Totalitarian systems are afraid of books. They burned them during centuries and across the globe. It happens not far from here as I am writing this post. For them books are not about knowledge but a medium of sedition, of spreading dangerous ideas. Communist Romania was not far from it. At the time the Soviets impose their occupation after the Second World War, having specific books in house was a sure ticket to a labor camp for many years. Any book from the previous regime should disappear being considered propaganda for a reactionary regime. The literary value of the book was of no concern, more important being the political orientation of the writer. The Commies really wanted to make the books vanish and with them an entire history and the nation’s memory. In this way they imposed, like in any other place that they took over, a new history with a clean slate. Any reference of the old regime if not completely banned had to be criticized being related only to the harsh life of the workers and peasants. They were the only people that could be trusted, uneducated workers and peasants who were promoted with a barely 4 grades education in top ruling positions of the new communist apparatus. Intellectuals were the pariah of the society and were forced to declare their enthusiasm for the new rulers by writing new books extolling their nonexistent values. Many complied and sold themselves to save their skin but some resisted and landed in hard jails or labor camps. People were afraid to keep any old books in house so they made during those times large bonfires outside in the yard and burnt their own books. A sort of self-Fahrenheit 451. The new dark ages started with a vengeance.
When the terror receded and the regime considered its position more secure some books came out of hiding. Only specific books and notes became seditious mainly related to Ceausescu. But even then a personal journal found accidentally in a personal place could land somebody in jail and beaten to death like it happened to the poet Babu Ursu, the father of a dear friend. The government was secure but Ceausescu was insecure and in his paranoia he was portraying himself as the embodiment of Romania. You touched his personality you were automatically an enemy of the state.
But the hunger of books was unstoppable and even that they were published under strict government control many books once banned were again white-listed and published. The lines in bookstores when the rumor was spread that some new books may be sold were as long as the one for meat. People lived a very intellectual life with long discussion at the office about theater, movies, literature, philosophy, and even religion in an environment where work was for sure not the prime preoccupation. “They pretend that they pay us and we pretend that we work”, was the slogan of the time that I just resurfaced several months ago in a visit to Cuba. People were exchanging books, they tried to have a connection in a bookstore, another connection to anybody who can have access to a copy machine, a “devilish” device much feared by the regime because it could multiply anti-government propaganda and so, as a result, it was heavily guarded. But the “Xerox” copies, as they were called irrelevant of the manufacturer of the machine, were circulating and they were prized possession even that sometimes the copy was the 3rd or the 4th copy of a copy and was barely legible.
However in a bookstore the attitude was similar with the one in any food store: “Don’t touch the product”. Either you buy it or you just look from afar, to a far away cover because if everybody “will look inside it will get creased” and it worked because the books were flying off the shelf no matter what.
After the regime change in 1990 an apparently insignificant thing happened. In the stream of events and radical changes, of coups and counter coups, it was insignificant: a new bookstore opened in Bucharest where people congregated around a coal stove in the middle of the winter and were allowed to sit there and look and even read the books that were displayed and sold. It was for the first time when a new type of bookstore came alive in Romania. It was named “Carturesti”, (“carte” being the Romanian word for book), being built by people with a love and hunger of books. Eventually they built a charming bookstore in an old house owned and remodeled by a famous Romanian architect and now they just opened another incredibly beautiful location in the heart of the city.
Just because they love it.