After an early dinner at the rather wonderful Marin Grill on Strada Gabroveni (do go: you can feast for next to nothing on fresh sardines, sea bass, octopus and mussels – all grilled on a hotplate to order) Mrs. Bucharest Life wanted to go and have a look at the much talked about and much photographed Carturesti Carusel bookshop on Strada Lipscani.
When it opened a few months ago it was very much the cat’s whiskers and generated hundreds, if not thousands of articles and blog posts – both inside and outside of Romania – heralding the place as the most amazing bookshop ever to open in Bucharest. This one is particularly hilarious:
“The Carousel of Light”, as it is known, thoroughly deserves it sobriquet: sunrays stream through the high windows and glass ceiling and fill the hollow middle of the building before bouncing off white pillars, balconies, walls and staircases. Four separate mezzanine levels encircle the hollow, rippling Gaudi-esque balcony railings on one side… (goes on for quite some time).
Design-wise of course, although the language is over the top, they were absolutely right. The place is indeed a triumph, a loving and gorgeous renovation of a Lipscani building originally built in the 19th century, used for some time as a department store but neglected for decades. Inside and out the building looks terrific; there are books and gifts on three floors, an exhibition space and a bistro on the upper level. It’s hip, it’s trendy and it’s successful. It’s also what Lipscani needs and is indeed getting: shops. Strada Lipscani itself is now home to more shops than bars and restaurants, and the area’s mix is becoming more that of a regular high street. As we wrote a month or so ago Old Town suffered from too many pubs, bars and restaurants opening in too short a space of time, all thinking that the location alone would guarantee success. As the less successful ones close, it is shops which are increasingly taking their place. Lipscani was for centuries a commercial area, it is good to see it becoming one again.
Anyway, back to Carturesti Carusel, which is not all it’s cracked up to be. For if you put the design aspect to one side for a moment and focus solely on its merits as a bookshop, it comes up short. Way short. Look at the photos: the vast majority of the shop is just empty space. The actual number of books on sale is in fact rather modest; you will find a selection no bigger than that on offer in many other bookshops in Bucharest. We looked for two books we were interested in buying: Lucian Boia’s latest, and a children’s book our youngest wanted. They had neither. Mrs. Bucharest Life found a few books however, so it wasn’t a totally wasted trip. The shop is also a nice place to spend half an hour, we’re not disputing that.
Yet in our experience (which, when it comes to bookshops, is vast: it’s one area we can speak on with a decent amount of authority) great bookshops do not look like great bookshops. They are usually a total mess. Think of Foyles: it takes an hour to find what you are looking for, but find it you will. Any of the bookshops on the Charing Cross Road (there are still a few left) are the same: creaky floors, rickety staircases down to dusty basements, books all over the place and nary enough space to move. Even a bog-standard branch of Waterstones will have piles of books on the floor, the stairs and just about anywhere they can find a square-yard of space for them.
Indeed, in our opinion Carturesti’s other central Bucharest store on Magheru is far better than Carusel: it looks and feels a lot more like a proper bookshop. In fact, so does the one at the AFI Palace Cotroceni. Carusel looks lovely – we are happy to admit that, and fair play to them for allowing people to take photos: unique amongst all shops in Romania! – but as a bookstore we think it’s only average.