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A Bookshop in Georgia
18/10/2018

Nineteen years ago The Bookseller asked for an account of our opening the first English language bookshop in the heart of the then, woolly Caucasus. Prospero's Books at 34 Rustaveli Av, Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, was born into a time of power cuts, local corruption, war across the border and very few tourists. Then our primary asset, after the books, was our generator. Reading it back now, a nervous phrase in the article stands out, 'would there be enough English speakers to keep the business going?'

 

When I penned those words we'd been open for 11 months. Today we are about to become 20 years old - and one of the longest running businesses on Rustaveli (the city's Oxford St).

 

So what allowed us to survive?

 

Apart from the obvious - our backbone Tamara Megrelishvili, whose managerial determination, belief and skill has been there from day one, several unforeseen factors certainly helped. First that the Georgian speakers/customers not foreigners, would form the bedrock of our business at over 50% (especially during the leaner winter months). Second that initially we became a major information source in the city, as modern Russian language publications were dwindling fast along with Russian speakers. If locals wanted to, say... start a business; travel; learn a language or computer program, or were pregnant, or just generally curious, we could help. But even when reliable internet services arrived across the country, including the remote mountain areas, still this factor never completely disappeared.

 

As the power cuts finally started to wane and the economy lifted itself up from flat on its back, the Georgian eagerness for learning English began naturally to grow. ELT promptly clicked into gear. Language schools like International House already had an ELT bookshop and were ahead of us - but as Georgia's only full-scale English language bookshop we were still able to establish another clientele.

 

Then our coffee business - developed by Steve Johnson, Prospero's co-founder - 'a very wise move' according to our manager. At the beginning we were simply the best (we had almost no competition). Our shop-ground and roasted coffee became a citywide brand; even the Marriot bought from us. This helped establish another customer base, who remain loyal to this day. As they say, people came for the coffee; stayed for the books.

 

But alongside all this one must mention the drama-loving, book-friendly atmosphere of Georgia itself. Caucasians in general like nothing better than a good, absurdist tale where everything goes wrong (a bit like the English...). To write it down, preserve and publish it has always been popular. Theatre in Georgia is also of unusually high standard. From the beginning Tbilisi established a thriving Book Fair supported by a healthy local book market. When Harry Potter arrived, the country's largest publisher, Sulakauri, quickly sold over 25,000 copies of their Georgian translation - not bad in a then poor country of only about 4 million. We of course sold the original, so effectively promoted each other.

 

Even when Kindles started appearing in our cafe - the death knell feared by many far-away bookshops (for who wants to carry heavy books all the way to Georgia and back when they can simply download?) - we survived. Furthermore ebook sales in Georgia seem, fortunately for us, to be shrinking. An attractive, well written book remains the souvenir and present of choice. Also our Georgian customers stayed faithful. Gift-giving in Georgia is a cultural necessity, far more so than in the UK. A Georgian friend at the British Embassy confessed she'd once spent nearly her entire month's salary on copies of my own book on her country, simply as presents for her foreign visitors. OK, then there was little else. But gratitude given.

 

By 2005/6 when the visitor numbers finally began to pick up, it seemed the vision many of us had had back in 1998 - of this stunningly beautiful, mountainous country (the most landscape diverse in the world for its size) becoming a tourist haven, was making real. So I sat down and wrote the first hiking guide to Georgia, Walking in the Caucasus, Georgia, simply because so many had people asked. Too idiosyncratic for regular publishers - heavily photographic and including stories - I started a small company to publish it - Mta Publications ('mta' means 'mountain' in Georgian). This inevitably developed a mini list of other Caucasus related books - and now also distributes for other small press books. All this was helped along by the distributors Central Books in London who were kind enough to take us on (gratitude again...).

 

But, just when all signs looked rosy, the Caucasian unforeseen reared its head. In August 2008 the world's newspapers suddenly reported a mini war erupting between Georgia and Russia. Those mere five days - which saw Russian tanks roll into Georgia, stop, then roll out again - were to set the country back 3/4 years in tourism alone. Some businesses went to the wall but we and the local Georgian book trade rode the storm, coffee partly coming to the rescue.

 

Many facts indicate that without doubt Georgia does have a genuine book culture. Perhaps this was confirmed when the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk visited the city a few years ago. He filled the country's main theatre - the Rustaveli (800 seats) - for his talk.

 

Today, with the tourists properly returning to Georgia again, Prosperos has finally established what we'd hoped for at the beginning; a strong presence in international guidebooks, web reports, blogs, word-of-mouth accounts. We have an active notice board, second-hand section, book launches, children's reading hour, a 'Meet the Author' program - all intended to make our Rustaveli courtyard one of their first ports of call (always best they come early in their trip).

 

Although the market in Georgia still isn't large, we and the ever increasing quantity of literary-themed restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels have been made welcome in Tbilisi. Our bookshop with a generator that 20 years ago no one thought would last, is still eagerly pouring the coffee.

 

Peter Nasmyth's fourth edition of 'Georgia in the Mountains of Poetry' is just published in paperback by Duckworth