Soon there’ll be the annual book fair in Helsinki, a humongous event with hundreds of bookshops, publishers and whatnot presenting their best for the tens of thousands of booklovers browsing the offerings and rushing to catch something of the very packed presentation schedule. Pretty much everything’s there from big publishers and literary superstars to tiny one-person workshops and never-heard-ofs. The best bit, for me at least, is the antiquarian bookshop section, where you can basically browse through the best selections of the whole country’s sellers in one go. Conveniently at the same weekend in the same premises there’s something of a wine fair for securing a nice buzz so inspiring for reaching the right mood for some high culture and generous shopping.
All this is fine, and many a year I’ve been there, finding great books and enjoying the company of good friends and booksellers, many of whom I’m somewhat acquainted with after years of frequenting their shops. But something’s not right. That enormous, fully packed fair-hall with those long book-lined corridors definitely hide a gem or two; perhaps a rare Henry Miller with perfect dustjacket, to name but one of the treasures I’ve come across there. Yes, they are nice, and you’ll always find something like that. But something’s not right, buying doesn’t feel good.
Why? Because in such a fair you’re in no-man’s land in front of offerings from all around the world. The fairgrounds are anonymous places where everything is brought together for the case of convenience. This surely appeals to many. But not me. Convenience does not belong to the vocabulary of true bibliophile, who enjoys hunting for the rare prey in real shops, the weirder the better, where the actual purchasing momentum is of very high importance. It’s there that you encounter the best discussions with wise shopowners and clientele bound to be equally wise. It is not bookfairs but bookshops, dear bibliophilic reader, where you should head for while in Helsinki, because these are the places for catching the mood of the city. In a way they’re similar everywhere but at the same time they catch something vital from that particular city. What’s been read in the city eventually ends up in an antiquarian bookshop, or the best of it, as the bulk just might end up in the dump, where it probably belongs to.
Antiquarian bookshops, those hotspots of the spirit of place! Whatever that might be in that particular city, you will find something of it in a nice bookshop, or else you’ll sense it whilst walking around searching for one. Always when preparing to conquer a new city I start by finding out about the most interesting bookshops, which I dutifully mark in my map to form the framework for my wanderings in the city. That I encourage you to do as well when in Helsinki, and I can help you. I definitely know these places very well and often hunt for old English language books, which makes my tips valid for the occasional traveler.
There are quite a few bookshops in town, and most of them have a section for English fiction and plenty of non-fiction scattered in the designated shelves in between the Finnish titles. Go for it, ask for what you want, or if you’re like me, ask the shopowner to just point to the English fiction section and browse it quickly through. One typically quite quickly establishes if there are any fancy hard-back volumes with good dustwrappers.
I’ll name just a couple here with a promise to come back to them later on in this blog: Hagelstam at the corner of Uudenmaankatu and Fredrikinkatu, which is perhaps the best of them all with a unique atmosphere with stuffed owls and very rare treasures. Maps and prints as well. Another good one for English readers is Runebergin antikvariaatti in Runeberginkatu, where I’ve been lucky enough to score some amazing poetry from Lawrence Ferlighetti’s Beat-circles. Definitely not to be missed is the international bookshop Arkadia in Töölö district, which beautifully serves the foreign language clientele with good selection, big cozy and fascinating premises and an amazingly rich program of readings, plays, concerts and gatherings of all kinds. The owner something to be very proud and thankful of. Characters like him make my Helsinki.
Then there are the Planeetta antiquariats. Three branches, Green planet, Red Planet and Orange Planet, adorn the Hakaniemi, Kallio and Vallila areas respectively with varying specializations. Very good ones these as well, although not so concentrated on English language books. Not to be missed is Kampintorin antikvariaatti in Kamppi, which stocks a large collection of good quality books. Look for the varying displays in the window for some treasures. The one in Kruununhaka, Laterna Magica, is a very fascinating one with a great brick-walled gallery space at the back behind some nicely winding bookshelf-filled corridors, where photographic exhibitions and the like are held. Good English language books will be found. By the tourist-populated Senate Square you’ll find Senaatintorin antikvariaatti, which continues a long tradition of Seppo Hiltunen’s antikvariaatti, a Helsinki-institution definitely if ever there was one. So good that the new owner has picked up the legacy so wonderfully! Do not miss this little place. A very well kept one is Antikvariaatti Sofia in Vuorikatu, where I once found the complete series of Casanova’s Memoirs in a very nice English edition.
These places I definitely encourage you to seek in Helsinki and promise to cover them in more detail here at some point. There’s more places, luckily, although sadly many an antiquarian bookshop has closed down in recent years. Hats off for places like Sangi, which for one is a place I miss very much not least because of the very nice owner with amazing knowledge of books, music and everything cool. Wonder what’s he up to these days…
If books are your thing, dear reader, go for these places. And yes, why not visit the book fair next month as well, for it is after all lots of fun!