Words from home: Books keep the window open | St. Louis Public Radio

Words from home: Books keep the window open

Aug 7, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 7, 2008 - When friends travelled to their former home in Bosnia, a young Dijana Groth didn't ask for many presents. She just begged for books.

"It was so important to me - I still have a bond with my country - that I keep up with the music and the language," Groth said. "I'm very much American. I think it's beautiful I'm able to take my origins and make them shine through. Through reading, you can get closer to your origins."

Years later, the young woman who left Bosnia has turned her love of books to become the owner of the area's only world-literature focused bookstore, Novella. The shop, on South Kingshighway Boulevard, houses books in Bosnian, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish and other languages. Many of its authors won't be found most other places.

Her bookstore, Novella, is expanding.
Credit Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon archive

Groth doesn't plan to stop there. This fall, Novella will expand to a full-service bookstore with its entire back end devoted to world literature. Novella opened two and a half years ago.

"Basically, we have just about everything," Groth said. "My idea was to expose world literature to the word."

Groth's bookstore is the only place in St. Louis to browse numerous books written entirely in foreign languages. Borders Books keeps Spanish-language books in stock, according to Ernesto Martinez, the company's book buyer for diversity markets, said via e-mail, along with a smattering of other languages. Borders uses demographic data and sales history along with customer comments. The company does not offer most foreign language titles on its Web site as yet. That will come in the future, according to Martinez.

Barnes and Noble's headquarters was contacted but did not supply information about their St. Louis stores by the time of this writing.

Other local bookstores such as Left Bank Books and Subterranean Books will special order books their customers' request. But keeping a selection of foreign language volumes in stock is too expensive and too difficult, they say.

"Foreign language is tough because you need to know the language and what someone wants to read," Kelly von Plonski, Subterranean's owner said. No matter whether you handle "just books in English, you are guessing what people want to read. And if you open it up to world language, it just gets too expensive."

Left Bank Books has stocked foreign language materials in the past, but they've failed to leave the store, floor manager Erin Quick said.

"The demand seems to be there but in our experience, the books don't sell well. They just sit on the shelves a real long time," Quick said.

"We would definitely order in anything that is still in print but we don't have a large market."

Both stores carry books by foreign authors but they are either in translation or Left Bank could have the original language in its used book section.

Groth came to the United States 30 years ago. Maintaining her ability to read in her native language became important to her, as did passing on the language, written and spoken, to her children.

"Just through reading the short story, you get an idea of the life," Groth explained. "The books are just this big thing that nurtures you and makes you a richer person. I think in the truest language and conversations between people it is very difficult to translate an idea into another language."

The difficulty she had in finding literature in languages other than English drove her to research opening her own store. That research led her to her first book fair in Croatia to get beyond the classics and children's literature she had grown up with.

It took a long time for Novella to come into being. Groth had to find books in enough genres to stock a store, amass enough titles to ship to the U.S., find a distributor and get the books on the shelves before ringing up her first sales. Many of the titles Novella stocks come directly from European publishers or from small American presses that either specialize in foreign language works or that have the rights to publish those books here. Groth also has to keep abreast of book and author trends abroad so her stock is current.

Over time, St. Louis's Bosnian community increased as did the demand for books. Eventually, Groth began supplying local libraries in addition to her shop. Her customers include members of a variety of immigrant communities as well as Americans looking for a world language read.

Today, Groth's shop is lined with dark shelves that hold guides, cookbooks, children's books and English translations of foreign authors. Those browsing the shelves can find anything from a Croatian cookbook to Alice Munro.

Although she wants to become the "neighborhood bookshop" on the city's south side, Novella will continue to devote half its space exclusively to world literature.

"I think when you read foreign literature from any country, you become a richer person because you aren't just reading a story," Groth said. "You are reading a different way of living. I want to be a window to the world."

Finding foreign-language books

Novella - 5510 S. Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis or www.shopnovella.com

Borders Bookstores - visit www.borders.com for a store location in the area

Left Bank Books - 399 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, www.left-bank.com

Subterranean Books - 6275 Delmar Blvd., University City, www.subbooks.com

Left Bank and Subterranean Books do not stock foreign language titles but will special order if possible.

Books in other languages can cost more to get thanks to shipping and other costs.

Amelia Flood is a freelance journalist.