“How did you land up in Lisbon? Why did you open a bookshop in Lisbon? What does the future look like for books?” — Ibero-American Institute in Madrid asked and we answered. Original interview in Finnish on Madrid.fi website. We translated into English:
A unique bookshop in Lisbon
In 2010, Leena Marjola became so fed up with the long hours of work and constant rush in southern Finland, where she lived and worked then, that she decided to emigrate. First she moved to the metropolis of London, but soon afterwards chose to settle in Lisbon. Leena fell in love with the city, and has been running her own bookshop in Lisbon – Bookshop Bivar – for over two years now.
How did you land up in Lisbon?
I first came to Lisbon over five years ago and almost immediately felt at home. I loved the people, the coffee-centred culture, the city itself and the light. Lisbon’s slightly dilapidated cityscape, with its narrow alleys, cafés, and parks full of old men playing cards was like paradise, promising freedom from stress. I could just sit on a park bench watching the world go by and breathe in the scent of the jacaranda trees. Watch people paying attention to each other, and stopping to chat – not in a hurry, always with time for one another. I have to admit that it’s not really that idyllic, but that’s how it felt – and still does most days. And so one winter stretched into almost five years.
Where did you get the idea of opening a bookshop in Lisbon?
I’ve always been a keen reader and, like many other booklovers, I’ve dreamed from a young age of working with books. For one reason or another, I drifted into other jobs, but that dream was always in the background. After settling in Lisbon, I systematically visited the local bookshops. To my surprise – and dismay – I could find hardly any bookshops offering second-hand English-language novels. Some had a range of new books, but far fewer than in Helsinki even. Of course, books can be bought online, but it’s not as much fun as browsing in bookstores. I visited stores selling Portuguese-language books regularly, even though my Portuguese is nowhere near good enough to read in that language. I went to these bookshops just to be surrounded by books. Gradually it dawned on me. That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted – to be surrounded by books all day long. And so after a bit of pondering and sorting out the practical side of it in my head, I decided to try it.
What is the underlying concept of your bookshop?
For me, it was important to open the kind of bookshop that I would want to go into myself. A bookshop not centred on profitability, and with no hard-selling and no pressure. Where customers are helped if they want help, but are welcome to sit in peace on my red sofa and read a chapter or two. Where you can shoot the breeze with the bookstore owner, and then walk out with no guilty feelings about not buying anything. A bookshop with no blaring music to interrupt your thoughts or make it difficult to converse. Where you meet pleasant, interesting people (because booklovers are always nice).
The underlying concept is to be just a normal bookshop, acquiring and selling ordinary secondhand books. Some customers offer their own books for exchange, and if I think I can resell them I give them a credit towards books they buy from me. When I say ‘ordinary’ books, I mean books people read at home and on the way to work, and which you would happily take to the beach or park. My special niche in Lisbon is that I don’t sell any Portuguese-language books. All the books I sell are in English. I also bring Finnish books with me when I travel back from Finland, and some Finns resident here donate a few, too. These books are not for sale; I lend them to people who live here. I also arrange literary events in English: presentations by authors, book club meetings, and so on. A book club that started last spring meets every month, and another literary discussion group meets at regular intervals.
What kind of customers do you have?
The majority of my customers are readers who live here, rather than tourists. Most of them are Portuguese, but some are other nationalities resident here. There are more tourists in summer, while in winter longer-haul travellers from, for instance, Australia and Canada visit my bookshop. I get customers of all ages, ranging from 80-year-old Portuguese ladies to young American toddlers.
What future plans do you have for the bookshop? What does the future look like for books generally?
At the moment I see no great changes on the horizon. I’ll go on the same way until I encounter a need to rethink. I’m always trying to expand the scope and number of books I stock, and looking for new sources to acquire them.
I have to keep my eyes and ears constantly open, of course, because the world of books is facing unprecedented changes. We hear on the news that book sales are falling everywhere, and in Finland people worry that young people no longer read much. I still believe there will always be people who love reading and that conventional printed books will hold their own in this changing world. More books are being printed than ever before, and although eBooks have gained a foothold I don’t think they will completely replace the printed book. The novelty of ordering a book online has worn off and readers are returning to bricks-and-mortar bookshops, where they also meet other booklovers. Reading is generally regarded as a solitary pastime, but readers don’t want to be wholly without contact with other people – at least not in Portugal!