Books as Vodka

The Book Market

Not long ago on the Norwich University campus in Vermont I met a young man whose face seemed vaguely familiar. Like myself, he turned out to be a recent Russian émigré and he is now a graduate student at Harvard. For some minutes we stared at each other, searching for some common acquaintances or shared experiences, when suddenly I remembered: the Leningrad book market. There we used to meet regularly, strangers to each other, as are all the customers of this spontaneous trade center which is forbidden by the authorities.

The book market operates on Saturdays and Sundays. In the morning people carrying heavy suitcases and satchels, their eyes furtively glancing about every few moments, come ambling from nearby bus and tram stops to the trading spot. On summer grass or winter snow they stretch out a plastic sheet and display the contents of their satchels and suitcases in near little rows—they are trading new books. These improvised book stalls are set up in two parallel rows for about a quarter of a mile. A dense crowd of customers browse between the rows.

The price of an individual book varies from 10 to 300 rubles, that is, from two days’ earnings to two months’ earnings of an average Soviet salary. These prices have nothing in common with the state-controlled nominal prices indicated on the back cover of every Soviet publication. A peculiar etiquette insists that the book dealers not shock the customers with gigantic figures, so the price is given not in rubles but in “nominals”: five nominals, ten nominals, etc. This means that you multiply the nominal price given on the book cover by five or ten.

With such high prices it is natural that books are more often traded than sold. So it was that several times I had traded books with this Harvard student. Before a deal we would establish the “nominal” equivalents of our books, pricing them so absurdly high that we each secretly assumed the other to be a real black-market book-shark.

Occasionally a wave of fear would roll over the marketplace. Suitcases and satchels would instantly slam shut, and their owners, once respectable elderly people, would grab their heavy loads and break into a run. The police! As a rule these roundups would end with the capture of one of the slower moving intellectuals. The punishment for illegal trade activity is usually limited to informing the violator’s employer. But this in itself can be rather unpleasant: it can hold his career back for a long time, or deprive him of certain privileges. Not to mention the confiscation of his valuable books.

Fleeing from the danger of a police raid, the Leningrad book market constantly changed its meeting place. It was once in a park near a public restroom, then in a garden in a working-class neighborhood by a bust of Karl Marx, then in a suburban park. The final site was chosen according to the best rules of military strategy.…

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