St. Petersburg, Russia, is among the most beautiful cities in the world. Befitting its home city, Dom Knigi, or, the House of Books, is an outstanding architectural treat and home to one of the oldest bookstores still operating in Europe. A destination stop for book lovers and souvenir seekers, it even has a small English-language section beyond the tour and guidebooks. The shop stands at the corner of 28 Nevsky Prospekt on Griboedov Canal. On a visit in September, Liubov Paskhina, general director, and Irina Magracheva, commercial director, shared the history of the store, its economics, and some thoughts on a neighboring bookstore, Bookvoed, that recently opened a couple of blocks down at #46.
Housed in the once Russian corporate headquarters of Singer Sewing Machines, Dom Knigi has remained open, continuously, since 1919, including the Nazi siege of what was then Leningrad and other notable difficult periods in history. The store was forced to move from its Art Nouveau locale for two years during World War II, but remained open nearby. I had visited the U.S.S.R. 20 years earlier, when publishing was state controlled. Asked how times had changed, Magracheva replied drolly, "The country changes, and so do we." She and Paskhina were equally unmoved by the threat of a new "super" chain store steps away from their independent stronghold. Told of the innovations the competition would offer, like in-store events, entertainment spaces, author visits, and an expansive inventory, they were mildly amused, at best.
Dom Knigi hosts a charming coffee shop that overlooks the Kazan Cathedral, just across the street. The spacious sales floors have a view of the canal, which extends to the Church of Our Savior on Spilt Blood, built on the site where Alexander II was murdered. The bookstore building's globed cupola, which caused an uproar when built, now harmonizes with the skyline and the spires of the church. Dom Knigi is a mainstay visit for touring authors, scholars, and professors on book tours. With well over 100,000 titles, more than 80% of its inventory is books, and a large percentage of those are well beyond mass market. The store boasts 20,000 visitors each day and sales per square foot that rival any retailer. Most importantly, Dom Knigi represents a part of the soul of St. Petersburg, specializing in titles for students, professors, scientists, and teachers—the fabric of St. Petersburg itself.
The newcomer down the block, Bookvoed, is no less spacious, boasts as many titles, and has plans to also serve as a center of cultural activities. Its name loosely translates to "book eater," and this store is part of a very successful chain of some 50 stores, 42 in St. Petersburg alone, and all located in the northwest region of Russia. Denis Kotov, director of Bookvoed NW, provided a tour of the new location. Bookvoed's parent company, Novy Kniga, headquartered in Moscow, is the largest bookstore chain in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Bookvoed enjoys a partnership with Eksmo, perhaps the largest publisher in Russia. In fact, Eksmo's general director, Oleg Novikov, attended the store's opening day's festivities, which happened to coincide with my visit. It was a celebration of the opening of this, the largest store, in the chain's 10-year history.
The other stores are marked by a smaller inventory and a neighborhood presence. The new location has a parklike feeling, with piped in birdsongs and a name that translates to Park of Culture & Reading. Like much of St. Petersburg, it plans to be open 24/7/365. There are two public spaces for performances, and cafe service will be available. More than 100 events are already planned. The store includes a children's play area with an attendant, and an English-language section. Revenue for the entire Novy Kniga chain is estimated at six billion rubles, $200 million, with a reported 25% growth expected in 2010. St. Petersburg prides itself on being the artier, more culture-oriented city, a town that Muscovites love to visit, but must abandon for home and the big city after brief stays. There appears to be room for both the independent Dom Knigi and Bookvoed stores and many more.
Both stores can be found on the Internet, with Dom Knigi at spbdk.ru (including an English-language version) and Bookvoed's all Russian site at Bookvoed.ru. The stores were admittedly late to start e-tail operations, and they lag market leader Ozon.ru, which controls an estimated 50%–60% of the online Russian book market.