Postcard from Split – all change in Croatia’s historic bookselling town

The window of my small, first floor apartment overlooks the 1,600-year old Roman walls of the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, the fortified Roman town at the heart of the beautiful Adriatic city of Split in Croatia. The great, limestone blocks used to build this wonder of European Late Antiquity are so close on the opposite side of the narrow alley known as Ulica Bosanska (Bosnian Street) that I feel I could almost reach out and touch them. Every day the warm air above the palace has been filled with thousands of screaming swifts, feasting on the insects that rise above the sun-warmed roofs of an old town that over the centuries has knitted into, within and around the high walls of this great Roman palace.

Artist’s impression, a postcard from Split

Down at street level, at the outdoor market known as Pazar, in the bars and on the beaches, and along Riva, the city’s broad and palm tree-lined promenade, the holiday season has not quite started, but the city is already lively. Tourism is booming here. A city that was once a stopping-off point is becoming a destination.

I am here thanks to the KURS Association, and their Marko Marulić residency programme for writers and translators, which has given me time and space to work on my next novel. Even if you haven’t heard of Marko Marulić (1450–1524), you will almost certainly be acquainted with his legacy. His Psichiologia de ratione animae humanae (~1520) is the first literary reference to psychology. Thought of as the father of Croatian literature, Marulić wrote popular works of epic poetry in both Latin and Croatian languages, as well as works on Christian morality. His readers included Henry VIII, whose personally annotated copy of Marulić’s Euangelistarium is held in the British Library. The residency programme that bears Marulić’s name today aims to reflect that influence by making the literary scene of this city more vivid, and by connecting the literary life of Split with other European book centres.

Pazar, Split

Others have written at length about the impact on publishing of the wars of the 1990s and the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, of factors including crimes against humanity, censorship, mass displacement of populations, the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia with a population of some 22.5m into the new nation states of the contemporary Western Balkans, including Croatia (population 4.2m), and the consequent breaking up of a large ‘Serbo-Croat’ language group (and book-buying market) into smaller self-contained language groups, etc. While it is commemorated all around us, in street names and national holidays, the Homeland War ended in 1995. Today, the world of Croatian books and bookselling has more pressing concerns.

The Croatian book industry is still recovering from the collapse in May 2017 of Algoritam MK, at the time the country’s largest bookshop chain, which had been founded in the mid-1990s by the publisher of the same name. At the peak of its expansion, Algoritam MK had four branches in Zagreb alone, as well as shops in Pula, Rijeka, Dubrovnik, Varazdin, Osijek, Split – some thirty-five branches in all. When the chain collapsed in May 2017, many Croatian publishers were owed enough (in the words of newspaper Večernji List) to cause them ‘difficult problems’. The collapse also froze large amounts of stock and deprived publishers of a major distribution channel. A further knock-on effect was that many publishers slowed down their production schedules.

The effects of Algoritam MK’s collapse are being felt particularly keenly in Split. Just a few weeks ago a protest was held in the city. It was a quiet affair. There were no banners, nor marching, and no chanted slogans. Instead there was what local academic and author Nada Topić – an expert on the city’s bookselling history – described to me as ‘a walk with a book’.

Summoned by a Facebook invitation, a group of citizens gathered on Pjaca (pronounced ‘Piazza’) in the old town and walked across the square, each carrying a single book. Their destination was the city’s historic Morpurgo bookshop, which had latterly been owned by Algoritam MK, and which as a result now stands empty and shuttered. The protest had been intended as a symbolic plea for the shop’s reopening.

Until it closed, Morpurgo was not only the oldest bookshop in Croatia, but one of the oldest in the world to have traded continuously in its original location (although nationalised and renamed under Tito, it took back the name Morpurgo in the 1990s). It was founded in 1860 by Vid Morpurgo, whose motivations for opening the bookshop were not primarily financial, it is said, but to promote literacy and foster the development of a Croatian cultural sphere. The mid-19th century was a period of revival of the Croatian national identity after centuries of oppression and occupations, and the shop hosted meetings and discussions with leading figures associated with this revival.

‘You must remember,’ local novelist and Split native Edi Matić told me as we peered through the window at the empty shelves inside, ‘that before Morpurgo opened this bookshop there was nothing here! Split was a town of illiterate peasants and fishermen.’

