Meet the 95-year-old German bookseller whose shop draws readers from Boston to Bangkok
Helga Weyhe represents the third generation of her family to run a book shop, which has occupied the same spot since 1840.art and culture Updated: Jan 28, 2018 15:32 IST
When Helga Weyhe began work at her beloved bookshop, the Red Army was on the march towards her east German town, Hitler still clung to power and Sartre had just published No Exit. Fast-forward more than seven decades and the remarkably spry 95-year-old, Germany’s oldest bookseller, swats away any talk of retirement, or even slowing down.
Still staffing the store six days a week, Weyhe said books got her through two dictatorships and would see her through her last chapter too. “I started in 1944 and I’m still here,” she says with a smile, sitting in her back office stacked with handpicked volumes.
“I had lots of dreams when I was young but they always involved books.” Weyhe represents the third generation of her family to run the shop, which has occupied the same spot since 1840. Her grandfather had the caramel-brown shelves built in the 1880s, when Otto von Bismarck ruled Germany.
A tome about the life of the Iron Chancellor is propped among the political biographies, one of the specialities of Weyhe’s eclectic selection ranging from French existentialists to German classics to Hollywood screenplays. Each volume in the shop carries Weyhe’s endorsement, even if she hasn’t read each cover to cover. She can’t abide the towering identical stacks of the big chain stores.
“You won’t find mystery novels here either, not unless they’re something special,” she said sternly, reserving praise for Agatha Christie and German thriller writer Ingrid Noll.
The most horrible thing
With World War II still raging, Weyhe started working with her father Walter at his shop that still bears the family name in the half-timbered house where they both were born. They ran it together under Soviet occupation and the East German communist state (GDR) and she took over in 1965, four years after the regime made them prisoners of the country behind the Iron Curtain.
“In the GDR, the most horrible thing was getting used to it all, thinking: ‘I won’t live to see the day things change’,” Weyhe said. That meant biding her time until East Germany’s official retirement age — when travel restrictions for citizens were loosened — before she could go abroad to visit a favourite uncle, who ran a prominent bookshop on New York’s Lexington Avenue.
“Imagine what it’s like as a young person having to wait until you’re 60 to be able to travel,” she said. “Going to New York wasn’t just any trip — it was a dream come true.”
The Salzwedel shop is filled with pictures of the New York skyline, and a blue street sign with the address of her uncle’s now-defunct store greets customers as they enter. Last year Weyhe accepted a lifetime achievement prize from the German Booksellers’ Association, which officially proclaimed her the country’s oldest practitioner of the trade. “When I won, I said this isn’t mine alone, it’s for my family which has held on here for so long,” she said.
She said Salzwedel, population 25,000, lying 200 kilometres (120 miles) northwest of Berlin, has long punched above its literary weight thanks to her shop. “I try to have books that amaze people and make them say ‘you sell that in this little town?’” Weyhe said.
“That is why I draw customers from far away — I like to say my clientele is from Boston to Bangkok,” she added with a grin.
Not a missionary
Longtime customer Klaus Schartmann, a pastor, believes Weyhe has a rare gift for sizing up a reader. “She always hits the nail on the head with her recommendations — from children’s books to adult literature,” the 78-year-old said. “And we’re happy because you don’t really find that in German bookstores anymore — only in Salzwedel.”
In the land where Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, customers are increasingly going online for their book purchases, with sales rising more than five percent in 2016. Meanwhile bookshops, particularly those on high streets rather than in shopping malls, saw a one-percent decline in turnover, continuing a decade-long trend, according to industry data.
Weyhe believes in the power of books to edify and uplift, as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party makes major inroads in the region. Although she doesn’t see her shop serving a “missionary” purpose in leading customers away from political extremes, she does make a point of selecting books that open minds.
“In the post-war years, I mainly stocked German history books so people here would know what actually happened,” she said. “I simply don’t sell the kind of books now that strengthen the AfD,” she said, pointing to recent bestsellers that whipped up fears of mass migration.
Weyhe is coy when asked when she might ease into retirement — she never married and has no children. “It could be today, it could be tomorrow. Or it could be a while yet still,” she said, savouring the cliffhanger. But she is firm that she is irreplaceable in her shop. “All kinds of people have come here and said that they could take over,” she said with a smirk.
“But my goodness, who else can help a man like Herr Schartmann,” she added, referring to her loyal customer. “Not just anyone can have that conversation — you have to have a bit of experience.”
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First Published: Jan 28, 2018 15:32 IST