Some people thought we were some kind of crazy cult

They’ve survived a lot – an attack by Falanga, visits by a “human chicken” and the burning of their waste separation bin. In Krakow, on Felicjanek Street, they run Massolit – an American café and bookstore, one of the most interesting places on the literary and cultural map of the city. David Miller and Lynn Suh talk about the people who visit Massolit, their plans for the future, and about where the unique atmosphere of their shop comes from.

Michał Koza: I came here in the morning, a few minutes before ten. This doesn’t seem to be a very busy neighbourhood; I didn’t expect that there would be people impatiently waiting at the entrance to Massolit! What attracts them to this place?

David Miller: The coffee? This is a place that attracts many people. We have a rule: if someone wants to run an open meeting, they can use our space for free – we don’t expect anything in return. You just have to make a reservation. That’s why during the school year there are sometimes meetings every day. And as it turns out, we also have a Book Club, which I didn’t know about! They meet on Monday mornings, which is why there were so many people. There are a lot of different groups that use the Massolit space.

What kind of people are they? You probably know your customers very well.

D: If I had to put it in proportions: one third is foreigners living in Krakow, the second is local Poles, and the third, tourists. I’m talking about the bookstore here; the café is usually visited by Poles.

Do you often get a chance to talk about books with them?

D: Let me think… It’s strange that we rarely talk about books with Poles. Sometimes someone comes in who wants to buy a book for their twelve-year-old and they ask what book in English will be the best. And the tourists want to know as much as they can about Poland, its history or culture. Those are the questions we get the most often.

Lynn Suh:It’s great that we have a collection of Polish literature that covers many more authors than, let’s say Miłosz and Szymborska, Herbert, or even Zagajewski. Many tourists who come to Krakow already have a considerable literary awareness.

D: It’s funny, although I don’t get many chances to recommend things to customers, when someone wants to get to know Poland and its culture better, I bring them Sienkiewicz. Problem is, it’s getting harder to get his stuff. But The Deluge is a really excellent introduction to Polish culture.

That’s a controversial opinion!

D: Exactly. Most people who come in recognise mainly twentieth century texts, but they don’t know very much about older authors. Let’s also remember that Sienkiewicz’s stylised language has been translated into fairly accessible English – for English speakers, the book is pretty easy to read.

Which of the newer writers would you recommend?

D: People often look for literature published after 1989. The problem is that so far, not much of it has been translated into English. But I’d recommend Andrzej Stasiuk, for example…

L: … and in poetry, Andrzej Sosnowski and Tomasz Różycki whom I know myself, more or less.

D: To be honest, I often recommend Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s mysteries, where you can find a very specific picture of Poland. On the other hand: I don’t like Marek Krajewski. I never recommend his books.

You mentioned that you don’t talk about books with Poles very often. Maybe it’s because it’s hard for us to open up to a relaxed discussion, and even in a bookstore, we feel better in “official” relations?

D: I don’t quite know – I’m certain there are those who come in knowing exactly what they need to buy, and they don’t necessarily want to talk about it. Among Polish customers, the most frequent buyers are those who need a cheap, really cheap book to simply practice their English. There are also those who buy books for their kids – and that’s when the more detailed questions sometimes come up. We also have quite a few people from the academic community, who also know exactly what they want. That’s why there simply aren’t any chances for a conversation. I don’t think it’s specifically a Polish issue, but more of what a given customer’s relation is to English. People who know it well enough to read an academic text in English usually don’t need any extra help.

Does it ever happen that someone comes in to just talk about their experiences with a book?

L: That’s why the Massolit Discussion Series was created – for readers to meet and get to know experts (most often writers), from the academic community or outside of it. That’s why we offer subjects in the series that go beyond literature and turn towards social and political issues, provoking a discussion. That’s why we started the project: to help the two sides communicate.

D: Sometimes there are difficulties – when we invite an English-speaking writer to read his work, especially in the case of poetry, it might be difficult for some people to keep up, which makes the discussion more difficult later on.

