If you’ve fantasized about opening a bookshop, you’re not alone. But with the death of the independent bookstore in the U.S., the idea has shed some of its age-old appeal. Or maybe it’s time to look farther afield.
That’s what David Korowicz did in 2001. The Irish physicist turned environmental consultant was convinced by his brother Jonathan, a development aid worker turned journalist, to check out Kyrgyzstan on a trip through Asia. The country, a politically unstable former Soviet republic, is known on the Lonely Planet circuit for its unvarnished wealth of experience. In the market for a challenge, the elder Korowicz decided the expat community in the capital of Bishkek—thousands of embassy staff, development aid workers, professors and military contractors—would support a bookstore. “I knew there was little chance of making a profit,” he admits, “but I thought we might break even.”
So after finding a U.S. distributor and greasing the palms of a stream of local officials, Korowicz opened Central Asia’s only English and European language bookstore. He stocked the shop with Central Asian histories like Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, adventure memoirs like Paul Nazarov’s Hunted through Central Asia and 18th and 19th century travelogues describing foreigners’ encounters with the Kyrgyz people, such as the journeys of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming.
Housed inside The Metro Pub—a former puppet theater known as The American Pub until the advent of the “war on terror”, Central Asia Books has long been one of the world’s quirkiest places to buy a book. It’s also one of few establishments resident American military personnel can visit. The understanding is lead bookseller and pub manager Richard Hipkin won’t serve the soldiers alcohol. But they can shoot pool in the ornate, high-ceilinged venue, or read The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, an allegorical novel by the late Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, till dawn.
Unfortunately, in recent months, the selection has dwindled. These days, The Brothers Korowicz are off in Dublin advising the government on ecological matters (David) and drafting novels (Jonathan), and little attention is being paid to the store. So if you’re still nursing a dream to sit behind a cash register with books stacked high around you, get in touch with the folks at Central Asia Books. You just might find yourself in the pages of Ode’s next annual international book special.