilmann and Yuyin Lee. Kaufhof was done by Katharina Coordes  and Evelyn Stockmann, supported in the case of Eulenspiegel by Juliane Bonkowski. Freya Leinemann from the Digitalisation team helped me with Reclam. Frederike Röber and Lea Gröger added a touch of seashells and sailboats to the Insel Bücherei.

HF: How are the beautiful exhibits you all scattered through the city center related to the upcoming annual book fair?

SL: The Buchmesse and Leipzig Liest constitute our natural habitat and our sounding board. The windows of the city display only briefly the results of our hard work, but hundreds of thousands of book friends can see them. The shops cooperate with us only because this is for a short time but also to counter the migration of the book fair to the north; to make it highly visible they want it back to where it used to be – [centrally] in Leipzig.

It needs to be stressed: No other city but Leipzig can imitate such a project, neither Berlin nor Munich nor Hamburg and certainly not Frankfurt. For this calls for such a beautiful, closed-in inner city and the book fair-enthusiasm of its shop owners. Thus we craft the inner city as a unique selling point to put it back on the map as a very special fair location.

HF: Are there more fascinating stories to be told about the GDR books?

SL: Endlessly many. That is why I called a history of censorship “Each Book an Adventure” (1997) and entitled the next book “Histories of Censorship” (2008). As a censorship scholar one acquires a bird eye view [in German: eagle eye view, actually Adlerblick, as our English-speaking readers might care to know], the view of the censor on the entire publishing sector in the GDR. Without it, such a broadly conceptualized exhibit would not have been possible. One needs to know, for example, the profiles of the publishers, their room for maneuver and how they used it. It is exciting to discover which artistic milieus the publishers cultivated [and which artists they could convince to create for their covers!], how their artistic directors networked, and with which tricks they managed to acquire good paper and rare painting colors. Fascinating is also the continued existence of a bourgeois-like bibliophile milieu existing parallel to a remarkably widespread socialist reading culture – the main reason why so many people 25 years later still experience so much joy when they see in the shop display windows the books from their past. I find people’s responses to our windows overwhelming. Even with Insel Bücher I had not experienced anything like it.

HF: Is this what professors of Book Studies normally do? This sounds like lots of fun. If so, how does one get to be one?

SL: No, not even I! At the moment my research focuses on the history of bookshops and publishers in the GDR. But we have a winter break after all, and it happens to be much more fun to do the book cover exhibit than to take a break in this weather. In Erlangen, Munich and Mainz, one conceptualizes Book Studies differently. Only here in Leipzig is the Science of Books so lively and modern because it is embedded in Communication and Media Studies. But, naturally, soon we will – like Archaeology and Theater Studies – see budgets withering away. We shine in the evening glow.

HF: Oh, so there are only a few such professor positions in Germany? And the one in Leipzig is particularly lively and modern? Then we certainly want to make sure it stays in Leipzig… forever!

Dear Professor Lokatis, thank you so much for this lovely interview!

Helena Flam is a self-described nomad who got stuck in Leipzig as a professor of sociology. For LeipGlo, she cites from her mind's travel logs. She enjoys exploring and sightseeing. She's a great consumer of fiction, and likes good art exhibits, an occasional concert, film and biking.

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