Update – Sophie Raphaeline, the proprietor of Another Country, has passed away. There will be a remembrance of her from 4pm on May 7 at the bookshop.
Berlin’s English-language literature scene has blossomed over the years, with ever more readings, writing workshops and meet-ups. Two local protagonists recount how a certain pioneering English bookshop influenced their respective paths.
Victoria Gosling had been looking at too many cows. It was 2008, she was in her thirties and had just finished writing her first novel, a creative effort for which she had taken up residence at her parents’ farmhouse in rural Wiltshire, England three years earlier. “My dad very kindly let me have a shed out the back of the farm where I could sit down and concentrate on writing,” she remembers. But after all that time in the middle of the countryside, she was ready for a change. That’s when she met two different people (one a journalist, one a world record-holding sword swallower) at two separate retreats, and both happened to rave about Berlin. So that autumn, she packed her bags, moved to a sublet on Invalidenstraße in Mitte and started working on a new novel.
Back when Victoria arrived, the scene was much smaller, but there were at least a few key literary people and resources, many of them British – which made it easier for Victoria to adapt to her new surroundings. One of them was Saint George’s, a beautiful second-hand bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg, started by Cambridge native Paul Gunter in 2003. With a selection of over 30,000 books, well organized on ceiling-high shelves, the shop was the go-to place for English- speaking bookworms and aspiring writers living in the former East, with countless events, readings and book launches catering to the Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg lit community booming at the time. But for Victoria, who’d just moved to the border of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, another bookshop was to play a defining role.
A safe space: Another Country’s community
“I think I came across Another Country because they had a quiz once a week that was listed on ToyTown. Or possibly via a mention in Exberliner. I picked it up straight away.”
Another Country is an endearingly eccentric used bookstore and cozy event space in Bergmannkiez, run by London-born Sophie Raphaeline. The shop opened up in 1999, and still regularly holds poetry readings, storytelling events, community dinners, and workshops in its basement cellar. While a bookstore, Another Country also serves as a kind of library. Return most books within six weeks and you’ll get your money back minus a €1 fee. In fact, some books are loan only, something that’s confused more than one eager customer in the past, this and the baffling number of books jumbled and piled on shelves or just strewn on the floor all over the crowded shop. This is Sophie’s den: the kind of place that people either adore, or don’t get.
In those first years after she arrived, Victoria would often pop in for a random chat with Sophie to talk about literature. “It’s a place where people gravitate to if they love books when they first arrive in the city. It’s sort of a spiritual home. You can just pick a beer out the fridge and you pay, say two bucks, sit on one of the ratty old armchairs and just read and feel safe, warm and lovely.”
The space provided a comfortable rest from the Fremdsprache she was adapting to in the rest of her life. And Victoria wasn’t the only one. In fact, one of Sophie’s main reasons for opening the shop was to support English-language culture in Berlin, especially during those years when its presence was so much more tenuous than it is today. “That’s the way I was looking at it – as a place where people can come and speak in English, whether they’ve got great German or can’t speak it at all. It was, and still is, an oasis of sorts.”
For someone like Dave Gordon, the Irish-born co-owner of Curious Fox, the second-hand English bookshop that opened six years ago on Flughafenstraße, Another Country was a home away from home when he first moved to Berlin from Cork in 2008. In fact, that’s where he met Orla Baumgarten – his life and business partner – years before they even thought of starting a bookshop of their own. “The first year that I moved to Berlin, I basically hung out there every single day from 1pm till four in the morning, five days a week,” he remembers. “Just reading or hanging out. There was just so much less English-speaking anything in Berlin in those days…”
Since 2013, Curious Fox has been catering to the expat community of Neukölln with a new and used selection of English-language fiction, and monthly events aimed at connecting the growing community of readers and writers.
From the writer to The Reader
Community begets community. And Another Country was a key catalyst that helped Berlin’s English-language writing scene grow, especially among Kreuzkölln expats. “Sophie is very encouraging to anyone who wants to start something and she always offers the bookshop as a venue,” Victoria says. In fact, when in 2011, the thirty-something began her writing workshop The Reader, originally a professional manuscript assessment service for writers, Sophie offered Another Country as a venue. The first workshop was a big success and Victoria decided to run it regularly. She also asked a friend of hers who was a scriptwriter if he’d like to offer a scriptwriting workshop. “And it just snowballed from there.”
Now The Reader runs a wide range of creative writing courses, including many run by award-winning published authors who act as visiting tutors. A few years ago, The Reader also founded the Berlin Writing Prize, partnering with the British Council since 2012. “We’ve run four competitions so far, and every year it gets a bit bigger,” says Victoria.
For last year’s competition, they received over 400 entries. Two of the top 10 entries turned out to be authors that would go on to be long- or even short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Meanwhile the works of previous finalists have been published as anthologies, the first volume thanks to support from Sophie and Another Country.
Lasting literary allure?
Even aside from her own contributions, 10 years after she arrived Victoria says the English-writing scene in Berlin “has completely exploded”. There’s an English language literary journal (SAND), there are reading series such as Fiction Canteen and Literally Speaking, and there’s the African Book festival, the list goes on. “It’s certainly a vibrant scene,” David Gordon agrees. As a small illustration, take the monthly poetry reading Curious Fox holds called “Isn’t everything Poetry?” According to Dave, the place is usually packed – very often with standing room only. “Sometimes we’ve had to turn people away, which is crazy for a poetry event.” And it’s not like it’s the only game in town. “I mean our poetry night isn’t the only one in Neukölln. It’s not even the only one in this postcode.”
Attending literary events, Victoria herself noticed that many more English-language writers from all over were flocking to the city. So is there something about Berlin that makes it an ideal place to be a writer, besides the (less and less) affordable rents?
According to Victoria, Berlin has a kind of Goldilocks magic to offer writers. While there’s lots going on, the English language scene is not that huge. “So it’s still a friendly and supportive place where you can easily access some guidance and make contact with other writers.” She also underlines the accepting nature of Berlin as being a strong advantage to anyone trying to do something creative. “You can say in Berlin that you’re an artist or a writer and that’s fine. You know, in some ways it’s cool not to have money in Berlin. And that’s important because unless you’re very fortunate, most artists are going to be poor, at least for a while.”
However, there’s one hazard to coming to Berlin with hopes of writing the next big novel. “Berlin is a city of plentiful distractions and I used to find it quite tricky,” Victoria remembers. “I’m older now, but when I first came I was out every night. And so for me there was always a bit of a battle between enjoying Berlin and the nightlife it offers and getting work done.” But evidently Victoria has managed to settle into a rhythm and abstain from the Weserstraße bars whenever necessary. A publisher made an offer on her most recent novel – her first to be bought. Tentatively titled The Mysteries, it’s set to be published in 2020. In the meantime, she’s hoping to expand The Reader’s offerings to include workshops for teenagers.
As for Sophie? She’s in the process of opening up a second bookshop called The Word in a 250sqm location in Schöneberg. Smack in between Yorckstraße and Kleistpark, it is set to focus on Black Diaspora and LGBTI literature and have a bar and café. Here she envisions larger events and readings catering to the local community of avid English-lit readers.