Arvydas Andrijauskas is proud that his Pegasas bookstore chain, with 33 locations across Lithuania, is the largest in the Baltics. And the Pegasas flagship store, in terms of square footage, is considered the largest individual bookstore in the Baltics; it has a prominent place on the top floor of a large mall on the edge of Vilnius. "Alas," Andrijauskas says, "our biggest competitor is downstairs," referring to the large grocery and department store on the first floor. "Lithuania, which has no fixed pricing laws covering books, can see customers shift from one retailer to the next based on discounts, particularly when it comes to top-selling titles and authors. For a while, the grocery stores were cutting into our sales [they now represent 19% of all retail sales], but we were able to recover."
It helps, admits Andrijauskas, that his company is also a publisher. That company, of which Andrijauskas is chairperson, is collectively known as the Alma Littera Group, and it is the biggest publishing group in the Baltic states. In addition to the Pegasas chain, it runs two of the largest publishers in Lithuania: Alma Littera, a trade publishing house that puts out some 300 new titles a year; and Šviesa, the leading education publisher in the country. It also runs the Book Club, an online bookstore and membership program, which has some 60,000 members. Collectively, the company is one of the dominant players in the market, controlling aspects of book distribution, holding key franchises for such brands as National Geographic and Reader's Digest, and publishing Kake Make, the wildly popular children's book series and animated television show for four-to-seven-year-olds.
"It was a matter of being entrepreneurial and bringing the proper skill set to the management of the company," Andrijauskas says, sitting in Pegasas, which has not only a high-end coffee shop but also a full-size, wood-fired pizza oven. "This kind of service allows us to really appeal to families," he says. "Kids can come and play in the kids area, teens can drink coffee, moms and dads can shop for books, and then they can all get together and have a great pizza."
That said, Andrijauskas's publishing group also owns the historic bookstore at the 16th-century Vilnius University, with its impressive hand-painted arched ceiling with portraits of historic figures. "It is important for us to keep the literary life of Lithuania alive," Andrijauskas says with obvious pride, "but we also need to make a living. When it comes down to it, publishing is really a mixture of a church and a stock exchange."
Among the other major publishers who are keeping the tradition of literary life in Lithuania alive is Kotryna Žukaitė, director of the publishing house Baltos Lankos. "We established the publishing house 25 years ago, initially as a publisher of philosophy books, just after independence," Žukaitė says. "A decade ago, we transitioned into publishing a wide range of commercial books." The house is responsible for bringing out modern Lithuanian classics, such as the Silva Rerum series by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, as well as introducing numerous popular translations, such as The Girl on the Train, to the country.
Žukaitė says Baltos Lankos is feeling optimistic and has nearly doubled its production, from fifty titles a year just three or four years ago to nearly one hundred today. "My feeling is that people are starting to buy more books," she says, "and that means we want to provide a broader variety of content from both home and abroad." In recent years, the publishing house has put out translations from a wider range of literary writers, including Julian Barnes, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Haruki Murakami.
"This means that we go to all the book fairs," Žukaitė says. "It also means that we work with agents—and if there is one thing I wish they would understand about Lithuania it is that our market is really small. With an average print run of 2,000 to 3,000 copies, we just cannot pay a lot for rights, especially when translation is one-third of the cost of the book."