A Russian-American institution has passed away. I first encountered it on a spring day in 1988. It was a storefront on a small warehouse somewhere on a back road in Rockville, MD. There were cars parked all up and down the street, some of them had people sitting in them. There was a panel van parked about three cars ahead that we assumed was FBI – we’d been warned about that. No doubt there were KGB agents inside the store, too. My parents and I got out of our car and crossed the street, walking into Viktor Kamkin Books and another world. When the front door opened, we were greeted with the smell of cheap Soviet paper immortalized by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky):
What is the most precious, the most exciting smell awaiting you in the house when you return to it after a dozen years or so? The smell of roses, you think? No, mouldering books.
Moldering books printed on that cheap, high acid Soviet paper. A distinctive smell that more than any other sensory input, save the taste of samogon, jumps up and down inside my brain shouting “CCCP”. Back then, that smell excited me. To my untraveled, 18 year old mind it meant exotic foreign places where gloomy Russians drank tea from a samovar (and samogon from a flask) surrounded by Communist propaganda and Orthodox onion domes. It was the smell of Krushchev’s promise to attend our funeral. And I wanted to see for myself if the Russians really were as bad as I’d heard. To look into the face of the Enemy.
Of course my father and I listened to Radio Moscow on his old Zenith, and when I was young we visited a WWII era defector, a colonel, who ran a Christmas Tree farm in our area. We’d even gone to see a Russian ship docked at a major port when I was 7 or 8, and been given the grand tour. But this was going to be my first interaction with adult Russians as an adult. I had two quarters of Russian under my belt (from American instructors), so I could even read the titles of the books.
The face of the Enemy that greeted us when we walked in the door and past the alcove display of Melodia records and cheap, mass-produced Matryoshki, took the form of three surly Babushki gossiping while they stacked books and their grandkids played with a balloon in the aisles. Where the heck were the KGB agents? (Actually, if there were any KGB there that day at all, the agent was probably the hot little number with too much eye shadow who was the secretary to the owner, and came running down from the upstairs offices every 15 minutes for this or that). The place looked like a warehouse more than a storefront for Communists, with its exposed duct work and fluorescent lighting, and it’s hodge-podge system of cataloging and organizing. Almost 15 years later, little had changed:
Writer Vladimir Abarinov visited the store in 2002 and saw the writing on the wall: the store looked like a Soviet bookstore circa 1970, and few if any of the books appeared to have been touched by human hands, let alone the hands of customers.
On that day in 1988, I wandered the dusty aisles with their foreign smells and savored the Cyrillic experience. I think I might have bought a book or two, but I don’t remember what, if anything, I bought. The staff was not exactly eager to please (a portent of many business transactions to come in the actual USSR) , but I might have picked up my Russian copy of The Master and Margarita at that time. Then we left, commenting on the foreignness of it all.
We suspected that the FBI tapped our phone afterwards, judging from the unusual noises we heard on the line for about a month following the visit. We also noticed a few unusual cars in the neighborhood over the next week or two: FBI cars in our semi-rural area stood out like a redneck at a peace rally. At the height of the Cold War, the Russians kept Vitya Kamkin stocked with the propaganda of choice, and the FBI always watched the embassy staff on their shopping trips to see if they could discern which way the political winds were blowing by the current choice of reading material. The KGB also kept tabs of a sort on the émigré community through the same kind of monitoring. Both sides took an interest in new customers. By 1988 that was a pretty worthless activity for either agency, but old habits die hard. Some day I’m going to get my FOIA file from the FBI and see just what exactly they have on me.
Months later I came back to buy textbooks for the summer intensive Russian II class that I was taking. The main text was Russian for Everyone from Russkiy Yazik press, but Volodya and Sasha were also using a supplemental text called Домик на болоте, or The Little House in the Swamp. It was a God-awful WWII partisan drama, but the language was simple enough to lend itself to adaptation for second year students. Slavica or some such American publishing house had excerpted it for second or third year students, but I also bought the original, unabridged, 1959 edition for a 300% markup – even then it was cheap. I think it was Volodya’s choice, because he’s still using it. Sasha used to complain that with all the great Russian literature out there, they had to pick some drivel that he’d never even seen in print to excerpt. I happily showed him my original copy and he snorted with disgust. Most of the books in Kamkin’s collection, I’d say upwards of 80%, were of that sort, which explains why no one had touched many of them since they were first shelved.
After I came back from Russia in 1991, I found that they had moved their entire operation to their real, much larger warehouse on Boiling Brook Parkway, and I visited a few times. I’d brought back so many books from Russia that there was little I needed from them. I tried to hunt down an art book on Peter Belov, but no dice – the really good stuff was being sold at the Beryozhki back in the USSR. After I finished school, I visited their New York operation a few times. A few months ago I was planning a trip to New York, and tried to look up their address again. Turns out the bookstore went belly-up.
As I suspected, Kamkin’s operation enjoyed a significant discount from the Soviet publishing houses, and pocketed the difference. No one else in the US was authorized to deal with the Soviet printing houses. The family got used to the subsidy and the monopoly. They swallowed all the junk that was sent their way, storing it in the Maryland warehouse, while they sold the small percentage of good stuff at high mark-ups. When the gravy train got cut off and internet booksellers began distributing to the US directly from Russia, the store went into bankruptcy. Not knowing what to do with 2 million Cyrillic firelighters seized in the foreclosure, the Sheriff ordered them burnt. Maryland legislators and the Library of Congress stepped in, and the books were, or are, being sold to libraries and institutions in bulk. I’m sure most of the stuff is of no interest even to Slavic Studies majors, the majority of the collection being books on the level of The Little House in the Swamp, or the 1987 propaganda piece called Imperialism that I bought because it had a picture of Rambo on the cover. I’m glad someone is going to have a chance to pick the few bits of precious metal from the dross, though. All that’s left is an Internet storefront selling off the only really valuable items of the Kamkin collection: the Melodia records.
This whole sordid tale is an object lesson on the dangers of the opiate of socialism and subsidies. Even though he’d spent most of his life in China or the West, and his heirs spent all of their lives in the US, the Kamkin family stayed on the dole for too long to develop any real business sense. They didn’t even inculcate the mores of American customer service in their staff:
And anyway, why are Americans being berated because fewer Russian emigres are patronizing my hometown’s Victor Kamkin Books — where the service was awful and the price mark-up outrageous? Russophiles can now order cheap books via the Internet or load up on them during trips to Moscow, so fewer and fewer can be bothered to pay a premium to interact with sullen Victor Kamkin staff — no great surprise, then, that the bookstore had some business problems.
Kamkin had relationships with pretty much every institution of higher education in the US with a Slavic or Russian department, and the Department of State was also had a major account with them. Despite those tremendous institutional customer bases, there was absolutely no customer loyalty when the market opened up because Kamkin’s descendants had never bothered to cultivate any. In the end, the special relationship with the Soviet government publishers that made Kamkin’s a success during the Cold War, killed the business during the thaw. For some hints on how to run a Russian bookstore as a real business in Manhattan, see the Slavs of New York post on Book Store No. 21, or better yet, go visit Irina Taic’s store if you are in the neighborhood. I haven’t yet, but I will the next time I’m in NYC.
Cross-posted on TP With Page Numbers.