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Confessions of a leftist bookseller

Gabriele Goettle visits Bettina Wassmann, a pioneer of the political bookshop.

The bookshop of Bettina Wassmann lies in the inner city of Bremen, on the street called 'am Wall', a long, curved shopping street, home to the art hall, the legal association and upper administrative court, as well as galleries, fashion shops and design studios, restaurants, cafés, antique dealers, libraries and the peace office for conscientious objectors. Across from the shopping area is Wall Park, with its moat-like lake in the zigzag form of the former citadel wall. This inconspicuous stretch of green was the first public park in Germany.

The tiny bookshop at 'am Wall 164' lies behind an beautifully decorated art-nouveau display window. The glass doorway at the side of the shop is heavy and doesn't close by itself. Inside it is not roomy, but not cramped. The shop is clutter-free. There are no piles of books in the corner threatening to topple at any moment. It is not crowded, everything seems to have found its place. Current books and new releases, carefully selected and presented, fill the black bookshelves which stretch up to the ceiling. Alongside these are books she has published and of course classics like Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, Lukacs, Bloch and Sohn-Rethel. A robust portfolio boasts sheets with the stamp-format letters of the alphabet. Two cabinets with glass windows display newspaper clippings and photos. I recognise Meret Oppenheim and Alfred Sohn-Rethel.

We are politely asked to sit down on narrow seats. Bettina Wassmann fills the coffee cups from a thermos, puts them down beside the computer on the marble sales counter and says she's been running the bookshop for 36 years now.

"It used to be bigger, there were stairs and a second floor. That was the shop's heyday and of the book business in general. At the beginning of the 70s, those were heady days, there was an unbelievable hunger to read, because of the general politicisation, because of the student movement, and of course I was one of the founders of the political bookshop, the leftist bookshop, which then spread like wildfire. It was an unbelievably lively, optimistic time, but of course a shop like this has its ups and downs, it goes through the business cycles, as Keynes would say. Everyone knows the story of the left-wing 68ers. Things quietened down and then of course they got incredibly difficult. And you can forget about today. But back then, in the summer of 69 when I started up the bookshop here, no one would ever have imagined there could be such a backslide, such lethargy.

At that time I'd just come back from Berlin, where I'd been working for over six years in 'Wolffs Bücherei'. That was a very important time. Maybe I'd better tell this chronologically. I come from a good family, as they say, well-situated, my father was a cotton merchant and head of a large company, and then one day synthetics came up fast and it all went helter skelter, the cotton sector. That kind of thing happens all the time. And when everything was coming down all around us, I thought, now I've got to stand on my own two feet, I can't go around all teary-eyed because the house's been sold and all that, that won't help. I was in my early twenties and had just finished my training as a bookseller and decided to go to Berlin. First I applied at Marga Schöller's bookshop. That was the best address. For people who don't know her, Marga Schöller was born in 1905, I think, and at 24 she opened her little bookshop on Kurfürstendamm, number 30. She was so good that in no time everyone was coming to her, from George Grosz to Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil and Elias Canetti to Erich Kästner and James Baldwin.

And during the Nazi era she didn't sell Nazi literature, she stuck all the 'degenerate' books in her cellar. That's why she was also one of the first to get a licence to sell books again after 1945. And she did it again. The 'Gruppe 47' (Group 47) had its meetings in her shop. You simply went to Marga Schöller. When I got there it was winter, I'd borrowed my brother's car. Coming from Hallensee the shop was on the left. Essays from the press, photos, everything that was interesting hung in the window. You'd already read something by the time you made it into the shop. The whole atmosphere was enchanting, everyone was terribly cultured. Unfortunately, they didn't have a place for me. Marga Schöller was exceedingly friendly and said they'd love to have me there but I'd have to wait a year. I was very disappointed, very. She saw that and said there was another bookshop she liked very much, but the man there was a tough cookie, not at all easy to work with. But aside from that, he's terrific! 'Wolffs Bücherei' on Bundesallee, number 153.

