Germany’s oldest bookseller, 95, packs suspense in last chapter

When Helga Weyhe began work at her beloved bookshop, the Red Army was on the march towards her east German town, Hitler still clung to power and Sartre had just published "No Exit".

Germany's oldest bookseller, 95, packs suspense in last chapter
Bookshop owner Helga Weyhe in her Salzwedel shop. Photo: John MacDougall / AFP
Fast-forward more than seven decades and the remarkably spry 95-year-old, Germany's oldest bookseller, swats away any talk of retirement, or even slowing down. Still staffing the store six days a week, Weyhe said books got her through two dictatorships and would see her through her last chapter too.
“I started in 1944 and I'm still here,” she told AFP with a smile, sitting in her back office stacked with handpicked volumes. “I had lots of dreams when I was young but they always involved books.”
Weyhe represents the third generation of her family to run the shop, which has occupied the same spot since 1840. Her grandfather had the caramel-brown shelves built in the 1880s, when Otto von Bismarck ruled Germany.
A tome about the life of the Iron Chancellor is propped among the political biographies, one of the specialities of Weyhe's eclectic selection ranging from French existentialists to German classics to Hollywood screenplays.
Each volume in the shop carries Weyhe's endorsement, even if she hasn't read each cover to cover. She can't abide the towering identical stacks of the big chain stores.
“You won't find mystery novels here either, not unless they're something special,” she said sternly, reserving praise for Agatha Christie and German thriller writer Ingrid Noll.
Photo: John MacDougall / AFP
 'The most horrible thing'
With World War 2 still raging, Weyhe started working with her father Walter at his shop that still bears the family name in the half-timbered house where they both were born.
They ran it together under Soviet occupation and the East German communist state (GDR) and she took over in 1965, four years after the regime made them prisoners of the country behind the Iron Curtain.
“In the GDR the most horrible thing was getting used to it all, thinking: 'I won't live to see the day things change',” Weyhe said.
That meant biding her time until East Germany's official retirement age — when travel restrictions for citizens were loosened — before she could go abroad to visit a favourite uncle, who ran a prominent bookshop on New York's Lexington Avenue.
“Imagine what it's like as a young person having to wait until you're 60 to be able to travel,” she said. “Going to New York wasn't just any trip — it was a dream come true.”
The Salzwedel shop is filled with pictures of the New York skyline, and a blue street sign with the address of her uncle's now-defunct store greets customers as they enter.
Last year Weyhe accepted a lifetime achievement prize from the German Booksellers' Association, which officially proclaimed her the country's oldest practitioner of the trade.
“When I won, I said this isn't mine alone, it's for my family which has held on here for so long,” she said.
She said Salzwedel, population 25,000, lying 200 kilometres northwest of Berlin, has long punched above its literary weight thanks to her shop.
“I try to have books that amaze people and make them say 'you sell that in this little town?'” Weyhe said. 
“That is why I draw customers from far away — I like to say my clientele is from Boston to Bangkok,” she added with a grin.
Photo: John MacDougall / AFP
Photo: John MacDougall / AFP 
Not a 'missionary'
Longtime customer Klaus Schartmann, a pastor, believes Weyhe has a rare gift for sizing up a reader.
“She always hits the nail on the head with her recommendations — from children's books to adult literature,” the 78-year old said. “And we're happy because you don't really find that in German bookstores anymore — only in Salzwedel.”
In the land where Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, customers are increasingly going online for their book purchases, with sales rising more than five percent in 2016. Meanwhile bookshops, particularly those on high streets rather than in shopping malls, saw a one-percent decline in turnover, continuing a decade-long trend, according to industry data.
Weyhe believes in the power of books to edify and uplift, as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party makes major inroads in the region. Although she doesn't see her shop serving a “missionary” purpose in leading customers away from political extremes, she does make a point of selecting books that open minds.
“In the post-war years I mainly stocked German history books so people here would know what actually happened,” she said. 
“I simply don't sell the kind of books now that strengthen the AfD,” she said, pointing to recent bestsellers that whipped up fears of mass migration.
Weyhe is coy when asked when she might ease into retirement — she never married and has no children.
“It could be today, it could be tomorrow. Or it could be a while yet still,” she said, savouring the cliffhanger.
But she is firm that she is irreplaceable in her shop.
“All kinds of people have come here and said that they could take over,” she said with a smirk.
“But my goodness, who else can help a man like Herr Schartmann,” she added, referring to her loyal customer. “Not just anyone can have that conversation — you have to have a bit of experience.”
By AFP's Deborah Cole


