Friday, March 03, 2006

Teaser Headlines and Book Burnings


Новотека: Новости - Власти американского города Геттисберг уничтожают сотни тысяч русских книг Russian newspapers really know how to write "teaser" style, tabloid headlines. I was browsing some Russian news websites and came across the headline above. It says that "Gettysburg Authorities destroy hundred thousand Russian books" Really, I thought ... that is weird. But the link is dead now, and I see it links to a directory under "Cinema".

Still, I thought there were enough clues to see what was up. The Victor Kamkin bookstore was mentioned, so I decided to look for that.

What I find in the 2003 meeting notes of the ALCTS website (under Library of Congress notes) is
Following acceptance of a gift of some 40,000 Russian books from Victor Kamkin, Inc., a bookstore in Rockville, Maryland that went out of business, Division staff searched all titles, accessioned those not in the LC collections, and arranged to send duplicates to interested research libraries in the United States. In November 2002, some 10,000 books were shipped to Miami University of Ohio.
Victor Kamkin Bookstores is listed as a resource for students requiring Russian language books for Gettysburg College's Musselman Library.

But that can't be all. Playing around with keywords, I find there is also a screaming bulletin board post from March of 2002, claiming that 1,000,000 books from Victor Kamkin's bookstore are headed for the county incinerator. It links to a dead Washington Post article.

2002 and 2003 seem like an awful long time ago, though.

Hmmm ... But wait, there's more! With a little more searching we find an article in the Maryland Gazette.net! Success!
Dila Stepanov said it reminded her of Nazi Germany.

Thousands of books— torn, tattered, spines broken—were lumped into literary mountains on a Gaithersburg parking lot, men shoveling them into two green, 10-ton Dumpsters.

"I won’t let my children watch," Stepanov said, pointing to her toddler son, facing the opposite way in the back seat of her car. "It is horrible. It’s like Hitler."

A Russian bookstore that has long been a haven for immigrants, researchers, and—some say—even spies and CIA agents during the Cold War, unexpectedly closed its doors last week when the owner was evicted.

Thousands of books, all in Russian and some still in plastic packaging, were taken to the trash transfer station at Shady Grove to be recycled.

"We did make efforts over a long period of time to work with the store owner," he said. "Unfortunately, the remnants had to be moved and we followed the [county] sheriff’s requirements."

Because of the enormous volume of books, he said, almost 150,000 are still in the store. Dawson said he has had offers by others to buy the books or sell them at reduced prices.

"We want to be sure to make the right move before we go forward on anything,” he said. "We hope they don’t get thrown out. We hope they can benefit someone."
So there is the story ... rather sad actually ... although I can't really understand these peoples "best efforts". I only found references to one university gaining any books from this collection, over a period of about 3 years. It seems to me it just became cheaper for them to trash these books, than to find them a good home.
The sight of books being destroyed was particularly disheartening to those from Russia, a culture that holds books in high regard, said Gayl Gutman, president of The Friends of Rockville Library, a nonprofit voluntary organization.

"If this was jewelry, it wouldn’t be shoveled into the trash that way," said Gutman, who is also a member of the Russian book initiative, a group that is pushing to get a 2,000-book collection at the library’s renovation reopening in September.

"That’s how Russians think of their books. They love them, they value them," she said. "They think of them as a primary means of being in touch with their world."

"This is trash?” asked Vladimir Novikovs of Gaithersburg, holding up a Russian children’s pop-up book he salvaged from the rubble. "This is not trash," he said.

Postscript: I found a text-only copy of the Washington Post article listed above at Johnson's Russian List archives. Well worth the read and I may add some bits from it to this post later this evening.

As it turns out, in 2002 when the books were originally scheduled to be destroyed due to Viktor Kamkin's bankruptcy - there were an estimated 2 million books in storage. Public outcry put a stop on the disposal of books, and through efforts by officials, sales, donations, etc. - the total number of books was reduced to about 400,000. 1.6 million books sold and donated in 3 years isn't too bad, considering they are all in Russian in an English speaking country.

This led to the final outcome of the books - disposal of over 200,000 of them at this time.

From what I read, the Viktor Kamkin bookstore has quite a reputation. Much of it was financed through the former CCCP. Upon the collapse of that nation, the money that paid the rent and made the business profitable - simply dried up. Further, various descriptions make the bookstores salespeople sound rather hostile/arrogant towards customers, and their prices were not considered competitive, particularly with the rise of the internet bookstore.

It is sad, I'm a bit of a collector of books, and I am always impressed with the family collections of books among my Russian friends. However, most Americans consider books to be just words on paper - they don't carry sentimental value and you can always buy a new one rather cheaply. Heck, these days you can download many books online .... many older stories and novels can even be found for free. Further, there are so many other sources of entertainment that compete for our time - what is the value of a book when so few seem to take the time to read them?

Of course, I shouldn't generalize too much - but I would say there is a definite trend towards Americans valuing books much less than Russians value books.

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