Thursday, November 1, 2007

Interview: Blackbird Books

By Jodie

Non readers like to preach that books are boring. Music can be energetic, film can be edgy but books are static objects bought only by ladies who delight in porcelain dog figurines. There is an urgent necessity to exhibit the revolutionary genesis that can inhabit a book. The Blackbird Books project, opening in October and situated in Mitrovica/ë Kosovo plans to show the cutting edge of literature that can decapitate the arguments of the uninitiated.

Blackbird Books will be a cultural centre that enhances the experience of reading. It will give the people in Mitrovica/ë a ‘safe haven’ in which to read openly. I’m sure anyone who reads in public will agree that it takes an awful lot of willpower to continue once the funny looks begin and this is before the iPods with speakers kick in, but imagine how the stares might increase if reading literature publicly was practically unheard of. Major bibliophile turn off. The project will also provide access to works of literature, which may be hard for readers to find in Kosovo, such as classics, graphic novels, contemporary literature and novels by local writers.

Then there are the extra projects that will make Blackbird Books a life changing organization. There are the criticism boards to encourage literary discussion, the on premise books complete with personal bookmarks so that multiple people can return to their book later, the zine, literary film showings as well as visits by artists. The project will encourage creative growth in the region by giving money from their book sales to other arts projects. Everything at Blackbird Books will attempt to involve organizations from the town so that it will benefit the whole community.

With all this to organize, it’s wonderful that Anthony Barilla, the founding director of the project, had time to answer my nosy questions. It seems he’s got the multi-tasking down after his time as an artistic director for Houston-based theatre company, Infernal Bridegroom Productions. With composer, director, musician and stage manager as just some of his previous jobs Barilla is able to match tight organizational skills and practical knowledge with creative energy and commitment in order to create a successful and exciting cultural space.

JB: Why did you decide to start the Blackbird Books project?

AB: A couple of reasons:

1) The nearest bookstore is an hour drive away from our town, and while their selection is respectable, it lacks the eclecticism you might be accustomed to in other parts of the world.

2) I really love our town, and it needed a bookstore.

3) Selfishly, I needed a place where I felt comfortable reading and writing in public. Café culture is strong in Kosovo, but seeing someone sitting alone reading in a café is unusual. I needed a place where this seemed acceptable, so we decided to make one.

JB: What has the response been to the project?

AB: Overwhelmingly positive.

JB: Have the government been interested or supportive of the enterprise?

AB: Absolutely. But the idea of a cultural non-profit existing outside of a sanctioned cultural center is foreign here, and raising funds has not been easy. We are currently existing on the donations of private individuals and hoping to receive public funding soon to get us through our start-up phase (read the preceding as a shameless plea for financial support!) The ultimate goal is to be self-sustaining: we want our café sales to support our literary endeavors.

JB: What were the biggest challenges of the project?

AB: We live in Kosovo: everything is a challenge. I'll give you two examples that are preoccupying me today.

Power outages in Mitrovica/ë are a part of daily life. On average we currently experience three-hour cycles of electricity: three hours on, three hours off. (We also have water rationing every other night.) To operate as a business, you must own a gas generator, which is wired into your building in order to maintain essential functions. For us, essential functions include a coffee machine, stereo and a lamp or two. So we purchased a generator. We put two euros worth of gas into the generator and promptly destroyed the machine, not knowing that the gas had been diluted with water. And so we had to turn around and spend still more money to repair the generator only days after using it for the first time. This is exemplary of not only the kind of petty corruption that is rampant here, but also of the shoddy state of goods.

Secondly, there's the coffee. There are two major coffee monopolies in the region that supply the (very expensive) coffee machines, sugar, cups, saucers and everything else you need—all of it emblazoned with their logos—for free in exchange for exclusive coffee supplier Because our facility is small and unusual—"A library/bookstore/café?" What's that?—we were flatly refused contracts with them. I was ready to pay, and yet they were unsatisfied with our ability to advertise their brand: this despite the fact that you can't walk two feet in Kosovo without seeing their logos on something. Two days before opening we realized that we were a coffee shop with no coffee. The kindness of a neighboring café owner with an extra machine and the hard work of a staff that spent days and nights rewiring electrical parts, grinding beans and learning this trade from scratch is pulling us through right now, but the entire incident points out the strangeness of this environment. Many business owners are short-sighted here because the economy is so terrible.

