The Voyage Out: Mr. Pinocchio

Susan Platt

A stone’s throw away from Zürich’s traffic nexus Bellevue, at a safe distance from Bahnhofstrasse’s extravagant and standardised luxury retail windows, sits one of the city’s best-kept, playful secrets. Behind glass windows, an eclectic selection of books, toys and vintage calendars with motifs from the 1950s vie for attention, giving off just the slightest hint of the million wonders that await inside.

Mr Pinocchio by Lyle Deschant

Mr. Pinocchio signage, image courtesy Lyle Deschant, license CC BY

Italian born and bred, but having moved to Zürich for love in her twenties, Antonella Ghelardi Keiser had a passion for stories and storytelling that sparked the idea of opening a small bookshop to be able to provide reading material in her mother tongue for her own two children. When a small location in a side street off Rennweg became available, Antonella jumped at the opportunity and opened Zürich’s then-first multilingual children’s bookshop in 2001, with a modest selection of classic children’s books in Italian, English, German and French. Honouring her roots, she named it after one of the world’s most beloved characters in children’s literature who had sprung from the pen of an Italian author: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Antonella

Image courtesy: Antonella Ghelardi Keiser

The lovingly selected choice of books and toys soon caught the attention of Zürich’s international community, and Mr. Pinocchio became a popular hotspot for both parents and young readers of all ages and nationalities. Four years into its existence, the shop had outgrown its premises and moved into better-located grounds on Oberdorfstrasse, where it still resides today.

From the get-go, the store has been powered exclusively by a small group of women, among whom is Antonella’s daughter Giulietta—when she is not tied up in her studies at Zürich University. “It is a real family affair,” Antonella laughs, and her eyes sparkle with joy whenever she talks about her ‘libreria’ and the small team that keeps it going.

Antonella’s zest for life as well as her knack for nostalgic items have been infused into the small space, and are almost tangible. More often than not, those who enter Mr. Pinocchio’s magical realm find themselves hopelessly lost in childhood memories, discovering and re-discovering books and toys from their own past, while on the hunt for the perfect gift for their youngster or a god-child.

Those looking for the latest commercial toy craze will not be successful here. Everything on the shelves has been handpicked and acquired in small quantities by Antonella, on her frequent travels throughout Europe.

AliceInWonderlandPopUp

Image courtesy: Susan Platt

Each item here tells a story, tickles the brain or takes you on a trip down memory lane. The paper pop-up books, of which there is a whole array on Mr. Pinocchio’s shelves, attract collectors from all over Europe and have been a staple product of the business for over 15 years. Today, they are flanked by children’s classics and picture books in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and even Russian and Croatian.

Alongside the books, masterfully crafted hand puppets, wooden model sets, colourful instruments and room decorations jostle for attention with building- and experimental kits, gruesome fake teeth and whoopee cushions—all of these comprising the many quirky and ever-growing categories of treasures.

When asked how the addition of these items came about, Antonella simply smiles and quotes Italian writer and educator Gianni Rodari:

“Vale la pena che un bambino impari piangendo quello che può imparare ridendo?”

“Is it worth it for a child to learn while crying, when they could learn while laughing?”

*

www.mr-pinocchio.ch

Eulogy for Orell Füssli The Bookshop

by Susan Platt

My Dear Old Friend,

it was with great sadness that I recently learned about your fate—from Switzerland’s biggest tabloid, of all places. And although it does not come as a complete surprise to those who have been close to you in recent years—who saw the writing on the wall before and after changes in ownership and circumstances that made it increasingly difficult to thrive under the corporate thumb—the news that you are indeed being shut down this coming spring, while in still excellent health, made no sense, and still came as a shock.

OFTB Xmas

You and I, we go back some 23 years, my dear. While this may be but a trifle in your lifespan as a bookshop at house zur Werdmühle, since your inception by Kurt Stäheli & Co. in the early 1930s, it means you’ve been along for the ride for more than half of my life. And that, to me, is quite a feat.