I drove there in the VW and went in just like any customer and the aforementioned Herr Wolff came up to me holding a cigarette. That spoke volumes about his autonomy. In other bookshops you weren't allowed to smoke, or do anything at all. I said why I was there and it turned out that he'd just had to let one employee go. He was rather upset, in fact he really really suffering, but not many people can cope with that sort of thing. Four weeks later I started. It was a wonderful time, we became very close. He had a marvellous wife, Nadeshda. They were both of Russian origin. You have to know that Andreas Wolff's grandfather was the famous bookseller and publisher Maurice Wolff, who had his bookshop in St. Petersburg on Newski Prospekt, which was frequented by Russia's entire literary and artistic elite.

At one point he converted from Judaism to Protestantism which later on benefitted his children and grandchildren, being stateless Russian emigrants in Nazi Germany. Maurice died in 1883 and his son Ludwig - Andreas' father - took over the shop. Andreas Wolff was 15 when the family was stripped of their belongings during the revolution and emigrated to Germany. He trained in a publishing house and later opened his bookshop on Bundesallee, in 1931. After the war he set up Suhrkamp Verlag publishing house in Frankfurt together with his friend Peter Suhrkamp. He stayed there as managing director until 1955, then went back to his bookshop in Berlin. So you see Andreas Wolff had a long family tradition behind him and I learned a tremendous amount. Also about typography, for example with the books produced by his Friedenauer Presse publishing company. He even introduced me to the women who sewed all the books together, they were still binding books with thread back then. I tell you, that was an incredible skill, tying those knots.

His daughter Katja Wagenbach has had her own publishing house since the 80s and she's built up the Friedenauer Presse very successfully. I can still remember when Klaus Wagenbach came into 'Wolffs Bücherei' back then, that was 1963/64. He'd just returned from a visit to Max Brod in Israel, about Kafka, and was in the middle of a dispute with Fisher Verlag, who edit Kafka. Not long afterwards he sold his stamp collection or something like that and started up Wagenbach Verlag together with Katja – she was his wife back then – on Jenaer Strasse.

And they had a big party to celebrate the opening of the publishing house. Of course we went. By the way, at the time I had this great Opel Kapitän, Wolff and I always went around in it... When you shut the door it sounded like a safe closing. Perfect! Right, at the party we met Ingeborg Bachmann, and chatted with her on the way up in the elevator. She found it so amusing that she simply pressed the down button and said, let's keep talking for a bit. At the time Berlin was like an aquarium, we went to all the readings in the Academy of Arts, I can remember Friederike Mayröcker, her 'Arbeitstirol', that's what it was called I think, and Thomas Bernhard. Oh ... Helen Wolff was still alive at the time, Kurt Wolff's wife, from the Pantheon Press. And the old Bondy. So many of those wonderful people are dead now.

Of course at Wolff's Bücherei we also had the most exquisite readings, you could say, we made literary history. They all came: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Uwe Johnson, Max Frisch, Günter Bruno Fuchs, Günter Grass, Nicolas Born, and many others. I can still remember Enzensberger for example, I think he read some poems. Holding his hand was his daughter with the enchanting name of Tanaquil. I never forgot that name. A lot of authors also came as customers, of course, some of them lived just around the corner. It's such a treat when you can learn from people who really know their stuff, when you have such a king at your side. But the day comes when you have to leave. That can be dreadful, but it's necessary. We had a quarrel over whether to publish Heinrich Mann's essay 'My Brother' with a left-hand margin or not. Left-margin or centred, and I said, with a family like that it should be centred. The quarrel broadened and I ran out of arguments. In any event I was thinking, it's time to leave. I'd had enough of Berlin.

That was in 1969. I went back to Bremen and my courageous parents. These days when you go into insolvency you go to a restaurant and order champagne. In those days it was a terrible thing. Everything had been sold. But Jakobs Coffee company had a piece of land and they gave it, I think, to my father. After all, they were all in the SPD. And then my father started up a record business, that's why I have this daft music collection. The people at the flea market always say: man, the things you sell, it's unbelievable. Of course I could ask a lot more for them, but I'm just happy when the box is empty. Right, here I was again and I sat around in the garden with one thought in my head: to be my own boss! I went for a lot of walks and cycled around the city. This building here was just being rebuilt and in front of it I ran into Olaf in workers' overalls. He was co-founder of the Green Party in 1980. He's an architect and shrewd with it, he also headed a big protest movement against poor building plans. He stood here and said: Well, you want a shop? And I got a shop, at first upstairs, practically in the hallway, it was a lot smaller than here. And I started up and ordered my first books..."

