English-Language Bookshop Moves Beyond the Zero ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Lewis McGuffie.
Lewis McGuffie. Source: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc

One year ago, Slothrop's opened on Müürivahe tänav in Tallinn's Old Town. With close to 4,000 gently used books in stock, it's become one of the Zone's most important English-speaking literary meeting places.

The following is a transcript of the ERR News interview, edited only slightly for clarity. 

We're in Must Puudel, a Tallinn hotspot, sitting with Lewis McGuffie, who is one of the owners and operators, through various murky holdings and concerns, of Slothrop's, which is, to the best of anyone's knowledge, Estonia's first…

…second-hand, to play it safe, first second-hand English-language bookshop. It's definitely that first one.

According to the website, Slothrop's caters to the intellectual and…

Well, I would say that we have good books for - (laughs) Christ, I should remember this line - ah, yes, good books for smart people who aren't rich.

And pseudointellectuals?

Lots and lots of pseudointellectuals. And actual intellectuals as well. Clearly intelligent people. Would hate to say that customers are very pseudo intellectual. And students as well.  

And you also run a cultural non-profit...

Yes, I am involved in that, with one of the other owners of Slothrop's, John Fail. We've done that together, but right now he's taken more control over that while I'm more with Slothrop's, but we're still involved in both. And it's still here in the Old Town, on Toompea - it's called Ptarmigan.

As pseudointellectuals might call it, Parmigian', or PUH-tarmigan.

Puh-tarmigan, yes. Both names, Ptarmigan and Slothrop's, are actually incredibly hard for Estonians to pronounce.

Right. Let's start off with that, actually. How did Slothrop's get its name? There's a whiff of World War II there?

Yes, there is a whiff of World War II. Slothrop is, or was, a character from Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. And he's an American soldier after WWII. You need to read the book to fully understand it.  

Many people have, uh, picked up Gravity's Rainbow

Yeah, but maybe not finished it. It's one of those books. You've got on the shelf, but maybe you don't finish it but it's a good read. But the other names…we were also going to call it Koontz's, as in Dean Koontz, but we all thought it would be too much of a joke. So we went with the more serious Slothrop's.

Was it blocked by the Koontz…people, agents? Or it just had a certain similarity?

Well, they're probably more litigious than Thomas Pynchon and his estate. Because you know, no one knows who he is really, and where he is from, so he's not going to come and sue us.

...or if he even has an estate.

Or if he has an estate. Whereas Dean Koontz would probably come after it if we called it Dean Koontz's.

What about the language people (Slothrop's experienced some red tape in complying with the country's language laws), who also enter into your story later on -  any problems at the outset with the pronunciation problem?

My understanding of the law is if it's the name of the place, it's fine, so Slothrop's is fine.  

Regarding Pynchon, any chance of landing...

...a surprise appearance? (laughs)

Yes. If it hasn't already happened.

We wouldn't be at liberty to say whether he has turned up or not. He could be there at any time. You'll have to come and see.

Speaking of things you're at liberty to say, Slothrop's is actually controlled by a…

A large multinational with very little concern for the planet, called Conglomeron Chemical. None of us really know why, what goes on there or where their offices are located.

Presumably they have some investment projects, to exploit...

They're interested in more charitable social work, so they can clean up their image slightly.

CSR and all that, then.

They're not a typical BP oil company where they just put a little piece of tree next to their logo and it's all green. They invest in local cultural projects and ours is one of them.  

Oh, OK. That makes sense. I was just going to ask if you're afraid you're not getting enough investments because of the company's priorities elsewhere.

Well, we're not rich from them, but they help us along.

You're located in a neighborhood in Tallinn that some have called Little London, which also seems to tie in with the Gravity's Rainbow theme. Has Slothrop's, since its founding - I should add that it was a year ago, you're celebrating your 1st anniversary.

Exactly. Yesterday. The 9th of December was our first transaction, we opened on the 15th.

Has it rubbed off on the neighborhood, in the level of culture?

I would hate to say that this is all unto us, of course. But there seem to be more things on Müürivahe and Sauna street. There's an art space just opposite called Catharsis, which seems to be quite popular - in that scene - and there's a wine bar on Sauna street which is very popular. These things weren't there before. There were two nightclubs and a strip club on those streets, respectively, and now it seems they're nice quiet back alleys just off the busy stretch, so they don't get many tourists coming down. Maybe it's not so good for us but it's good for the locals, as there are places they can go and hide, drink, and come buy our books as well. It's seeing a regeneration.

And those are Estonian-owned places?   

