The building was built to last and when the dictatorship was toppled, it was returned to its owners, resembling our nation: damaged but standing – In conversation with Daniel Voinea
Gregorio Zanacchi Nuti: What was the idea behind the refurbishment of the building that hosts the bookstore?
Daniel Voinea: Our business model from the beginning was to create cultural experiences. The opportunity to open a bookstore in a national monument was the chance to work on a scale for Romania. The design was meant to captivate the customers through astonishment, thus the idea of natural skylight over the ceiling and the decorations on the innards. The building’s owner chose Georgetta Gabra, a Romanian architect, to direct the refurbishment. While she did the work, curating the reinforcement of the foundations, the columns and the facade, a second layer of arrangements was done by Square One, a team of architects we chose. Adding split levels between the floors was their idea and they contributed to the grandeur of the final result.
GZN: In designing the aesthetic of the building which architectural styles have you referred to?
DV: The building was realized in the Nineteenth century, a period of modification for Europe’s architecture: born in France and led to the model of open spaces, bringing into buildings the dimensions shown by plazas. Galeries Lafayette in Paris is a reference for this building, since they were built in this period and the Romanian architect who had overseen our building’s first project was looking abroad for design stimulation. While this style is visible in Europe, our building bears the influence of the Middle East’s bazaar model, linking shopping to an open space: at first our palace hosted activities on each level, from shops to banks. The day we started the restoration we searched for the original projects and found sketches: we had to improvise, tuning the building into one for modern needs by losing its concept.
GZN: Can we say that the building’s history is a metaphor for the Romanian political situation? Most of the goods confiscated during the communist regime came back to their previous owners or is yours a fortuitous case?
DV: The communist regime was harsh with the ethnic groups living in Romania, nipping off their roots: the building’s owner is from Greek kin and, in an interview, he said that he never felt Greek until somebody told him ‘you know you are from a Greek family, right?’. Communists weren’t kind to the buildings either: the palace’s survival through those times is a miracle, since it suffered damages and its decorations were destroyed or stolen. The building was built to last and when the dictatorship was toppled, it was returned to its owners, resembling our nation: damaged but standing.
GZN: What is the process of curation behind the goods you sell?
DV: We focus on design: the company keeps up with trends visiting fairs around Europe. Other than books we have in store DVDs and music, and we build a layer of design around them. In deciding the merchandise that we want to feature, we keep an eye on the audience, bringing them music and books to create a community that transcends age demographics. The purchase of Vinyl’s for the sake of collections is giving us the opportunity to sell in the music section, from jazz to early hip-hop. We don’t focus on what is available on the internet, our team of buyers is interested in adding to our shelves records that are unavailable elsewhere.
GZN: Cărturești Carusel hosts cultural events such as readings, exhibitions and concerts. How is the selection behind holding these events dealt with?
DV: We receive requests for live events and balance the store’s capacity with the audience’s flow, avoiding closing down on the public due to security related problems. At the opening we had acts from America and we had to close the store because two hundred people could come in, while a hundred remained outside. We have to be observant as we want to nurture a community, choosing events that can be appealing for customers, but keeping in mind our maximum capacity. We organize readings and theatrical pieces, but concerts are by far take the cake thanks to the audio resonance of our place.
GZN: Do the number of foreigners that come to visit the library lead you to choose books and films to showcase?
DV: The retail scene is the same over the world, with the market owned by franchises and their imported goods. We do not have an amount of work being produced locally: the design sector, one of our focused sectors, isn’t thriving. There are complications in terms of profitability in selling local goods, because they are expensive to produce, harder to sell because as aren’t manufactured in batches. One of our goals is to sponsor and support local creativity and create a market, making Romanian products available in our stores. We held sponsorship programs on comic books and design projects. We held a festival in Bucharest with artist’s exhibitions in the streets.
GZN: You are open to the idea of letting your customer inhabit your space before deciding what to buy. Do you condone this commercial strategy as the response to the diffusion of e-books and online shopping?
DV: When we requested feedback from customers as to why they visited our store, we were surprised to find out that they aren’t visiting to buy books or records, but for the atmosphere: the idea of roaming beneath the shelves, taking your time to pick a book recreates a sense of intimacy that customers find reassuring. It puts us in a position when it comes to sales efficiency, but contemporary retail must invest in experiences, giving the customer something that can’t be obtained online. This was true when Internet shopping didn’t exist and you had to look out for other bookstores. It is relevant today when you compete with offline and online retailers. Despite the Covid-19 crisis, we are investing in tangible experiences for our customers.
GZN: The atmosphere of the library has led to a production of photos shared on social media.
DV: People visit us and post their pictures online. It can be appreciated in terms of publicity, but it should be taken lightly. I have worked here for twenty years and when we started, we had no Internet nor social media, nobody was concerned with taking pictures of one reading a book or having coffee inside the bookshop. What gets people talking on Instagram and Facebook aren’t experiences: if you want to get visibility on Instagram you don’t have to enter this building, you can shoot photos from a corner of your room and be consistent. We are not technophobes though: during the lockdown, we had people working at home and implemented changes to adapt to the environment, involving the web: we had festivals and readings online.
GZN: You are celebrating 20 years of activity.
DV: The store first opened in November 2000: we settled in a shop of 40 square meters. One year later we asked our customers what they wanted and, they requested we add space, we opened another store in Bucharest. The business was growing, we continued to open a shop every two years and, today, we have 48 shops in Romania. We have collaborations in Europe and America: publishers in London asked us about having a bookstore there and we inaugurated a showroom in Manhattan, for exhibitions.IMAGE GALLERY
Strada Lipscani 55