I remember walking through your doors in 1992, with a rather long, Xeroxed (yes, Xeroxed) list of choices for required reading material, handed out by the University of Zürich, where I had just started to study English literature. Several sheets of paper listed essential and optional reading material, including the King James version of the Bible (yep), Beowulf (of course), and a myriad of choices of drama, poetry, prose and fiction spanning five centuries.

Needless to say, I felt a slight pang of overwhelm knowing full well that my picks would have a great impact on my further academic path. But how was I supposed to know which books to choose, when I hadn’t read them yet?

Conundrum alert!

Enter your booksellers: the beating heart and breathing soul that is at the very core of you, many of whom had been with you for decades and some of whom I have had the privilege to get to know over the years.

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Ah, yes, your booksellers. A passionate lot, each and every one of them. A special breed now as they were then, taking pride in guiding those who have entered their domain, glowing with a smug joy at a satisfied customer leaving the store with a copy of their favourite book or a book by a beloved author when they made a successful recommendation. It is they who made you what you are today, my dear bookshop, because—let’s face it—your new parents, the Orell Füssli AG, never really knew what to make of you over the last dozen years or so since they acquired you in 1998.

You were their red-headed stepchild, in their eyes merely the English branch of a German bookstore chain, sticking out like a sore thumb with your talent of catering both to the English expat community in the greater Zürich area as well as the Swiss readership with your cunning mix of extraordinary in-house events providing local as well as renowned international authors and small businesses with a platform to promote their work, your knack for knowing how to truly make your customers happy by including English comfort food section (Marmite! Vegemite! Cheerios!), and bringing the joy of reading to people of all ages and walks of life.

But you do not merely sell books.

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You are a nexus of human connection. And a home away from home for so many. A place to meet, to sit and to chat on your red leather sofas.

You celebrate the English language, its multi-coloured culture and basically life in general.

Every. Single. Day.

And it works.

In an increasingly dire economic climate, in times where online giants were starting to take over the bulk of the book sales and the naysayers predicted the imminent end of the book as nigh, you managed to consistently make a healthy profit over the last ten years*.

Mindbogglingly, at a location on Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich—one of the world’s most expensive shopping miles.

And, even more surprisingly, you managed to pull this all off without the support of a proper web- or social media presence.

Because, sadly, the fact that you always have been—and always will be—neither a department, nor a branch of a chain, but your own persona (or brand if you will) with your own loyal (!) tribe, went largely ignored by your parent company who repeatedly smothered any advances by your management to bring you into the 21st century with a decent online presence.

Yes, you are unique. One of a kind. And successful. So much so, that other bookshops such as German KulturKaufhaus Dussman came to visit you for inspiration of their new books section of their store in Berlin.

But none of this seems to matter to the new powers-that-be since the latest merger with Thalia a little over two years ago.

While your old adoptive parents may have never fully understood you, they at least allowed you to continue based on the fact that you were somehow, miraculously, thriving.

But your new guardians, the Orell Füssli Thalia AG, have decided that neither your successful past nor present mean anything and—without even as much as conferring with the people who have effectively guided you for more than a decade—determined you had no future, and sold your rent contract at a bargain price for the sake of a quick buck.

So it goes.

I accept that the dice have been cast and your fate has been sealed.

However, I take comfort from the fact that I understand that you will not go gentle into that good night.

Knowing you and your quirky bookseller bunch, the next Halloween, the inherent All Hallows Read, the twinkly Xmas lights and Santa’s visit to the children on the monthly Saturday morning story hour and all of your other spunky shindigs before you will have to close your doors in the spring of 2016, will be extra special.

Santa OFTB

Santa reads to the children

I look back fondly and in deep gratitude to all the joy that you have brought into my life, moments of laughter and great pleasure at your happenings that will be forever etched into my memory:

Riding high with David Sedaris on Panta Rhei on the lake of Zürich, journeying along with Michael Cunningham at Sternwarte Zürich, mesmerized by Nicolas Sparks in the Puppentheater Stadelhofen, fascinated by our very own Alain de Botton at the Bookshop and many more … but, to me, most memorably, the epic two-hour roller-coaster ride with Tad Williams in your basement in 2011.

