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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turn Over an Old Leaf

That comforting secondhand bookshop smell of dust and faded knowledge is universal.

Leonid Titov, the dog-eared, middle-aged manager of the secondhand section at Bookberry's Nikitsky Bulvar store, explained the intricacies of the trade in Russian books.

"Firstly you have to distinguish between the secondhand ["bukinisticheskiye"] books and the antique ["antikvarniye"] books," he said. "The antique books are obviously the ones that can really be worth something."

Pointing at the shelves of collected works, which were published in their hundreds of thousands in the Soviet Union and sell for upward of 1,000 rubles, Titov was in little doubt about where new collectors should start: the secondhand section.

"You should begin with the classics," he said. "Get yourself the collected works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov."

Not quite the bibliophiles' Mecca of London's Charing Cross Road or the banks of the Seine in Paris, the secondhand sections found in many Moscow bookshops are nevertheless havens for booklovers – although secondhand English-language bookshops are a rarity since sellers such as Shakespeare and Company closed down their secondhand sections. Some new bookshops, such as Bookberry on Nikitsky Bulvar, do have a limited number of secondhand English books, ranging from the classics to pulp fiction.

Along Ulitsa Novy Arbat, toward Dom Knigi, curious passersby linger round the secondhand bookstalls that dot the pavement daily.

Offering a disparate selection -- from a Soviet edition of Byron's "Don Juan" (in English) for 100 rubles to 1988 Chess Roundup (in Russian) for 10 rubles -- they are the bargain basement of the Russian book world.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
The Moskva bookstore's secondhand section has pre-loved literature from the libraries of aristocrats and pensioners alike.
With new Russian books still comparatively cheap at just over 100 rubles, it's the interest and not the financial saving that attracts the secondhand buyers.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a dozen middle-aged Muscovites lined up in the downstairs section of the Moskva bookstore on Tverskaya Ulitsa, patiently waiting their turn to sell their books.

With their faces as worn as the crumpled carrier bags they drag round town, the booksellers ("sdatchiki"), a breed George Orwell described as "decayed people smelling of old bread crusts," were unwilling to talk.

Asked who sells their books, a burly man spat out "the unlucky ones," before turning to leaf through a list of the books that the shop was looking for and ignoring further questions.

"It's sad, but in these times you do get pensioners forced to come in and sell their books in order to have money to live," Titov at Bookberry said.

"Sometimes it's the descendants of aristocrats selling the books," said Natalya Dormidoshina, a sales assistant at the Moskva bookstore. "They've had them hidden in the family for generations and now they need to pay for an operation or something like that."

The shop takes a 30 percent commission if the books are bought, with the rest going to the person selling it, Dormidoshina said.

Proudly showing off the shop's most expensive book, a 1902 edition of "The Royal Hunt in Russia" worth 2,440,000 rubles, Dormidoshina indicated who could afford such pricey tomes.

"Our oligarchs are buying these books or companies buy them as gifts for government ministers or city officials like Mayor [Yury] Luzhkov and even for President [Vladimir] Putin himself," she said.

Despite the blooming business from Russia's newly wealthy, Dormidoshina said there was one major drawback.

"There are less and less books available now, with the oligarchs buying them up and locking them up in their castles," she said.

"Maybe their children will sell them on one day but who knows," she said.

In auction houses around the world, the international trade in antique Russian books is proving to be big business.

Last November in London, Christie's raised almost ?1 million (about $2 million) at its first-ever auction dedicated to Russian books and manuscripts. Another auction is planned for later this year. Of the 168 lots sold, the undoubted star of the show was an 1843 edition of "Arms of the Towns of the Russian Empire" by Alexander Viskovatov.

Originally a gift from Tsar Alexander II to his brother-in-law, the hand-colored manuscript, one of only three known copies, sold for ?62,400.

"We were definitely aiming at Russian buyers and that's why I think it was so successful," said Christie's books expert Sven Becker.

As for the novice collector, Becker was firm that the 18th century is the place to start. "And make sure that you buy books that you like. Even if the market goes down you'll still want to keep them," he said.

Becker agreed that the paranoia of Russia's powerful has raised the value of certain books, with both tsarist and Soviet censorship leading to authors falling from grace and their works being pulped.

Alexander Radishchev's 1790 "Travels from Petersburg to Moscow" fell out of favor with Catherine the Great and all but 15 of the original 650 copies were destroyed.

"It's anyone's guess what it would fetch, but if I had one I would offer it at auction with an estimate of ?7,000 to ?10,000 and just sit back and watch it soar," Becker said.


Moskva, 8 Tverskaya Ul., 629-9023.

Bookberry, 17 Nikitsky Bulvar, 202-6679,

Dom Knigi, 8 Ul. Novy Arbat, 290-3580.

Shakespeare & Company, 5/7 1st Novokuznetsky Per., 951-9360.