Nada Topić said, ‘Like many other Croatian cities in the past decade, Split has lost many bookstores. There are several reasons for this, one of them is the high rents in the city centre. Morpurgo is not an exception in that sense. Although the bookshop is privately owned, the space is legally protected as a cultural asset. Since its foundation in the 1860s, Morpurgo has had a very important political, and later cultural role in the development of both Split and Dalmatian society, especially the culture of reading. However, the bookstore has been closed for a year now, and its future remains uncertain.’

It is ironic that Nada Topić’s own book about the history of Morpurgo and its contribution to literary and national culture was published only a few days before the shop’s untimely closure, and had been part of its final window display.

Facing Morpurgo at the opposite end of Pjaca is the large Miroslav Krleža Bookshop, which has been here since the end of the Second World War. Until last May it was the Algoritam MK bookshop. Now like some other former AMKs it has been taken over by a new, smaller chain named Znanje. The exterior may be slightly shabby, but the lights of Miroslav Krleža Bookshop are firmly on, and there are posters for the latest Jo Nesbo thriller on either side of the entrance. Inside is a large and bustling shop, with two or three booksellers and a steady stream of customers. Perhaps twenty-per-cent of the floor space is devoted to stationery, school-bags, educational toys and gifts, the rest is given over to books, which line the walls and are piled high on tables. Most titles are from Croatian publishers, including Pogledaj što je mačka donijela (roughly, ‘Look what the cat dragged in’), the latest short story collection by Split-based author Ante Tomić. And there are other European language titles on sale too, with imported editions of current UK bestsellers, and many UK and international titles in translation – many of the same titles that you’d see in any London bookshop today. Znanje’s buying is centralised rather than branch-led, but if a title is not in stock the shop can be selected as a collection point for books bought from the Croatian online bookseller Superknjizara.

The imposing and ornate four-storey building above the shop is currently undergoing renovation. The upstairs windows are all open and there is the sound of angle-grinders and power tools; the shouts of builders. Like most other city centre premises in Split, these upper storeys seem destined to become holiday apartments. After that, the shop premises themselves will need to be refurbished, and locals fear that the building’s new owners and investors may be looking to attract retail operations with higher yields than books.

But there are new bookselling opportunities in other parts of the city.

Mladen Zatezalo, director of publishing house and bookshop chain VBZ, tells me that they currently have nine bookshops covering most of Croatia’s big cities – Zagreb, Split, Rijeka, Zadar, Velika Gorica, Solin, Čakovec and Slavonski Brod. Following the financial crisis in Europe and Croatia some larger stores had to be closed, including two large bookshops in Zagreb and Rijeka, and a small, chic store in Split old town that I remember from a previous visit, but which closed in 2014, its premises now home to the international cosmetics chain M.A.C.

Since then VBZ have been looking for other sites in Split and the surrounding area. In January this year they opened a large shop in Mall of Split, a prestigious new out of town shopping centre situated at the gateway to the city, where motorways from all directions join Ulica Domovinskog Rata (‘street of the Homeland War’), the main road into Split city centre. The sheer scale of the development, its prominent location and the English language name certainly draw attention to Mall of Split, which is a highly visible landmark on the taxi ride from Split airport.

Mall of Split homepage

‘Mall of Split is very well positioned,’ says Zatezalo. ‘Its location makes it a nice stop for tourists as well as for locals. We believe that this shopping centre has big opportunities to grow and that it will attract many customers not only from Split but also from the surrounding area.’

From VBZ’s perspective, the bookshop in Mall of Split has had a good start and is performing successfully. I ask Mladen what he feels are the main challenges for bookshops in Croatia more generally.

How long have you got? he jokes, but suggests that alongside the collapse of Algoritam MK, the main issues are: that publishers are producing significantly fewer new titles than ten years ago; that there is ‘less and less’ media space for books and bookshops in newspapers and on TV; that overheads are high and take an increasingly significant share of turnover; and that in Croatia there is no proper cycle of bookselling (e.g. first publishing in hardcover or trade paperback, and then mass market paperback), so some books are immediately sold in both newsstands and bookshops in order to get back money invested as soon as possible. Additionally, he tells me that while traditionally bookshops were the places you’d go when you needed textbooks for your kids, some cities – Zagreb and Osijek among them – are starting to give books to pupils directly. This is great, Mladen says, but it puts bookshops out of the picture for textbooks, as well as for stationery, which parents are now tending to buy in the larger supermarkets such as Müller or Konzum.

