A Bibliographer in the Balkans: A(lbania) to Z(agreb)

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2012, Vol. 36, No. 1

From 2 to 23 April 2012 I was in the Balkans, traveling on behalf of the University of Iowa Libraries; the trip was made possible by funds generously provided by the University’s International Programs. The main purposes of the trip were to establish mutually beneficial relationships with booksellers, cultural institutions, and individual writers in the region, and to acquire books for the University Libraries through purchase and donation. The chief focus for book acquisitions was authors who had participated in Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) throughout its history; a secondary focus was material pertaining to Dada and related avant-garde movements. Countries visited were Albania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, with a final stop in Vienna to ship books back to Iowa and take advantage of much cheaper air fares. Travel within Europe was by train and bus.

I arrived in Tirana on 2 April. My chief contact there was Gentian Çoçoli, the most recent Albanian writer to take part in the IWP. Gent was immensely helpful in orienting me to the city and to the publishing and bookselling situation in Albania. He donated a number of his own works to the library (books of poetry, his translations of English poetry, and several volumes of his journal Aleph).

Virtually all of my purchases were from Tirana’s only antiquarian bookstore, Eper7shme sic, whose owner, Arlind Novi, is also a publisher, and is extremely knowledgeable about the history of Albanian literature and publishing. Arlind was able to find over fifty volumes by former IWP participants, including nearly complete runs of three journals edited by those writers. When he learned that Kurt Vonnegut had lived and taught in Iowa, he donated a copy of one of his own publications, an Albanian translation of Slaughterhouse Five.

I met several times with Elvis Plaku, owner of the book vending service and bookshop Shtepia e Librit. We made arrangements for his company to supply new publications by the Albanian writers with connections to Iowa; he will also work with Arlind to locate additional out-of-print publications of interest. Most fortunately, Elvis was willing to ship the books I had purchased in Tirana at a very good rate. Having carried hundreds of books on trains across Romania in 2008, I was very grateful for this service.

A brief tour of the National Library of Albania provided an opportunity for me to donate several publications of Iowa’s International Dada Archive.
Air fares to Belgrade being prohibitively expensive, my first weekend was devoted to the three-day overland journey via Montenegro to Serbia. The only notable incident on this journey was a thumb injury received on the notoriously decrepit train from Tirana to Shkodra (fare: $1.45); this incident led, by a circuitous route, to one of the most important contacts on my trip, a Serbian book vendor with whom I was previously unfamiliar (see below).

I arrived in Belgrade on 9 April and stayed through the 12th. I visited about ten bookstores, including three antiquarian dealers, and purchased some fifty books, chiefly by Serbian and Croatian authors connected with the IWP, as well as an English translation series of Serbian fiction that, strangely, is marketed only in Serbia and consequently not widely held in U.S. libraries.

The novelist and former IWP participant Branko Dimitrijević donated copies of all of his books, and was most helpful in helping me to identify promising bookstores.

A flare-up of my thumb injury led me to seek medical assistance. Not only did the doctor recommended by my hotel make house calls; upon learning that I was a librarian, he insisted on arranging a tour of the National Library of Serbia. Following my tour of the library, I met with Ivana Nikolić, head of the Acquisitions Department. It was Ms. Nikolić who introduced me to Bojan Vukmirica, the manager of Bookbridge, a book vendor little known in North America that provided excellent, economical service. We have already begun working with Bookbridge to obtain titles that we would have otherwise been unable to acquire. Furthermore, Bojan was willing to ship the books I had already purchased in Belgrade back to Iowa, again saving considerable money as well as the effort of carrying an extra suitcase of books on the final legs of my journey.

I arrived in Zagreb on 13 April, staying for five nights. Zagreb was the best city on my itinerary for bookstores, having about ten antiquarian dealers. I was able to fill many of the gaps in our collection of works by Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian authors connected with the IWP, and found one dealer, Jesinski i Turk, who will be able to search and ship additional titles in the future. I met extensively with Miloš Đurđević, the most recent of the Croatians in the IWP; through him, I met the ingoing and outgoing presidents of the Croatian Writers Society, who expressed considerable interest in establishing relationships with the University of Iowa and its literary programs.

I also met with several individuals involved in the book arts and the visual arts in Croatia. Darko Šimičić, former archivist of the Museum of Contemporary Art, arranged a tour of that museum’s library, where I met several curators and the head of the Documentation and Information Department, Jadranka Vinterhalter. The museum staff was familiar with and enthusiastic about our International Dada Archive and our Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts collection; we exchanged publications and discussed possible collaborations, especially with regard to digitization. As it happened, on my last evening in Zagreb I was able to attend the opening of an exhibition at the museum on digitization and contemporary art in Central Europe; I met several of the exhibited artists who considered Iowa’s holdings of their works to be extremely significant; they mentioned the possibility of sending additional work for our collection.

In addition, I met Dražen Dabić, a publisher of fine press books and a collector and dealer specializing in ex-Yugoslav avant-garde publications. He donated one of his illustrated poetry editions.

From 18 through 21 April I was in Ljubljana. These dates coincided with a book festival during which virtually all of Slovenia’s publishers were offering their current editions at a considerable discount. This allowed me to obtain practically all in-print publications by Slovenian IWP participants at a discount ranging from 20 to 50 percent—a considerable saving in a Eurozone country with quite high book prices.

I met several times with Tomaž Šalamun, one of Central Europe’s most prominent poets and a 1971/72 IWP participant. As it happens, I had shared an office with Tomaž forty years previously, during my first year in Iowa City; now he diplomatically pretended to remember me. Tomaž assisted me in finding a large number of his published volumes, several of which he donated.

The antiquarian book situation was less favorable than in the other cities; there were four antiquarian stores, but they held very few of the items I was seeking. On the other hand, the bookstore of the Gallery of Modern Art provided a number of important publications on Dada and the interwar avant-garde that were quite relevant to Iowa’s programs.

Since there were no reasonable options in Zagreb or Ljubljana for sending books back to Iowa, on 22 April I carried the 100 books acquired in those two cities to Vienna by train. There I was able to ship the books from a Mail Boxes Etc. outlet within walking distance of my hotel. Thereafter I was free to enjoy the city, visit the various exhibitions in connection with the Klimt sesquicentennial, and indulge in my secret vice of riding tram lines through various obscure quarters.

Timothy Shipe
University of Iowa