I believe so. Certainly Artspace Catharsis is. Yes, this Little London, this track between Drink Bar and Slothrop's. Obviously, not for the sake of cultural imperialism, but for the Anglosphere we need more and more businesses. How could that be a bad thing? Right now it's the seed for Little London.  

The other street, which runs parallel, is called Sauna. Not hard to imagine various public baths or what have you. I guess the Old Town has got a little too heavy on souvenir shops and strip clubs.

Yes, souvenir shops, strip clubs. Amber shops, specifically. Don't need any more of these, but more interesting places.

Do you count any converts among the strippers and amber sellers?

We have a philanthropic bent and would like to help out the local sex worker community. They are welcome anytime. No judgements. And 50% off for any stripper or sex worker. Anything to get them back into college.

Drink has gone into books, or at least they've dipped a toe - the owner of Drink, James, has a book out. Any plans to hold more social events in Slothrop's?

Yeah. We've done several events this year. Tom Bissell. And David Rothenberg. Rothenberg introduced John and I to Scott Diel, and we three worked together to open the shop. The original idea of opening the shop was Scott's, a few years ago. And since we've been open David has visited and talked at the shop several times - his wife is Estonian, and they summer here.

We've had poets read. Next January we will be doing our one-year anniversary, a little late, but we'll have a party with a few different events over that month. So we'll have some local - we can't reveal anything yet - but we will have some stand-up comedy hopefully, and authors talking. It's these kinds of late night events, we try to about two every month. We always get a positive response from people. We really enjoy it. But it can get a little chilly.


Yes, chilly as in a bit cold.

Usually the cellars are pretty good at keeping inertia of temperature. What about moisture for the books, actually, the conditions?

Oh, there's no moisture in the room. They're in perfect condition and stay as good.

Any special equipment?

No, not at all. But we are planning some renovations, wall drilling etc., so there's always the chance with an old building it could become something in the future. But right now, there are no problems and we hope to keep it that way. 

Any plans to expand your square footage?

Something we discussed with our landlord and different people like cafe owners, integrating in some way. This might be a track to go down. Still negotiating with these people. So we could be going in a few different directions in the next six months to a year.

Is the building under any kind of protection or historical conservation?

Nothing besides what's typical in the Old Town. It's quite hard to do renovations in the Old Town in general. You can't just go knocking down walls wherever you want. But other than that no particular protection. We're not allowed to paint anything in the front.

Did the issue with the Language Inspectorate get resolved?

Yes. They were very, very civil. They were very…nice. We got the whole thing resolved. They gave us plenty of time to do it. It was a simple matter of having Estonian on the signage outside. It is very understandable why this law exists. It makes sense I think in a lot of ways. We were happy to comply.

Name some business secrets.

Really, we survive on our customer base, because we have customers bringing in books, we buy from them.

Including paperbacks.

Yes, mostly we sell paperbacks. Actually, it's much harder to sell hardcovers. People don't buy hardbacks as much as they buy paperbacks. And people don't buy popular fiction. Not from us, anyway.

What do they buy then? And what do customers bring in?

Well...it seems our customers have great taste. Or it would seem they've read every John Grisham and Tom Clancy and are looking for something more engaging. We sell mostly good literature and modern classics, as well as a range of non-fiction with history, philosophy and journalism being popular too.These regular sellers include people from Estonian theaters who travel a lot and bring back English titles, local English teachers, expats and embassy staff, and even a guy who works at the docks and reads and knows more about English literature than anyone I've met. They buy books first-hand from Amazon or on their travels, bringing them to Estonia, then sell them on to us once they've enjoyed them.

We do get a few self-help books and dummies guides but they often sell. But I also suspect that reference style non-fiction - cooking books, self-help, instructional guides, etc. - are nowhere near as popular now because that information is so easily accessed online. Where as in contrast it's more costly to get one's hands on the latest Hilary Mantel, Doris Lessing or Tom McCarthy online, so that's what we end up selling most of.

Do you have any sections for serious book collectors, first editions?

We do have some first editions, and signed copies of some very good books, but they're where they should be. So you can go find that special gem. But there's no separate cabinet for them.

President Ilves made an appearance, I heard, who I hear happens to be a Gravity's Rainbow fan.

Yes, he's a huge Pynchon fan.

Haven't quizzed him on it. But the question that I'm sure is on everyone's mind is, what about Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar? How often does he come down?

Erm, not very often? But we'd be very happy to have him.

Perhaps you missed him.

Yes, maybe he came on a Monday when we're closed. But we'd be very happy to have him if we wanted to come by. Any time.

Editor's note: One of the part-owners of Slothrop's, Scott Diel, is also an editor at ERR News. 

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