I was running late. I like to have at least an hour of browsing time when I go to a bookstore, and I had heard that Another Country was not the most organized store in Berlin. It was 7PM, the store closed at 8, and I had just gotten back on the train going in the right direction. Once I got off at Gneisaustrasse, I found it almost immediately.
“Hey! Long time no see! It’s good to see you again! Are you here for dinner?”
“Uhhh…” I stuttered and smiled at the bald man with glasses who had just greeted me so enthusiastically. It was such a wonderful welcome, for a minute I thought maybe I actually did know him from somewhere.
“Wait, maybe you’re not who I’m thinking of. Have you been here before?” Damn.
“No, first time. I read about this place online and thought I’d come check it out.”
“Oh, great! Come in, look around! Fiction in this room, non fiction back there—politics, philosophy, biographies. And crime on that wall back there, so be careful. And you’re welcome to stay for dinner anyway! Or just a drink. Beer is 2 €.”
“Wow, awesome. Thanks.”
I started in the back room, where two students sat smoking cigarettes and speaking German. They were discussing the moral implications of censorship in the 21st century or the new line of unisex spandex at American Apparel. Something intellectual-chic like that.
I’m not that in to crime fiction, so that reduced the material in the room by about half. At home, I keep my books organized meticulously—Great American Novels, Brit lit, world lit, dramas, poetry, nonfiction, new-to-me. The haphazard jumble on the shelves at Another Country threw off my browsing game. That is, until I found myself crawling on the floor behind a counter among spilled heaps of criticism and short fiction. I’d probably still be sitting there if I hadn’t had a sneezing attack from the old book smell and carpet dust. I decided to move to the front room.
The man that had greeted me was sitting behind the desk. A girl who looked about my age sat by the door, and two more men sat in lawn chairs beside her, sipping wine. They were discussing Barack Obama and environmental policy.
“Everyone thinks, oh! It’s not my problem! The environment is falling apart but that’s their problem! Someone else has to fix it. Why isn’t anyone fixing it?”
The cynic in me was thinking, “Well what are you doing to fix the environment, Mr. Condescending-Wine-Drinking-American-Expat?” But then he mentioned that he rode his bike to work everyday, and therefore completely absolved.
I focused more intently on the shelves. I started pulling books without thinking. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Keep, and Soldier’s Pay sat on the floor next to my jacket.
“Are you finding anything good?” The girl who had been sitting by the door stood next to me.
“That’s good. Usually when you come in looking for something particular, you don’t find it. But when you’re just looking…You know about our lending system, right?”
“I think so. You pay for the book and then when you bring it back, you get your money back minus 1€50, right?”
“Minus 1€50, that’s right. OK, let me know if you need anything.”
I inched my way around the room, dipping into dusty corners and eavesdropping on the conversation.
One of the men who had been sitting in the room earlier had stormed out after the debate got a bit heated, but he had returned again and seemed a bit calmer. Now they were discussing Elvis Presley’s favorite snack.
“Peanut butter and jelly and bacon. I had a peanut butter and jelly and bacon sandwich today, just like Elvis.”
“It was peanut butter and bananas! Elvis ate peanut butter and bananas, not bacon!”
“No it was bacon! Who eats peanut butter and jelly and bananas?”
“It was bananas.” The sentence rolled out of my mouth like dice.
Everyone looked at me.
“Thank you!” Shouted the man with the glasses. He had been the one lobbying for bananas.
“Yeah, really,” I said. “Peanut butter and bananas.”
“Alright, I’m overruled.” I was surprised at how quickly the bacon man had given up. Especially since I wasn’t even one hundred percent positive about the bananas thing. I just wanted to participate in the lively conversation, and I figured I was about as well informed about Elvis’s eating habits as I was about anything else. Plus I was pretty sure it was bananas.
“What do you know about Elvis, anyway? How old are you? 17?”
“I’m 21. And I know that I used to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches all summer and my grandma’s secretary, Marsha, used to say ‘Oh! Peanut butter and bananas! Just like Elvis!’”
He made a face as though the corners of his mouth had suddenly become very heavy. I went back to browsing.
Next to several copies of Stasiland, I found a book of interviews about life in the DDR. One of the interviews had been done by George Orwell. The content seemed dense, but I was trying to make sense of it when the men started talking about something else.
“Animals can remember relationships. This lion was raised by these two guys in England and when they went to visit him in Africa, he remembered them. There are videos of it.”
“Christian.” This time I spoke with complete authority.
“Christian the lion.”
“She’s not half bad,” the guy that had been pro-bacon said to the man with glasses. To me, he said, “Is there anything you don’t know?”
“Lot’s of things…I just happen to know his name was Christian the Lion. And when they went back the following year he didn’t recognize them.”
“No, they raised him and he did recognize them. He hugged them and was all gentle with them. There are videos.”
“Right. That was the first year they found him. But the following year they went back and he didn’t run to them and he didn’t remember them.”
“No, he remembered them. Animals remember those things from their formative years.”
I bobbed my head in a way that combined nodding and shaking, and turned back to the DDR interviews.
“Where you from?”
“Where in New York?”
“That’s not New York, that’s Canada!”
“I assure you, it’s New York.”
“Want to see my driver’s license?”
“How old are you, anyway?”
“21.” I wanted to hit him. “How old are you?”
“How long are you in Berlin?” The man with the glasses asked me.
“I live here.” The grouchy man rolled his eyes.
“What have you found now?” The girl had come back in to the room and was eyeing my stack of books. I only had enough cash for one.
“You can always come back and get the other ones later.”
“True.” I selected Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith.
“Have you read her before?”
“No, I haven’t, but I read a review of her novel and it’s supposed to be really good. I figured I’d start with these.”
“I haven’t heard of her before. Looks interesting.”
“I hope so.”
“You should come back some Friday and stay for dinner!” The animated man with the glasses was standing again. “It’s great if you want a home cooked meal, or just a beer and some conversation in English.”
“Well, actually, I already ate before I came, but I think I’d still like to stay.”
“Fantastic! Yeah, you’re more than welcome.”
“Thanks.” I slipped my book into my bag and moved passed the grouchy old New Yorker, ready to be intellectual-chic with the German students in the other room.