A customer comes in and asks the entire shop: "Do you have Gero von Boehm's, 'Who was Albert Einstein?', at least I think that's what it's called?" Bettina Wassmann asks: "Is it good? Well, I've read Thomas Levenson, but you want Gero von Boehm, should I order it for you?" But the customer needs it immediately and is sent along to the next bookshop a few doors down.

"So I started off very small, I was practically the first leftist bookshop, and ordered the entire works of Karl Marx. The place filled up in a flash, to overflowing. I've never seen such a full bookshop. My first customer was Günter Abramzik, he was a good friend of Ernst Bloch's. Later he was Pastor Primarius at Bremen Cathedral and also responsible for the Protestant student community after Bremen University was founded in 1971. They were very progressive. I also published a book of his: 'Von wahrer Duldung' (of true toleration).

Well, anyway, then there was the contract for the university bookstore. We applied for it and got it. But with time it was just too stressful and hectic. In the meantime the shop had moved here and that's when I gave up the university contract. But that was later. I wanted to talk about how things started with Alfred.

I was living together with Barbara Herzbruch, we were good friends. She later became Klaus Wagenbach's second wife, by the way. At the beginning of the 1970s we attended a lecture by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who was a visiting professor. The topic was 'Mental and Physical Work'. We had a real laugh at the title. The lecture hall was packed. The atmosphere was incredibly concentrated but I didn't understand a thing, not a thing! Let's face it, if you're not completely at home with Marxist and economic terminology, you can forget it. I kept nudging Barbara but she didn't understand a word either, even though she studied economics. I was completely taken by the sheer complexity of the person sitting up there at the front. Even in the breaks he had this almost fantastic charisma, he was very calm, but not at all authoritarian. He was cordial, kind, warm. He was highly respected but it hadn't gone to his head in any way.

He was a very special person and he made a real impression on me. I then met him at a party. At the age of 74, he was sharing a flat with Thomas Kuby, who'd taken him under his wing, he really liked that. We talked to each other a bit at the party and made a date. That was 1973. Then Alfred showed up here in the bookshop and bought way too many books, maybe because he knew he'd never be able to carry them all, and asked if I could deliver them. Well, there are times in life when you just can't say a thing. I thought, what's happening! I was totally shy, I'm not normally like that at all. I brought the books to his place and we started talking. I managed to find my tongue again, and we talked a lot about Benjamin. There was this collection of his works, and later the letters.

We started going out for a meal about twice a week and I always asked him to tell me about the emigration and particularly about Benjamin and their time together and work in Paris. And also about Adorno in Paris and what it was like at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and things like that. I absorbed it all, he was a great talker. Sometimes I was afraid it would be rude to always ask him about famous people, but for some reason I was blocked, I couldn't speak, I was held hostage by his whole aura. But he was kind and sweet and wasn't at all the type who wraps you around their finger, like Adorno.

Then at one point Alfred moved in with us on Bismarckstrasse, together with Barbara Herzbruch and me. And then things really took off. We were really running a household. In the evening friends from the university would come by and naturally we'd cook something decent, even Alfred would cook. And my publishing work really took off too, with the commemorative volume for Alfred's 80th birthday. I was the one who thought up the title, 'L'invitation au voyage', that's a line from a Baudelaire poem. It brought together a wonderful collection of work under the broad heading 'Mechanisation of mental work'. It included people from cybernetics, from the natural and social sciences, all working together with real devotion. The university in Bremen really stood out for that kind of interdisciplinary work. All in all we had 18 very different contributions and I thought, we'll do a separate booklet for each one. That gave us 18 booklets in a beautiful folder. I sent it to Roberto Calasso, publisher at the exquisite Adelphi publishers in Milan. He's an author, too, not just a publisher. His wife's also an author, Fleur Jäggi.

