The Gastl bookstore in Tübingen is still one of those stores where you concentrate fully on books. There are no grill tongs, yoga mats or socks that are on the sales counters in other bookstores. For many booksellers, the colorful additional range is an attempt to counteract the dying caused by online trading and digitization. Because the number of bookstores in Germany has been falling for years.
The Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels estimates that there are currently around 5,000 stationary bookshops, including branches of large companies such as Thalia and Hugendubel. In recent times, sales in the sector have developed positively, but the growth is primarily due to mail order and the sale of books at petrol stations, DIY stores and drugstores.
The Gastl bookstore was also on the brink of collapse. But loyal customers prevented that in an unusual push-button action. Gastl is one of the few remaining university bookstores with a focus on theology, philosophy, history and linguistics. Academic bookstores, which have long shaped the cityscape around universities, have a hard time today. Many prefer to order their reading material on the Internet if the texts are not already available to them digitally.
The philosopher Ernst Bloch sat in a leather armchair and held court while smoking a pipe. Walter Jens also went in and out.
Previously, entire generations of Tübingen students had stocked up on specialist reading in the Gastl. It was always more than just a bookstore, however. Founded in 1949 by the politically agitated bookseller Julie Gastl together with Gudrun Schaal, the store was also a debate room from the outset, where current social issues were discussed – in the display, in conversations and events. The golden times were the sixties, when the philosopher Ernst Bloch sat there in a leather armchair and held court while smoking a pipe. Walter Jens also went in and out of the Gastl.
It is noteworthy that the Gastl myth that emerged at the time continued to exist after the owners first changed and the bookstore then moved to another location in 2004 – the Lustnauer Tor, an exquisite location at the entrance to the old town.
Gerhard Ziener, 63, is one of the citizens of Tübingen who want to keep the bookstore. He is a member of the board of the new cooperative. “For me it’s a form of loyalty,” he says. Ziener studied Protestant theology in the 1980s and then worked in the Gastl for three years. Today he trains religion teachers.
He was also alerted by a newspaper report on July 21: The bookstore would close at the end of August, it said, because the owner wanted to retire and could not find a successor. The result was that within a few days a Rescue initiative originated. She founded a cooperative and extended the lease. So far, more than 200 people have agreed to invest at least 300 euros in the future of the Gastl. The shop is scheduled to reopen on September 24th after a short break.
The next few months will have to show whether the project will have lasting success. “The charm of this bookstore is of course something museum-like,” says Ziener. “The question now is whether we can transform it in such a way that it can also be represented economically.” The shop should not be a grant business. The cooperative association is already paying attention to this: “We are obliged to refinance the deposits in the medium term,” says Ziener. In order not to harm other booksellers, despite all the enthusiasm of the comrades, there will also be no volunteer workers.
The board wants to expand the mail order business and is focusing on the business with fiction and children’s books, which is important for sales. But much will stay as it is, promises Ziener. “The special thing was that the employees really knew all the books that were there. It has to stay that way. This is basically our business capital.” In addition, the book should continue to be the focus. “Our customers would probably not forgive us if we suddenly sold teddy bears and bottles of wine.”