How Frankfurt is holding the world’s largest book fair in a pandemic

The Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest, is going ahead this week even after a spike in coronavirus infections turned the German city into a high-risk area.

How Frankfurt is holding the world's largest book fair in a pandemic
An interview being conducted remotely at the opening of this year's Frankfurt book fair on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

With authors signing books behind plexiglass, audiences wearing masks and industry events moved online, this year's edition is unlike any other.

The rapidly worsening outbreak, in a country that has so far coped relatively well with the pandemic, forced organisers to rewrite their plans several times.

Just 48 hours before Wednesday's kickoff, fair director Jürgen Boos and his team decided to ban audiences from attending readings and interviews in a concert hall that had been due to host 450 people at a time.

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“We had to react right away,” Boos told AFP, after Frankfurt was coloured red on the coronavirus map.

It was a huge blow to a fair that last year drew 300,000 visitors and has already been drastically scaled back.

The on-stage author talks at the now eerily empty Festhalle arena are still taking place however and are being live-streamed.

Also empty is the adjacent conference centre, normally a hive of activity where booklovers could rub shoulders with top publishing executives and writers like Dan Brown and Cecelia Ahern.


With many international visitors unable or unwilling to fly in because of the virus this year, organisers have built digital platforms for publishers and agents to discuss trends, sniff out the next bestsellers and haggle over translation rights.

Literary happenings and political talks have also shifted online and can be followed by anyone with an internet connection.

But there are still ways to experience the “Buchmesse” in person.

Hotels, museums, bars and bookshops across Frankfurt are hosting dozens of readings and discussions until Sunday to bring the fair to life, welcoming audiences of up to 50 people.

Guests have to mask up, follow social distancing guidelines and share their contact details so they can be notified if someone at the event later tests positive.

“Everything has to be completely safe in terms of health precautions,” said Boos. “But we must be able to have these personal encounters.”

At Walden cafe on Wednesday evening, retired teacher Christiane Decker-Eisel, 67, queued patiently for German novelist Bov Bjerg, seated behind a large plexiglass screen, to sign her book.

“I'm interested in his work and really wanted to be here,” she told AFP. “I feel protected with my FFP2 mask on.”

Social distancing at the opening of this year's book fair. Photo: DPA


Being forced to switch to a mainly digital fair has its upsides, Boos said, allowing for larger audiences and attracting speakers who might never have come to Frankfurt.

More than 4,400 exhibitors from over 100 countries have registered to take part virtually.

For members of the public, this week's live-stream highlights include interviews with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, US whistleblower Edward Snowden and legendary author Margaret Atwood of “The Handmaid's Tale” fame, whose native Canada postponed its role as guest of honour at this year's fair to 2021.

But Boos said nothing could replace the physical fair with its “creativity, chance encounters and a little bit of chaos”.

Volker Bouffier, the premier of Frankfurt's Hesse state, said at the opening press conference that it was “brave” of organisers not to cancel the 2020 edition, “which would have been easier”.

But cancelling the high-profile fair, which dates back to the Middle Ages, was never really an option.

READ ALSO: 'We must prevent uncontrolled Covid-19 increase,' says Merkel as rules tightened

Boos said there was a need for the industry to get together after other book fairs, including in London and Bologna, were scrapped because of the virus.

Surveys in Europe suggest reading has increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly among children and young people, and book sales are up in several countries.

“When the bookshops closed, we realised how important books are,” Boos said.

By Michelle Fitzpatrick