Well!", Wassmann says, sighing. "They have this wonderful publishing house and some small change from Fiat. And he said: That's the most beautiful commemorative volume I've ever seen. That praise meant a lot to me. Well, the collection has some wild features. One of the texts is about Alfred Seidel, he was an old friend of Alfred's from back in the 20s when they were students in Heidelberg. Even back then Alfred Seidel was doing Prinzhorn therapy, because he suffered from severe attacks of depression. Sohn-Rethel always said he'd never met anyone cleverer and he said this without sentimentality. Aged 23, Seidel had already written a book called 'Bewusstsein als Verhängnis' (consciousness as undoing)." The guests' laughter resounds around the room, then Wassmann continues: "Alfred liked him a lot. Then one day Alfred Seidel committed suicide. And you know where? In the toilet of a train station!

And that was another reason why I got out of the university bookshop, so I could devote myself entirely to Alfred and the bookshop. That was enough. It's possible to bite off more than you can chew and that's terrible. A lot of the people I knew suffered because of it. Barbara Herzbruch did. She died of cancer aged 44. I used to drive to Berlin at weekends, I rented a small flat and visited her in the oncology clinic. That's where she met her tragic end. Fortunately I was always able to turn things around when exhaustion or listlessness got the better of me. That's probably got a lot to do with my wonderful childhood. I come from a very musical family – Adorno once wrote to Walter Benjamin: 'Music is the promise of life without fear'. My father had studied music. My mother was an exceptional craftswoman with very nimble hands. She'd studied art.

There's a lovely anecdote about her. My parents would sometimes travel to the USA, when my father had business to take care of with the bank, such as prefinancing. There was a Jewish banking house he was on good terms with and the whole thing would take some time. My mother would say, 'You do your business, I'm going to the Metropolitan Museum'. There she happened to meet one of the museum directors, who worked on the Kurfürstenallee in Bremen. My mother could hardly speak English, and she called out in German: 'Help! Do you also have lace here?' My mother had taken an interest in lace and could even make it herself using bobbins. Well, they had lace, all in a complete jumble. She said she would sort it all out and put it in order. The curators were fetched and she got everything she needed. Stretching them out on pieces of cardboard, she sorted the lace according to its age and origin, there was lace from the 15th century, from Bruges, from Brussels, and so forth. That was my mother.

We are five children in my family, all with our own talents. My brother Christoph has a talent for glass. He can feel a glass with his eyes blindfolded and tell you: 16th century. Fantastic. And we all played instruments. I played the piano, the others violin. We came from a wealthy family. The neighbour's children practically grew up with us, because we weren't at all conservative, we weren't subject to that authoritarian world which was the norm at the time. We didn't have that. Everything revolved around art. Music was the backlash, so to speak, which we could afford thanks to a prosperous business. As children we went to Salzburg and stayed at the magical Kobenzl Hotel, we were friends with everyone and I spent more time in the kitchen than in our rooms. I played football with Georg Szell. He was in his mid-50s or so and was there with the Cleveland Orchestra. We saw Wilhelm Furtwängler conduct 'Don Giovanni' at the 'Felsenreitschule' venue, a magnificent experience, which still, today..."

A young man enters the shop, says a quick hello and hands a slip of paper to Bettina Wassmann, who is sitting next to the door. At the same moment bagpipe music starts up. "Do you have a tape recorder in your bag?" she asks in surprise. "No, phone", says the customer, flipping open the tiny gadget and stepping to one side, while making various banal comments in a loud voice. Bettina Wassmann glances at the slip of paper, takes a pen and corrects something while the young man finishes talking. Then she says in a neutral voice: "Wrong spelling. Updike is written with a k, not a c. Here, like this." She recommends the Thalia bookshop. The young man says: "Right, I'll give it a go. Bye," and leaves without saying thank you. "I was never very good at dealing with impolite people. At the flea market, there are hoards of people and often they come to your stand... and then when someone has the nerve to be disrepectful, to start criticising your things in order to haggle down the price, and you've been sitting there since four in the morning, it's depressing. Things aren't easy nowadays!

