Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Melbourne City of Lit meets Heidelberg’s The Travel Bookshop

In this series, run in partnership with the Melbourne City of Literature Office, we get to know some of the bookshops in the UNESCO Cities of Literature network.

‘Heidelberg is most famous for its castle and the Old Bridge,’ says Heidelberg UNESCO City of Literature’s Phillip Koban. ‘Nevertheless, just a few sidesteps away … and hidden in one of the manyfold little but picturesque streets—which make a walk through the old town so attractive—travellers will find a place that is worth a trip itself: this is The Travel Bookshop.’

The German store, as the name suggests, specialises in travel, with a range of travel guides, maps and globes available. This hasn’t always been the case though—with a history tracing back to the 1950s, the shop was originally focused on specialist equipment for stamp collectors plus a broad variety of maps. Since 2011, however, when the current owners came on board, the focus shifted towards books—though maps and travel are still very much at the core of the business.

The Travel Bookshop’s trio of booksellers, Sabrina Jirschikowsky, Dorothea Paals and Conni Bahmann, together tell us more about the store. ‘Our main specialisation is in the field of travel, so we continuously stock maps of literally any conceivable—and, sometimes, inconceivable—kind, be they political maps, hiking maps, biking maps, world maps, road maps, 3D-relief maps … We also stock an intimidatingly large variety of travel and activity guides to almost every spot on this earth.’

Their books take on travel from almost every angle, including literature through the ages, coffee table books (‘mainly the kind that shows interesting holiday destinations’), cookbooks, postcards, and international literature, mostly translated into German. ‘This is due to our own literary tastes as well as the fact that many travellers wish to learn about a country by reading its literature,’ the team explains.

Not everything is travel though—there is also a carefully selected range of prose, nonfiction and poetry, with the works of 2020 Nobel Laureate Louise Glück being one of last year’s top sellers for the store. ‘Following our shop’s tradition, we also provide collectors’ equipment in the fields of philately [stamps] and numismatics [currency].’

One of the things The Travel Bookshop prides itself on is being able to track down whatever title or map (within reason), or even DVD or record their customers are looking for—often extremely quickly. ‘What we do not stock, we can order literally overnight in most cases,’ says the team. ‘Our wholesale distributors stock about half a million titles which they deliver during the night. What these distributors do not stock, we order from wherever need be.’

Essentially, if you ask for it, they’ll do their best to find it. ‘It is very important for us to keep in close personal touch to our individual customers, especially regarding recommendations and consultations … We do not shrink from writing requests in foreign languages, or from detecting books which are decades old and buy them second-/third-/fourth-hand or directly from the author.’

When asked about the strangest request they’ve received, the team finds it difficult to pick just one—there have been a lot. In one case they had to dissuade a customer who wanted a map to help him off-road bike in a landmine-riddled area. In another, they had to explain why a map from Grecian and Roman times didn’t feature America and Brazil. Then there was a customer who came in with a request for a hiking map of Australia. ‘The entire Australia, that is. On one map. And in an appropriately exact big scale, too. Would be a rather big map, then.’

Housed in a picturesque neighbourhood filled with shops and cafes and students and tourists, the team at The Travel Bookshop is deeply involved in their community. ‘With community in general we interact in what we believe to be a good neighbourly and responsible way; e.g. we support a local telephone helpline for victims of domestic violence, in the way of collecting donations and handing out bags with the phone number on them; and we encourage our customers to travel sustainably, to learn about our planet and to regard themselves as part and parcel of it.’ And even while many borders remain shut, that doesn’t mean that the store is on pause. ‘As long as people cannot travel, they interestingly turn to books on eco-gardening, bird-watching and like issues, which makes us quite happy.’



Category: Features