Beyond these two examples, it's worth mentioning that everything takes three times as long to accomplish in Kosovo as it might elsewhere. Doing business doesn't just involve the exchange of currency for goods and services. It involves haggling, bluffing, long trips to other towns, conversations over tea or coffee with people who might help, and the inevitable contact with "a friend of a friend." This process can be charming. It can also be infuriating.

JB: How did the opening go?

AB: Great party. The batteries in my camera went out, or I would send you photos. Champagne, books and attendees from Kosovo, Ireland, Nepal, France, Kenya and Texas – what more could you ask for?

JB: Roughly how many books had you received by the time you opened?

AB: We were hoping for one thousand: we received over 1600. In fact, the books started coming in so fast that we are way behind on cataloging them, and I don't have an exact number right now. There were three categories of donors that I would be remiss in not mentioning here:

  1. individual folks who took it upon themselves to initiate book drives around the world (especially Dave and Jane)

  2. the wonderful people at bookmooch.com

  3. the American KFOR (the U.S. NATO presence here.) I wonder how many bookstore managers have seen their shelves stocked by soldiers in fatigues?

JB: Projects such as the African bookmobile have asked authors to donate the novels they've written. Have you fostered any such relationships?

AB: We actually are planning an initiative along those lines. Check back with me in six months.

JB: What has been your strategy for getting books?

AB: The kindness of strangers. It worked.

JB: Which books that you received do you think have the most potential to change someone’s life?

AB: I don't really have an answer for that. I'm using my personal taste to stock our "permanent library" (ie. books that cannot be traded or sold.) It remains to be seen whether or not my taste will transfer to our new surroundings, but my taste includes comic books, classic Russian novels and a lot of things in between, and I don't see why any of them wouldn't have the potential to change lives.

JB: Who is your favourite author? Is there a book that changed your life?

AB: Can I give you a top ten instead? I don't have a favorite one of anything except wives. My top ten writers and playwrights might be Gunter Grass, Susan Choi, Goethe, Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme, Charlie Scott, Tolstoy, Borges, Dostoyevsky and Wallace Shawn. I'm a sucker for German and Russian classics, but this list leaves out 20 or 30 favorites that have had a huge impact on me. Brecht's Baal definitely changed my life, and I think that maybe Grass' The Flounder did too. So did a lot of Green Lantern storylines.

JB: What is your favourite place to read?

AB: Ha! The top floor of Blackbird Books, south of the bridge in Mitrovicë/a, Kosovo.

JB: Do you plan on opening a second site in the future?

AB: Not really. I'm not opposed to that thought, but I also like the idea that this place might be unique within Kosovo. A one-of-a-kind spot that people know they have to visit when they come to town. Something that the local citizens are proud of. As I type this response to your email, there are two teen-agers sitting downstairs reading books in our café. I would be willing to bet that this is an unusual experience for them: that they are reading books that they don't have access to elsewhere, and that they normally don't get to chat and drink coffee while doing so. That's the first thing that I wanted, and it's already happening.

The second thing that I wanted is for local folks to get invested enough that this project will eventually sustain itself. There is every reason to think that this will happen too. If a major expansion happens, that would be great. But it would be even greater if the expansion was the well-conceived effort of a citizen of Kosovo who took it upon himself or herself to do something more far-reaching than I ever imagined.

To donate to Blackbird Books you can send books or checks (made payable to Blackbird Books) to:

Anthony Barilla
Blackbird Books
Fah 157
40010 Mitrovica/ë
Kosovo

Or if you have a BookMooch account you can donate points by searching for Blackbird Books.

For more details on what kind of literature they want to receive visit http://blackbirdbookskosovo.blogspot.com/

Anthony Barilla writes about Kosovo at kosovotravelogue.blogspot.com

1 comment:

iliana said...

What a great project! I especially liked the "personal bookmark" idea. Wishing them lots of success.