We focused on literature, but the communities focused around Massolit aren’t necessarily connected with it. Sometimes, they’re more socially-oriented, like Krytyka Polityczna, which used to meet here regularly. We have a small collection of books that they left us. It’s also a place where American Studies students from Krakow fairly regularly organise various events. There are many groups using the space that aren’t strictly connected with literature.

What about those who are even less interested?

D: We have cake!

L: We once invited a poet, who read a few of her pieces. Later on, there was supposed to be a discussion, and people started talking – but not with her, only amongst themselves. That can be even more important. I asked them basic questions, because her poetry was very demanding: what they thought about the pieces, what they felt, etc., regardless of what they knew about literature. It was captivating.

D: There was also a man, who guides tours for combined groups of Israelites and Palestinians through historical places in Israel. He talked about the sense of such tourism. The listeners were Poles and Americans who live here. And the discussion was really very intense!

L: There was also a discussion about the “graffiti” of the two Krakow football teams, Cracovia and Wisła. We talked about their meanings and their past. It was really an interesting conversation – Poles and foreigners, sitting all around, and even though, of course, we had an expert lecturer, everyone could get involved in the discussion. I think that’s the direction that Massolit wants to go in.

David, was this the reason that you decided to open Massolit in Krakow – you decided that there was a need for a place like this?

D: Although the main reason I opened a bookstore was personal need, but… yes, looking back on it today, I think Krakow needed this kind of space, not quite Cracovian, and even not quite Polish. Many people like Massolit because of the fact that it falls a little “outside” of the literary circles of Krakow.

What about the most local atmosphere? What are your contacts with your neighbours like?

D: At the start, some of them thought we were some kind of whacko Christian cult. I actually heard gossip like this!

A dozen years ago, the people living here were completely different than today. When we opened Massolit, this was a really poor area; you could say the working class lived here. Now a lot has changed, those people have moved out, and this area of Krakow has been gentrified, so to speak.

So – what’s it like today? I think we have pretty good relations with our neighbours – we invited one of them to a party once. I remember only one unpleasant confrontation: a neighbour called the police during one of our parties, because we were singing too loudly for his liking. What’s interesting is that it wasn’t the singing itself, but the fact that we took up a Ukrainian song, which he thought was vulgar. Anyway: people from the area don’t really come into the café. For many people Massolit is still a bit of a “foreign” place, where our closest neighbours wouldn’t really feel comfortable.

L: There was one situation that showed hostility towards Massolit.

D: Yeah, but that wasn’t our neighbours. It was a situation that happened to a feminist group that met here. Suddenly some extreme right-wing guys showed up – it was really strange, because there they were, talking about twentieth century Krakow, and suddenly here are these bald guys. It was like they couldn’t attack anyone else but people leading an academic gathering.

There was quite a bit of talk about it, such an unpleasant story.

D: They even tossed in a smoke bomb with their name: Falanga.

I’ve heard that there are more pleasant situations – like people taking out your rubbish in exchange for coffee.

D: I’m not sure we should be talking about that! (laughs) The problem is that the owner of our building doesn’t want to separate the rubbish for some reason. We don’t want to throw everything into one bin – at Massolit, we sort absolutely everything. For a while, there was a “bell” (bell-shaped container for recycling – MK) across the street, but then someone set it on fire. I think some people think that the “bells” are ugly. Anyway, we were left without a way to separate our rubbish. That’s why we made a deal with the guys who take care of it – we give them coffee, and in exchange they take away what we have.

That’s a good way to go about it.

D: And it works! We generally try to be eco-friendly – when we print something out, we use the other side of the page, and other things like that. We want to be responsible.

I hear you’re pretty close with Café Szafe?

D: Yes, they opened a few months after we did.

L: You can find many people there who visit Massolit and work here – they go there in their free time.

D: We don’t have any joint projects, although they also organise meetings related to literature. They’re our neighbours.

Do any of the other Krakow bookstores cooperate with you in any particular way?

