There’s nothing quite like the smell of old books. Stepping into one of the many antikvárium (shops selling old books) in Budapest is like stepping back in time. Shelf after shelf groans under the weight of millions of words, miles of paper, and litres of ink. To find one that has an English book section, however small, tucked away in a corner is a find indeed.
I have been taking the bus to Buda [thank you, BKV, for extending the route of the No. 9 (the mutant child of the former 109 and 206 routes) to my neighbourhood] for about a year now over to Kolosy tér in Óbuda. I was early one day and had time to kill before my appointment. Looking though the window of a bookshop, I saw some English titles and, heart beating a little faster, stepped inside.
Up until 1993, the National Book Distribution Company ran the secondhand-book shops in Budapest. Óbuda Anitkvárium was the one that served the III district. It began a new chapter as a private business under the guiding hand Gábor Pécsi and is now run by his son, Balázs.
Balázs took his apprenticeship seriously, initially spending time in the ‘company of the broomstick more often than the books’. The shop is designed to suit all tastes, whether you’re a bibliophile or a leisure reader. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can order it and Balázs will do his utmost to find it for you. He buys a lot of personal libraries which makes for an interesting collection. And it’s nice to think that books go to a good home once their owners have passed on. The wall space that can’t hold shelves is given over to myriad prints and photographs which are also for sale.
Travel by public transport and you’ll increasingly see commuters reading from a tablet or a kindle or an iPad. I can’t see me ever crossing that line, although it would be a lot simpler to bring a virtual library on holiday than a real one. Yet for me, reading is as much sensory as it is visual. The touch, the feel, the smell of old parchment. The fleeting wonder at a pencilled note in the margin or why a particular word was underlined. That mystery conjured up by a dedication – To Agatha on her 18th birthday, September 1935 – is Agatha still alive? Where did she live? What did she do? And yes, I know you can annotate and highlight electronic text – but it just ain’t the same.
Sadly, I see bookshop after bookshop after bookshop closing down in the city. I visit apartments and flat that are devoid of books, though the residents might be avid readers. I worry about the fate of the printed word and the old-fashioned notion of reading for pleasure. We have so much we have to read – reports, textbooks, reference books – that the joy of leaving this world temporarily and travelling to another for a few hours in the company of a set of characters who have things to do is something that is becoming increasingly valuable, not least because it’s more and more difficult to find the time.
Treasures like to Óbuda Antikvarium will only survive with custom. Balázs has merged the old with the new with an online market and ordering service. I, for one, hope that the online part never takes over to the point that my armchair disappears and the half-hour I spend there once a month or so is no longer an option.
If you’re in the vicinity, drop by. III district, Lajos utca 49/B