In Germany, bookstores have a long tradition of playing an active role in civil society, said Johanna Hahn, director of the German Association of Booksellers in Berlin and Brandenburg.
BERLIN — On a freezing Saturday last month, a group of people were setting up microphones and handing out brightly colored whistles in Berlin’s old Jewish quarter. They were preparing for a protest against neo-Nazi marchers who were en route to the neighborhood.
Jorg Braunsdorf, a bookseller, rubbed his hands together to keep warm, as a local singer did a sound check. One man worried that the cold would keep fellow protesters away, but Braunsdorf was reassuring: “It’s also cold for them,” he said, referring to the marchers who carry, among other banners, a German flag from the early 1930s.
When right-wing extremists first marched in fall 2016 through the central Berlin neighborhood where Braunsdorf’s independent bookshop, Tucholsky Bookstore, is, he and many of his customers were shocked and appalled. When they marched again last spring, Braunsdorf decided it was time to act.
First, he emailed everyone on his bookstore distribution list. Then he set up folding chairs among his store’s shelves of contemporary novels, children’s books and an extensive collection of the writings of the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky. Forty people attended an after-hours meeting. Along with a half-dozen of these attendees, Braunsdorf co-founded the Residents’ Initiative for Civil Courage.
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By last summer, when a third march through this neighborhood was announced, the group was ready: They had teamed up with “Berlin Against Nazis,” a city-funded organization that targets racism and anti-Semitism. A friend of Braunsdorf’s designed colorful posters and flyers and together they set up three protest stations along the marchers’ route. Between 200 and 300 neighbors showed up with soup spoons, banging on pots and pans, to protest the march.
“We wanted to take back the public space,” Braunsdorf recalled on a recent afternoon, between answering one customer’s question about the literary structure of a young-adult thriller, and warmly recommending a new novella to another. “At a certain point, you just have to do something.”
In Germany, Braunsdorf’s efforts are part of a long tradition in which bookstores play an active role in civil society, said Johanna Hahn, director of the German Association of Booksellers in Berlin and Brandenburg.
“The book industry has always reacted with great sensitivity to the political climate,” she said, “and bookstores are always a place where social change occurs.” In the 1970s, at the height of the women’s liberation movement, for example, Germany had large numbers of feminist bookstores. “Now, the theme really seems to be freedom of speech, freedom of opinion. Look at America, look at Turkey — this problem is all over the world.”
In German bookstore circles, the topic of nationalism and fascism is particularly prominent now, Hahn added. This follows the rise of groups like the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West and Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the national vote in September, making it the first far-right party to sit in Parliament in 60 years.
“In every book there’s a new perspective,” Hahn said, “so bookstores automatically fall on the side of openness and diversity.”
But how best to serve customers is up for debate: In one of several panels dealing with the topic at the Leipzig Book Fair in mid-March, some independent sellers said they refused to order books from far-right publishers, while others argued that it is important for customers to be able to stay informed. (There are certain titles that Braunsdorf does not stock. He may order from some right-wing publishers upon request but will give the customer a piece of his mind on the topic, first.)
Germany has a healthy number of independent bookstores, thanks largely to a German law that requires all booksellers to sell books at set prices. But Zoe Beck, co-founder of a group called Publishers Against the Right, worries that market-oriented chain stores have weakened bookstores’ role as a place of political debate. “What Jorg Braunsdorf is doing is something I find exemplary,” wrote Beck, in an email. “The need now is greater than ever.”
For Braunsdorf, 58, social engagement has always been part of running a bookstore. Originally from Weztlar, a small city in what was then West Germany, Braunsdorf started working in his 20s at a book collective there run by a group of his young left-wing friends. They did not do much business, but the shop was a meeting place for students and activists: There, they printed flyers decrying nuclear-power plants or calling for affordable housing.
Today, 37 years later, Braunsdorf is still working at a bookstore, but now it’s his own shop, in Berlin, and other political issues have come to the forefront. “None of us expected that this confrontation with fascism would be so close at hand,” he said, alluding to the AfD success in entering Parliament. “I think in the next years we are going to need to not just protest ‘against,’ but really come up with a ‘for.’ What do we want, in our society?”
Braunsdorf, who has hosted German-Arabic reading events at his shop for refugee children and moderated debates about gentrification, the economy and politics, said he “can’t imagine running a bookstore just as a selling point.”
He is not alone. A similar bookstore-run political project made headlines this year, when Heinz Ostermann, who owns the bookstore Leporello in Berlin’s working-class neighborhood of Neukolln, had his car set on fire, for the second time. He had started a local group in 2016 dedicated to fighting the far right. “There’s a lot of solidarity,” said Ostermann, who added the attacks, suspected to have been carried out by local right-wing extremists, have not dissuaded him. “I think people in the neighborhood are happy I’m here.”
The same could be said of Braunsdorf. Last month, as the crowd of protesters grew, Ralf Teepe expressed his appreciation for Braunsdorf’s bookstore, which he said he visited once a week, in lieu of church, for spiritual enrichment.
Teepe, a civil servant with the foreign service who recently moved back to Berlin after years in Africa and elsewhere, had joined Braunsdorf a few blocks from the bookstore. He too wanted to protest the neo-Nazis who were headed to the neighborhood.
“I was born in ’58, and both of my parents were marked by the Nazi period,” Teepe said. “The older I get, the more I understand how traumatized my father, in particular, was.” He paused to rub his hands together and blow on them for warmth. “Today, 70 years later, you have the feeling for the first time that history could repeat itself. That that’s not out of the question.”
After the black-clad line of right-wingers had passed behind a line of police officers — greeted by chants of “Nazis out!” — the crowds dispersed. Elnura Yivazada, who works in culture management and heard about the protest through the bookstore, took a moment to stay and listen to the last musical act, before heading home to warm up.
“It’s important to show our faces,” she said. “To say, people here won’t just accept this.”