D: Yes, we sell “other people’s” books, especially those from places like the Galicja Museum or Austeria. They have their own bookstores, too, where they sell many of our books as well. We also work with the Tajne Komplety bookstore in Wrocław – and there’s a chance that we’ll do more with them, and a few other places.

I’ve heard that you’re got some far-reaching plans, including setting up a foundation. What’s going to happen with that?

D: We want Massolit to be a place where people come to meet. We don’t have the money to invite authors and provide our guests with something more, like accommodations. We need money for that – hence the idea to create a foundation, thanks to which we’ll be able to organise more events. We’ve even got plans to organise an alternative literary festival.

L: The kind that would show not only literary life in America, but in other European countries, too. There are fantastic mainstream festivals in Krakow – the Conrad and the Miłosz – but I think that there’s a lot of room for something alternative.

D: This idea goes back to the roots of Massolit. From the start, we wanted it to be a place where different, alternative voices could be heard. I’m talking mainly about voices from the US. When we started, years back, Internet access wasn’t a common thing yet. We tried to bring in books to Massolit that were the so-called hard to get literature – books about feminism, social politics, economics, books that showed that you could look at the world differently. An alternative festival, like Lynn said, is an extension of the idea that guided us from the start. It’s also kind of an example of a very natural development: we were a bookstore, we became a café, and now we’re going to become a foundation that conducts cultural activities.

I wonder if you’re had any critical moments – the owner of a bookstore, even one as non-typical as this one, has to deal with various problems, including prosaic ones, like paying rent, etc.

D: Of course, they’ve happened, but they were related more to my, let’s call it, personal crisis. I felt like running a bookstore was in a way blocking me from doing many other things that I could do. But then there was a whole wave of voices that “refused to accept” closing Massolit and asked me not to do it. So we started working on the foundation and developing our cultural activities, which gives us completely new possibilities. And so the crisis was averted.

L: You can see our first publication, Widma, which is a collection of poems by Polish and American contemporary poets, printed in two languages. This is result of our cooperation with the Tajne Komplety bookstore in Wrocław. It’s very demanding and very meaningful literature that’s definitely worth getting to know.

D: We have many other ideas for publishing work, including translations of good Polish literature into English, stuff that hasn’t been translated until now. That’s why we’re working with writer and translator Soren Gauger, who has a good idea about Polish literature, for example works from the 1930s and 40s.

Are there any groups of people you’ll be particularly trying to appeal to in developing your business?

D: I’m not worried about that, actually. Krakow is a typically academic city, so there should be no shortage of people interested in our offer. In a way, there’s a new generation of potential listeners and readers growing up in front of our eyes. I have to admit that there’s been a definite change for the better where it comes to knowledge of English. Many young Poles have really mastered it at a high level, and that’s become a standard.

I saw something called Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops in your store. Do you have any unusual situations or funny questions that you remember?

D: There was a lady recently, looking for a Bible. We have a few different kinds of Bibles: Protestant, Jewish – or the Tanach, the Harper Collins Study In Bible (an edition of the Bible with commentary – MK) and others, but… just then, we didn’t have the Catholic one. This lady was very upset – she was convinced that there was only one Bible, and it was the Catholic one. Our bartender, Kuba, told us a story about something else recently…

L: Yeah, about the customer who was looking for a biography of the Pope in comic book form…

D: I don’t know if something like that exists, but I’d like to see it! I remember another customer, who didn’t ask any weird questions, but she made chicken sounds, instead. Really, she was here every day. What’s best is that she did it in such a way that at the beginning, you couldn’t tell that she was making those sounds. Maybe she couldn’t control it. It was incredible.

The interview is part of the promotional campaign featuring Krakow’s bookstores „ Read local”, realized by the Krakow Festival Office as part of the Krakow UNESCO City of Literature programme . The interview appeared on December 2, 2015 on the online portal O.pl.

The project is financed in part by the Ministry of National Culture and Heritage.