Approximately 80 bookstores are active in today’s Krakow. Despite the tendency towards a crisis in the entire book market in Poland, the capital of Lesser Poland remains a unique place with regards to the density and diversity of its network of independent and chain bookstores, both those that sell general books and those offering specialist literature.
The city can boast of the oldest bookstore in Europe, which is still active. It is located at building number 23 at the Main Market Square in the Kremerowski tenement house. Having received Krakow citizenship, Cologne merchant Franciszek Jakub Mercenich opened, as is written in old documents, “a shop with an entrance from the street where books are sold” in 1610. Currently, the bookstore also organises meetings with writers. Its guests have included Stanisław Lem, Carlos Fuentes, Clive Cussler, Jerzy Pilch, Andrzej Stasiuk, Amos Oz, Herta Müller and others. The bookstore’s walls are covered with signed photographs of these and other illustrious guests. Further inside the bookstore, there is a cafe, which features halls devoted to Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz; they are filled with souvenirs left after these Nobel Prize laureates.
In Krakow, we can find bookstores that specialise in books on music (such as the famous Kurant near the Main Market Square and the bookstore under the patronage of the Polish Music Publishing House at Krasińskiego), medicine, philosophy and comics (the one-of-a-kind Fan Komiks at the corner of Batorego and Łobzowska Streets). The bookstores of Krakow publishing houses such as Ha!art and WAM are also enormously popular, as are those that jointly function as bookstores, cafes and publishers: Bona on Kanonicza Street, Czuły Barbarzyńca on Brzozowa Street and Lokator – a joint bookstore-cafe, publishing house and gallery in one – located on Mostowa Street in Kazimierz. In 2014, Lokator opened a branch on the other side of the river in the Podgórze district.
The city features both many huge retailers belonging to major chains (such as Empik and Matras) as well as smaller bookstores scattered across various corners of the city. And although most are located in the city centre, many of them still successfully function in the suburbs, residential neighbourhoods and shopping malls. The Main Academic Bookstore on Podwale Street can boast of the richest inventory aimed at Krakow’s many students. This is the largest independent bookstore in Poland. There are also smaller bookstores at universities that offer specialist books that are unavailable elsewhere. Additionally, Krakow features very dynamic centres and outlets selling cheap books, such as Dedalus on Grodzka Street.
An uncanny place for encounters with books is the Massolit bookstore, which was established by Americans in 2001. Its name is a reference to the secret association of literati in Mikhail Bulhakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which also is a less-than-obvious play on words (“Mass of Literature”). Massolit has become the informal centre of Krakow’s English-speaking community. The only such place in Poland, it likely offers the richest selection of English-language books – both new and second-hand – in the country. This is also a bookstore with an important social mission. In the early 21st century, Massolit was one of the first places in Poland where one could obtain books hitherto unknown in the country related to queer and gender studies, religious studies, and broadly understood anthropology.
Another interesting phenomenon is the bookstore “cluster” located near the Small Market Square. Three bookstores – the ELITE Spanish Bookstore, Bo-no-bo travel bookstore and the adjacent Cud, which offers esoteric literature – function within the area of one locale. Bo-no-bo charms with its informal, casual atmosphere, and it attracts students and travellers who enthusiastically organise slideshows of their travels in the bookstore.
Walking across the Krakow city centre, one cannot forget De Revolutionibus, a bookstore run by the Copernicus Centre, which was established thanks to Rev. Michał Heller’s receiving of the Templeton Prize. The place’s mission is to break down the disciplinary barriers between science and broadly understood spirituality. The carefully segregated “sacred” and “secular” zones invite one to intimate contact with valuable literature selected by the staff. The bookstore can also boast of very intensive cultural activity, which includes more than 70 meetings, lectures and workshops each year!
If you are looking for professional assistance in choosing a book, it is also worth visiting the Bookstore under the Globe, which functions in the same building as Wydawnictwo Literackie, or Austeria in Kazimierz, which along with nearby Cheder becomes the informal heart of the Jewish Culture Festival during its duration. The aroma of roasted coffee in an original Arab finjan in Cheder will make anyone’s afternoon more pleasant.
A different category of booksellers that has been on the rise in recent years is the bookstores that function as part of Krakow museums: the bookstores at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow or Cricoteka and the Młoda bookstore at the Szołayski Palace are true goldmines for those interested in the visual arts, Tadeusz Kantor’s legacy or the Young Poland movement. All are filled with specialised albums, magazines and designer gadgets.
The Cylex Polska database has registered nearly 30 second-hand bookstores in Krakow. These charming places with an unusual atmosphere are located on Bracka, Stolarska and Sławkowska Streets and attract intellectuals from nearby universities, both professors and students.
A mandatory stop for every bibliophile should be Szpitalna Street, which prior to World War II was the centre of antique booksellers in Krakow. The trade of old books in pre-war Poland was inextricably linked with the presence of Jews. As Ryszard Löw wrote in Zwoje (nr. 2/26 z 1990): “The Christian antiquarians who at the time were a rarity […]they were less persistent, less energetic and less entrepreneurial than the Jews. And perhaps they were also more… enthusiastic? Not having unreservedly sold the object in question, and thus not always a profitable trade, that of books? This is because it was precisely enthusiasm that created the wonderful era in Polish antique bookselling. This era has been forever closed because of the conflagration of the past war, which led to the extermination of both books and people.”
In today’s Krakow, Szpitalna is still the most interesting and most buoyantly active street when it comes to second-hand bookstores: Rara Avis and Bibliofil, which function as part of one similar local law in Poland that gives bookstores and antique stores the right to take advantage of reduced lease in city premises. These are not only important literary places in Krakow, but they play an important role in the city’s cultural map. Near the universities, one can also find numerous small second-hand bookshops that specialise in specific areas. Especially popular is the mobile antique bookseller at the bench in Planty Park right by the Jagiellonian University’s main building. One can frequently find great works of both Polish and world literature there.
Another unique centre for antique shops is Kazimierz. Józefa, Miodowa and Brzozowa Streets, as well as Plac Nowy, are places where many aficionados of old objects and books make “pilgrimages.” One can obtain unique copies of books, literary magazines from interwar Poland (1918-1939), old reproductions and prints.
Many antique auctions take place in Krakow. According to the research of Dr. Grzegorz Nieć of the Pedagogical University of Krakow, our city and Warsaw together account for 85 percent of the market of such auctions in Poland. The tradition of so-called bric-a-brac auctions is alive at Kazimierz. In addition to books, one can get unique clocks, vinyl albums, stamps and even historic weapons at such events. Books are sold on mobile carts near bazaars and Krakow train stations as well as at flea markets. For the past several year, the trade of books in Polish and other languages – also as part of the Second Life of a Book campaign and other grassroots book swap initiatives.