OFTB Tad Williams 2013

Tad Williams, 2011

Oh, how I will miss you and your shenanigans.

Case in point: The Night Circus, the book club meetings, the women’s night, the roaring twenties, the James Bond night, the Harry Potter midnight openings, or the Long Night of the Books … among many, many more.

OFTB 20ies

Roaring Twenties

As both the local media and our city’s culture department barely acknowledged the fact that you will be gone soon, shrugging their indifferent shoulders at the most recent loss of a colourful dot that will turn Bahnhofstrasse into a another grey blur of global brand monotony, I trust that my—and hopefully other people’s—expression of appreciation will help preserve your memory.

‘Tis but a tiny blog note, considering the opposition silence, but it is enough to keep the general show of disinterest from being unanimous.

Qui tacet, consentit.

I hope others will join me by wishing you and yours a safe journey to the next chapters in your lives. #GoodbyeOFTB

Good night, and good luck.

Susan

Susan Platt is a professional spunk, reluctant blogger and occasional hashtag abuser @swissbizchick.

Photos courtesy OFTB Facebook page.

*citing Orell Füssli The Bookshop’s Managing Director Sabine Haarmann

OFTB Night Circus 2011

Night Circus 2011

Glass, Concrete and Stone

by JJ Marsh

When someone dies, we often comfort ourselves with the thought they will live on in our memories. Can we do the same with a building? Or is an assemblage of brick, wood, doorways and windows nothing more than the experience of people who fill it?

Displacement is on my mind.

fire My childhood home was—I must now use the past tense—a small Welsh pub called The Drum and Monkey. The name comes from the quarry above. The gunpowder was packed into a drum and the hapless lad who lit the fuse was the powder monkey, so legend goes. Built on top of a network of caves, clinging onto the side of a valley, this higgledy-piggledy set of rooms with low ceilings, crooked doorways and open fires was the heart of village life and my family home.

This week it was demolished as part of a road-widening scheme. We all knew it would happen. We could only sigh and share memories of that ramshackle hotch-potch of four-hundred year old walls. Recollections rippled outwards from my family to friends, staff and regulars. Yet none of us was prepared for that sucker punch to the gut on seeing an aerial shot of the rubble. The Drunken Monkey, an apt mishearing by my sister, was no more.

glassSadness moved closer to my current home when I learnt the fate of Zürich’s English Bookshop. (See Susan Platt’s wonderful love letter to the place here.) Bookshops are magical buildings, where every shelf contains a hundred doorways. As a new, lonely arrival in 2004, an English bookshop was a sanctuary. Not to mention a hub for literary activities, cultural events and well-read people. I met many of my friends, allies and fellow authors on that famous blue carpet. When the bookshop closes, the building may remain but its soul will depart. I can only hope the team and their passion for books will find a new wolf-cave elsewhere. Their loyal pack will follow.

stonesBooks drew my attention to a further-flung place in the news this month. JD Smith, whose historical novels detail the life of Queen Zenobia in 3rd century Syria, sets her work around the city of Palmyra. After the Islamic State took over this UNESCO World Heritage Centre, concerns rose over the fate of its incredible ancient edifices and artefacts. Today, footage shows the temple of Baal Shamin blown up and reduced to rubble. Yet another atrocity and a grievous loss for the Syrian people and the world’s history.

Grief has different hues. Mourning those you loved can leach all colour and drape your world in black. While nostalgia for a period of time is sepia or monochrome, occasionally rose-tinted. Revulsion at terrorist murders or cultural destruction is tinted by the colour of fear.

The loss of a building is an absence, like an empty picture frame. It quite simply disappears, to be replaced by nothing. No magic, no history, no culture, no communal spirit, no charm, no life.

It is up to us who shared those times and those stories to fill the canvas with rainbows and fireworks. We must cherish and celebrate the places and spaces that house our memories. A building is so much more than glass, concrete and stone.

*

Thank you to David Byrne

Images courtesy of Creative Commons

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