by Marisse Panaligan
Finding an English bookstore in Jutland can be a real challenge, especially for expats who like to read literature. But fortunately for the people of Aarhus, a second-hand bookshop right at the heart of the city has been providing them with pre-loved copies of English books for over 30 years.
Crossing the Atlantic for a gap year
It all began in 1983, when a young woman from New York flew across the Atlantic and moved to Denmark. Her name is Beth Merit, a sociology graduate who loves reading political fiction works from Andre Brink, Simone de Beauvoir, Barbara Kingsolver and Elizabeth Berg.
At that time, the idea of taking a gap year was starting to become popular in the United States. Beth could not afford it while she was in college, but when she began working and saved up enough money to travel, she contacted people she knew and came to Aarhus.
“I realised I’ll never speak Danish that well,” she says. “I didn’t really think I’d be able to do anything. And then I realised there was no English bookstore in town, and I thought, ‘well, maybe.’ That’s how it started.”
Beth made an initial investment of $2,000 and partnered with an American couple to open the shop one year later. They started with an inventory of 5,000 books, and then increased their collection by importing copies from the United States and the United Kingdom. At first they rented a small place in town, but as business grew they moved to the present location at Frederiks Alle.
Finding treasures in the stock
The shop is filled with books from floor to ceiling, hardly leaving any space for a person to walk inside. It has almost everything: from classics to cookbooks, textbooks to novels, fiction to self-help. Beth, now the sole owner, estimates her current stock to be around 250,000 books.
It is difficult for customers to browse through titles and dig up piles, but Beth, who has a photographic memory, remembers every title she keeps. Ask her, and she will let you know whether she has it or not. And for people who are simply looking around for something to read, she considers recommending books as part of her job.
“I know who’s good, and I can sense what the person likes and then gear them towards books,” she says. “In the old days, I would get to know the Danish customers, for example, figure out what level they could read in English, and then bring it up and up and up.”
Moving to the online market
Beth runs a Facebook page as well, posting photos of the books she has to make it easier for people to spot titles they like. These days, it is her main tool for selling copies – she manages the shop alone, so spends more time contacting customers online. The store is open only from 14:30 to 17:30 on Wednesdays to Fridays, and 11:00 to 13:30 on Saturdays, when people usually drop by to pick up their orders.
For Beth, the joy in selling second-hand books is putting the reader and the title together. She chats with her customers and builds her clientele through conversations before embarking on a quest to ‘hunt’ their requested books in her annual trips back to the US. Sometimes it also works the other way around, when the game involves searching for that one person who will buy her stocked copy.
After more than three decades in the business, Beth is already familiar with what kind of books sell: George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Charles Bukowski, Agatha Christie, Pride and Prejudice… But over time, she has also observed that the demand for second-hand books has slowed down, as more and more people buy e-books and use digital readers instead.
“People don’t spend the money on books anymore. They don’t value it, so it’s rather depressing,” she says.
Some books are worth keeping
Beth likes having copies of rare books. They are like the precious stones in her treasure chest of gold coins. She firmly believes that a good second-hand bookstore needs to have them on its shelves, waiting for that person who understands their worth to claim them as their own. Now, as the books gather dust and the pages turn brown, she is not sure anymore if that person will come along.
“It’s just dead,” she says. “It used to be [that] when I didn’t have anymore Kurt Vonnegut, I’d have to go and buy it in the States.” Now she still has Howard Fast and Norman Mailer, and nobody knows them anymore, but she cannot bring herself to let them go.
“I hang on just like record store people hang on. You think it’s gonna come back,” Beth says. “Like all my mysteries, I have to get rid of them all. It kills me. I mean I got rid of a lot of books, but it’s very sad.”
The future has changed, but it remains bright
Due to slow sales of books, Beth has expanded her second-hand business to other things. She created a separate Facebook group for those, and in her shop she keeps CDs, earrings and other trinkets, aimed especially at Aarhus’ many international students.
“It’s a thrill when I’m on the bus seeing people read books that I’ve had. But more fun is when I sell a skirt and I see them wearing it,” she says. “I like people to reuse. There’s no reason to buy new; there’s so much stuff.”
Beth, however, is still sticking with her bookstore despite the changing culture of reading and the diminishing market for books. “It’s a drive to find a book that you’ve never had before. It’s so fun.”
Aarhus English Bookstore is one of our picks of the best spots in Aarhus. When visiting the Capital of Culture, be sure to stop by and be delighted by the vintage look of it. You will definitely find a treasure to take home, because there is nothing more special than reading a book by the hand.
Drop by Aarhus English Bookstore at Frederiks Allé 53, or visit their Facebook page.
Opening times: 14:30 to 17:00 Wednesdays to Fridays; 11:00 to 13:30 on Saturdays.