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Book hunting in the Balkans

By Tim Shipe, Arts & Literature Bibliographer, UI Libraries

Earlier this year I was in the Balkans, traveling on behalf of the University of Iowa Libraries; the trip was made possible by funds generously provided by International Programs for this purpose. The main goals 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 was on authors who had participated in the International Writing Program throughout its history; a secondary focus was material pertaining to Dada and related avant-garde movements.  The countries I visited were Albania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, with a final stop in Vienna to ship books back to Iowa City.  On my first stop in Tirana, Albania, my chief contact was Tim Shipe and Gentian Çoçoli, the most recent Albanian writer to take part in the IWP, in 2006. Gent was immensely helpful in orienting me to the city and to the publishing and bookselling situation in Albania. He also donated a number of his own works to the library. Virtually all of my purchases were from Tirana’s only antiquarian bookstore, Epër7shme [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 of the connection of Kurt Vonnegut with 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 able to ship the books I had purchased in Tirana. Having carried hundreds of books on trains across Romania on trains in 2008, I was very grateful for this service. A brief tour of the National Library of Albania provided an opportunity 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); eventually, however, this mishap led, by a circuitous route, to one of the most important contacts on my trip. In Belgrade I visited about ten bookstores, including three antiquarian dealers, and purchased some fifty books by authors connected with the IWP, as well as an English translation series of Serbian fiction that, strangely, is marketed only in Serbia. The novelist Branko Dimitrijević (IWP ’85) 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 arranged by my hotel make house calls; upon learning that I am a librarian, he insisted on setting up p a tour of the National Library of Serbia.  There I eventually also 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, but providing excellent, economical service. We are already working with Bookbridge to obtain titles that we would have otherwise been unable to acquire.  Furthermore, Bojan helped to ship the books I had already purchased in Belgrade back to Iowa at cost, again saving considerable money, not to mention the effort of carrying an extra suitcase of books on the final legs of my journey.

Zagreb, up next, 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, which will be able to search and ship additional titles in the future. I met extensively with Miloš Ɖurdević, the most recent of the Croatians in the IWP; through him, I also met the ingoing and outgoing presidents of the Croatian Writers’ Society, who expressed 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 Simičić, 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. This 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 l Europe’s most prominent poets and a 1971/72 IWP participant (with whom, as it happened, I had shared an office in EPB during my first year in Iowa). He assisted me in finding a large number of his published volumes, several of which he donated. Another significant batch of donated books was waiting for me upon arrival at my hotel; these were kindly left by the Macedonian poet Lidija Dimkovska, now living in Ljubljana, just before she left for a reading in Graz.

The antiquarian book situation was less favorable than in the other cities; the four stores held very few of the items I was seeking. The bookstore of the Gallery of Modern Art, on the other hand, 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 shipping, I carried the 100 books acquired in those two cities to Vienna by train.

This was the third major trip I have been able to take on behalf of the library using the funds provided by International Programs (including Hungary, Romania, and Moldova in 2008 and Poland in 2009), in addition to a two-day side trip to Slovakia in 2011. In every case, the relationships established have continued to benefit the libraries and the University at large, and the books acquired during these trips have significantly enhanced our support of Iowa’s various international programs.


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