Monday, March 5, 2012

Flaneur Series: English Bookstores Abroad [Prospero's, Tbilisi]

In between stressing about my future, experiencing feminist rage at this ridiculous article (best moment of cognitive dissonance: combining an article about how Bad Boys are overly concerned with their own wants and needs with an embedded link to an article about "His Top 10 Secret Sex Wishes" - perhaps my fellow readers might prefer to ask their partners about said "secrets" before springing a phallic feather duster out from under the bed), and attempting to get the coffee-stains out of a lovely silk top I've destroyed, I've been packing my Books for Tbilisi. Oxford, in addition to being the Best Place in the World for a whole host of reasons, is home to approximately one million charity shops, each of which sell a wide range of respectable Classics for between one and three pounds. (Suitcase currently contains: lots of Kazantzakis, Giono's Horseman on the Roof, Stael's Corinne, Zola's La Bete Humaine, lots of Jan Morris, and some neglected vintage travel narratives).

Not so in Tbilisi. The availability of English books here is limited to a single stand towards the back of the permanent stalls of Dry Bridge flea market (not terrible: I've picked up Chesterton, Hemingway, du Maurier, and Fowles for five lari apiece) and, more prominently, to Prospero's.

Prospero's Books, of course, is not a real bookshop. It is, rather, like the sort of Englishman Abroad outposts one finds in most charmingly bizarre nations (see Bucharest's Hotel Athenee in Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy), where foreigners and wealthy locals mingle over American coffee and suitably functional air conditioning to simultaneously escape one's host country and revel in the sheer pseudo-Orientalist delight of being Eccentric Anglos Abroad. The crowd is less Embassy-centric than similar haven Betsy's (no "my security clearance is higher than yours" one-upmanship, fewer discussions of the various merits of Tbilisi's private schools, a pathological fear of leaving Abashidze St); however, there's a healthy infusion of backpackers and TLGers (hence: plenty of "my last trip was more dangerous than yours" one upmanship, more discussions of the various merits of Tbilisi's chachas, a pathological fear of enjoying something that costs more than 5 lari lest they be labeled as bourgeois sellouts.)

Photos linked from ""
I say this with great love. The courtyard of Prospero's (34 Rustaveli Avenue - cross away from the Opera, turn right, cross the street - it's next to the SONY stone) is reminiscent of Notting Hill; the tuna and tomato sandwiches are among the best in Tbilisi, and 6 lari can purchase an enormous cafitiere of Russian Caravan tea containing at least ten cups' worth. I have struck up many a friendship in Prospero's (indeed, the best way to meet any expat in Tbilisi is to stake out that front courtyard).

The books, however, are hit or miss: the selection of Caucasus-related books is extraordinary, but prices tend to hover in the 30-40 lari range for Georgian guidebooks or copies of Ali and Nino - although rather flimsy Dover Editions classics are widely available in slightly dubious translation for around 10 lari. The relative lack of a Second-Hand Section is a major strike against Prospero's, as is the judicious positioning of the Georgia-related guidebooks as far as possible from the cafe section, in a separate wing of the store, hereby somewhat defeating the entire point of being a Bookstore Cafe for Travelers.

However, judged on its own merits, Prospero's is just the sort of unstable cultural fishbowl Prince Yakimov himself would doubtless frequent: forego the books and, with a gallon-ful of Russian Caravan tea, simply watch the crowd.

While it's far from my favorite English bookstore abroad (that distinction may go to The Owl bookshop in Antalya - it's certainly a worthy Expat Destination).


Jennifer said...

Hmmm, I'm going to pack a ton of books onto my kindle before coming then, however the courtyard looks charming. I expect I'll be writing quite a bit there in the summer.

Shawn Basey said...

Prosperos is a classic, first frequented by Peace Corps volunteers long before those damned TLGers invaded. The cafe part is actually and expansion, as it used to be only the old bookstore part with a few tables inside and the patio. It was much more cozy, but it's a good thing they expanded with all the influx of expats after the TLG program started.

As for your weird book thing at the top. "Bad boys" do tend to be more egocentric, which is what makes them more interesting. Guys who care more about their hobbies or interests more than the girl they're with tend to be more interesting and talented because of their dedication. Girls then, shouldn't find it a surprise when they get burned by a guy who, well, is more interested in playing guitar or riding motorcycles than her wants, needs, feelings, etc. That's why they're good at what they do.

Anonymous said...

i love that prospero has been around 4 a long time and it is still cool.
10 years ago, it was the only place we could go when we missed u.s.