It used to be different. Then I had other customers, not just the so-called intellectuals, it was simply more colourful. At the beginning of the 90s, for example – Alfred was already dead – Otto Rehhagel sometimes came in here. He was a trainer with Werder Bremen soccer team, he developed a wonderful style of football and was an avid reader of poetry, a real enthusiast. He bumped into Reinhild Hoffmann here, who'd taken over the Bremer Dance Theatre after Johann Kresnik left. He invited us out to a cafe, because he was keen to find out about Hoffmann's training methods. That's how it's got to be, a continual exchange of knowledge. Even between people who maybe just bump into each other here by accident.

But the Left hated football, they could never work up the kind of excitement other people felt for it. The game's really all about knowing your body and the speed of interaction within the group. But it was difficult to find anyone you could talk to about football apart from Detlev Claussen, who wrote that fine Adorno biography. Or Dietrich Sattler, who published the edition of Hölderlin he'd worked on for 20 years, I think. After the second or third time that Werder Bremen didn't win the league, he wrote this terrific mourning piece. It was woven together with pure genius, using a motif similar to that in Shakespeare's, 'The Merchant of Venice' where Portia's suitors have to choose between three caskets. He just wrote it for himself as a way of coming to terms with the defeat, because that sort of a defeat can be difficult for someone who loves the game. He showed it to me here and it was written so magically that I said, 'Listen, this absolutely must be published'.

I immediately thought of Wagenbach but then I remembered he absolutely hates sports, just like Churchill, 'no sports!' And I thought, there's no way he'll want to do that. But it was simply so wonderfully written that I gave it to him anyway. And you also have to know that it was a huge problem to go to a stadium with Dietrich Sattler. He had this tremendous phobia and got himself into such a state when he was in a crowd, let alone a hugely excited crowd! I led him by the hand and looked after him. We were sitting there with 40,000 fans. And behind us there welled up an incredible chorus of men's voices. They were all dockworkers from AG-Weser and you can just imagine the kind of voices they get from working in a 200-metre-long ship's hull and constantly yelling at each other. Well, to cut a long story short, Wagenbach printed the essay. In 'Freibeuter', a quarterly on culture and politics.

Like I say, today everything's become so much more difficult. Different customers really. I have to be flexible. For example, I work together with a fashion boutique, with an old friend of mine from back then. She's got the best fashion shop in Bremen. Four or five times a year we do a fashion show and I do the literary programme on the side. Sensational! It's attended by 80 to 100 women, customers and between the fashion shows, for example, there's a reading of Gertrude Stein's 'Das Geld' (money), or Schiller's 'Das Glück' (luck)".

Many of the women are managers. And from time to time one or two of them comes into the shop and buys books, and none too few, either. That gives me a leg to stand on, you need that. But I don't compromise my ideals. Just sitting here and waiting works sometimes, but not always. Business was great on Saturday, for example. It was really hot, so of course everyone was sitting outside, we were drinking a glass of water and someone yelled, 'Bettina, you've got customers!' Of course the whole street burst out laughing. There were two couples and me in the store, five people in all. That's practically filled to overflowing here. They were from the city and bought so many books that I had good takings on Saturday. They bought mountains of books, enchanting people!

That was crucial for the rent. I pay 600 euros here and another 600 at home. It's no joke, the times are hard. You always have to be on the ball. A lot of shops have had to leave here. And as far as my publishing goes – well, I mean it's not a real publishing house, it's more like a bookshop edition, I've put it on the back burner. My printers have gone bankrupt too. It's appalling! We've sold a lot of the paperbacks from the Süddeutsche Zeitung edition. What we take in from it hardly makes it worth our while, but I did it anyway. We sold 1,000 volumes!" She opens a book. "Look, I've found a beautiful sentence by Alfred: 'But even Freudian theory belongs to the priesthood of the capitalist cult... suppressed thoughts, sinful ideas are capital, they're the pits of the unconscious, with interest paid on top.' I have to print Alfred's works again, that's for sure."


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on October 31, 2005

Gabriele Goettle writes mainly for Die Tageszeitung and was co-editor of the anarchistic Berlin magazine, "Die Schwarze Botin" (the black messenger). She has written numerous books and was awarded the Ben Witter Prize for literature in 1996. She lives in Berlin.

Translation: jab.

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