The “Alte Buchstube Siemensstadt” bookstore was founded in the 1920s and has always been an integral part of the neighborhood. What’s more, it was so closely tied to the Siemens company that a dedicated line was installed with a direct connection between the store and the Siemens switchboard. Eventually, the store had to close. At the start of the 2000s, it reopened as the “bookstore without books” and caused a sensation. “Bücher am Nonnendamm” has now been operating successfully in Siemensstadt for almost 20 years. The owner’s name is Edgar Schuster.
Mr. Schuster, how did you end up at “Bücher am Nonnendamm”?
I had already worked in Siemensstadt. I sort of fell into bookselling accidentally. An acquaintance of mine, Gerald, owned “Alte Buchstube Siemensstadt,” which had existed since the 1920s. He bought it in 1986, and I stopped by a couple of times. Then one day he told me he “just had to run to the bank” and “here’s how the cash register works” – and that’s when I started occasionally helping out.
So that you could later take over the store?
I read a lot as a kid. I was always at the library and borrowed hundreds of books. When I later had the chance to do a little work for Gerald, I was in heaven. Being able to access all the new books and learning the background of how it all works – I realized that I wanted to do this forever! But it still took a while ...
Meaning you didn’t take over the store immediately?
No, the store closed, and I was an employee, meaning I was unemployed. For a long time, I thought about what I should do, because I didn’t have any capital. Finally, at one point I said to myself, “Okay, I hardly have any money – but I’m going to do it anyway. I’ll talk to the banks.” At that time, you still had to apply for a start-up loan at the principal bank. But no bank was willing to offer me or my associates a helping hand. Each one gave a different reason. Contradictory reasons! At the end of 2001, I said to myself, “I have to start sometime. Let’s do it now! Without capital.” Our first rental payment was advanced to us by a political representative from Siemensstadt.
Did you have enough money to stock the store with books?
That’s the crazy part. With the small amount of money we had, we bought a carpet and three BILLY bookcases. That’s all we could afford. Fortunately, Siemensstadt residents started coming immediately, saying “It’s fantastic that you’re here. Can we do anything to help you? I have a few good books you can sell.” But we only wanted to sell new books, we wanted to be a traditional bookstore.
So how did you solve the problem?
I relied on the solidarity of Siemensstadt residents. I told them, “If you guys really want to help us, buy a €50 voucher and we’ll use it to order books.” The response was huge! So, we were able to buy the first books at the Leipzig Book Fair. The “Spandauer Volksblatt” newspaper got wind of it, and the next week we were featured on the “Abendschau” TV show – and then more reports followed. Later on, we were visited by a customer who had been eating his breakfast in Mallorca when he read about a “bookstore without books” that had opened in Siemensstadt. He loved the idea. As soon as he returned to Berlin, he came by to have a look.
Do you think this is a story that could only have happened in Siemensstadt?
Siemensstadt operates differently. Before the transformation, before Siemens withdrew from most of its locations, most residents were proud of Siemensstadt, they worked for Siemens, lived in Siemens apartments. They identified as residents of Siemensstadt. Thirty years ago, I thought that was old fashioned. Later I realized, “That’s where the solidarity comes from, that’s what’s so special.”
Do you still feel this solidarity today?
Siemensstadt residents used to go to “the city,” as they called it, to walk around and look at things. Then they would do their shopping in Siemensstadt. It could be leather goods or clothing. They knew the owners so, of course, they bought from them. It’s similar today. I have a lot of customers who say, “I saw this book at Thalia or Hugendubel, but you could also order it for me.” That’s what Siemensstadt residents are like.
Will things stay like this? How do you see the future?
As hopeful. The transformation into Siemensstadt² is a tremendous opportunity. Siemensstadt will also become a little more tied to the Haselhorst community. The two are similar, but not alike. We can also benefit from the fact that there will now be thousands of new Siemensstadt residents. I’m looking forward to whatever the coming years bring!