Tony White (L), Jurica Pavičić and Borivoj Radaković at Ghetto Club, Split

White and Radaković with Maja Vrančić of KURS

Renato Baretić (L) and Ivica Ivanisević

In the midst of all this change, one literary institution in Split remains constant. Every Tuesday night for almost two decades a generation of writers have been meeting for dinner at the wonderful Konoba Hvaranin on Ulica Ban Mladenova. A small, traditional restaurant with a deservedly big reputation, Hvaranin serves Dalmatian cuisine, meaning mainly seafood. The regular Tuesday meetings were a source of mutual support and intelligence-sharing at a time when these writers were young tyros, writing their first novels and plays, and starting out as journalists. Now time has passed, and novelist and newspaper columnist Ivica Ivanisević points out one or two sadly absent friends among those gathered in several framed group photos – not least among them Hvaranin’s then owner Vinko Radovan, who died a couple of years ago and is now succeeded by his son, also called Vinko. The food at Hvaranin is incredible. I find that I cannot wait until Tuesday for my next fix of their spinach tagliatelle with mussels and clams – it’s divine. Over a late glass of Hvaranin’s house red, Split-based literary translator Dražen Čulić – whose idea this had been, all those years ago – tells me that Tuesday nights were settled upon simply because this was a night when not much else was going on. The idea that every Tuesday you could guarantee to touch base with friends and colleagues had somehow stuck.

Tony White reading at Ghetto Club Split, photo © KURS

As well as giving me time and space to write, my residency in Split brought one obligation: I was required to give a public event here – to talk about my books, and to give a reading from my new novel The Fountain in the Forest. My old friend and collaborator, the Croatian author, playwright and translator Borivoj Radaković travelled down from Zagreb to interview me in front of an audience at the picturesque and bohemian Ghetto Club, high in the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. Afterwards, we spoke to the bestselling Croatian author Renato Baretić – whose novel Osmi povjerenik (‘The Eighth Commissioner’) won five major national literary prizes in 2004, including the Ksaver Šandor Đalski Award, and remains the most highly awarded Croatian novel ever.

Baretić described the closure of Morpurgo as ‘a tragedy.’

Actually, it’s miraculous that Morpurgo survived this long, surrounded by so many hungry developers and other alligators. Imagine this: in 1860 a young Jewish man of 22, whose parents had arrived from Germany, opened the first bookshop in the town, the first public library and reading room, and the first publishing house. He never learned the Croatian language particularly well, his whole life he spoke and wrote in Italian, but he was a serious Croatian patriot and a vocal supporter of the reunification of Dalmatia and Croatia. You would think that someone clever might use the name of Vid Morpurgo as one of the strongest symbols of Split, and that his bookshop would still be here, one of the oldest in Europe, having sold books in continuity for the past 158 years. But no. This time next year there will be yet more shiny bars and pub crawl venues in the old city center. Named ‘Morpurgo’s’, of course.

Next morning, going out for a walk and a last cup of coffee on Riva before we head to the airport, we stop to take a photo in front of Morpurgo. As I strike a pose by the door, local author Ante Tomić appears, as if by magic. ‘Look what the cat dragged in!’ I say, and Tomić joins me in the photo. He’s much taller than me, so I stand on the step to compensate. The darkened bookshop with its ornate Art Nouveau frontage makes a picturesque backdrop, but I am reminded of something that Nada Topić said: ‘In losing Morpurgo, Split has not only lost a bookstore, but also a symbol of its cultural life, an important part of the city’s identity.’

Tony White (L) and Ante Tomić

Without Morpurgo, and if the Miroslav Krleža Bookshop were to close as locals fear, the only bookshop remaining in the city centre could be Školska Knjiga, a small educational bookshop that occupies part of the ground floor of an elegantly proportioned 17th century Baroque palace on Voćni Trg (Fruit Square), selling text-books and set-texts, best sellers and literary classics.

On a large stone plinth outside Školska Knjiga, stands a larger than life-size bronze statue of Marko Marulić himself – the coiner of ‘psychology’ and the father of Croatian literature, after whom the residency programme that has brought me to Split is named. The sculpture is by the renowned 20th century Yugoslavian-era sculptor Ivan Meštrović, and in his imposing vision Marulić holds an open book towards an unseen audience. Traditionally this has been interpreted as representing the great man reading aloud in public. But in the new city of Split, in an historic old town at least that seems to be in danger of losing its bookselling heritage entirely, it almost looks as if a frowning Marulić is pointing at the book quizzically, as if to say, ‘Remember these?’