Every year, the London Book Fair gives out awards for excellence, including The Bookstore of the Year, which in 2022 went to Rahva Raamat in Estonia. Other finalists included La Mistral in Spain and Norli Universitetsgata in Norway, with stores being judged for their overall atmosphere, style, innovation and creativity.
This is definitely the award to have,” says Rahva Raamat board member, Toomas Aasmäe. “It’s a one of a kind from one of the world’s most prestigious bookfairs.” Located in Tallinn’s Viru Keskus shopping centre, the winning store had already been listed as a finalist in 2016, and now this year it got a storybook ending by coming in first. So, what makes Rahva Raamat such a winner?
Reading between the shelves
Certainly, the newly upgraded premises, boasting five kilometres of shelves, displaying an estimated 48,000 books, is part of the appeal. The renovation, completed in 2021 has brought more light and more space, along with refurbished cosy reading nooks punctuating the book displays. And customers seem to like it. “Since the renovation, we’ve seen a 30% increase in sales,” Aasmäe affirms.
The store also has newly-vamped café, where readers can interact with each other and the books. Each customer is allowed to select a book to take with them into the café or to curl up with in a comfortable chair between the shelves.
“People are often surprised to hear that we allow this,” Aasmäe says, “but it seems to be working because we do sell a lot of books.”
It also helps that Estonians are big bookworms. Estonia is not only known for IT, it is also a nation of book readers, consistently coming out on top in Eurostat Studies as the people who read for the longest time each day. Estonia is also a country of small publishers, with at least 800 registered publishers.
“Some of them only publish one title a year, but they are all very dedicated to the future book industry.”
Physical books are here to stay
Before becoming a board member, Aasmäe spent seven years at the frontlines of the business, developing the company’s e-commerce division, which he says has been growing in importance. “But that doesn’t mean physical books are going anywhere anytime soon.”
E-books and audio books compete for a share of digital ears and eyes in their respective markets and are convenient for readers when their hands are not free, for example, when driving or exercising. But rather than taking market share away, Aasmäe sees digital formats driving sales of physical books as well as helping authors and publishers reach new audiences.
Every year at book fairs and business gatherings, Aasmäe hears doomsday accounts about the days of paper books being numbered. But the market and his customers tell a different story.
“People love books, they love the look of books, the feel of books, and even the smell of books,” says Aasmäe, who loves coming in at Christmas time to see the store crammed with happy people, all there to choose just the right book for their loved ones.
Aasmäe is convinced that there is one perfect book in the store with just the right look or feel or genre for everyone out there. The perfect book might be a page turner to be read in one sitting or a reference book to be dipped into now and then, or even an object of art to decorate someone’s office or home.
Oscars of the book world
As part of their community involvement, at Christmas, Rahva Raamat has an award season of its own with 2000 titles vying for book of year. The competition includes homegrown and international titles with a range of award categories and with judging a mix of online voting and expert panels. The winners are announced at big instore event, where customers get to rub shoulders with authors, publishers, industry professionals and, of course, other readers.
“We want to bring the whole book world together into one place at one time,” says Aasmäe, who estimates they can squeeze more than 200 guests into the store. Several years ago, when Sting was in Talinn for a rock concert, the store held a book signing for him. “That was a real full house,” Aasmäe recalls.
Rahva Raamat customers come for the books but also for the experiences. Some say they are so comfortable in the store that they don’t want to leave. Others ask to do sleepovers.
“That might be something to think about for our next renovation,” Aasmäe jokes.