I have always bought books in Russian at Book Maze, on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, just around the corner from where I used to live. Over the last few years though, their inventory had diminished to the point that the only items left on display were toys, Soviet-nostalgia chachkas and Russian DVDs. Books had to be special-ordered from the warehouse. The movies weren't too long for this world either -- their pirated versions were now online and free.
A couple of days ago I called Dima, the owner, to order Svetlana Alexievich's 'Время Cеконд Xэнд' (Second Hand Time), a birthday present for my mother. (The original Russian language edition is not available on Amazon). "You didn't hear?" Dima said. "We've just shut down. What's that title again?" He told me he had the book in the warehouse and, if I still lived nearby, could actually drop it off at my place. Later that afternoon he called back to tell me that he was on his way. He described his car. When I came outside, it was already idling on my street corner with the hazards on. Across the street, a group of teenage boys were laughing and playing and passing around the biggest joint I've ever seen in my life. When I was their age, during 'Giuliani Time,' I wouldn't dream of smoking weed so openly. As I counted off soggy singles and fives to a man who now sold books by Nobel laureates out of the trunk of his car, the boys kept looking at us with suspicion.
"What happened?" I asked. Dima, a neat gray-haired man about my father's age, with the same shrugging Soviet timidity, said, "The landlord raised the rent again, by $1,500. I couldn't stay. It will be a medical plaza now."
Book Maze was already flanked by doctors' offices on both sides -- the whole block had become a succession of doctors and dentists and pharmacies and medical suppliers. Are we really that sick, I wanted to say, so sick that we can't scoot over for a bookstore? In fact, for all the talk of literary Brooklyn, there are virtually no
bookstores left, general or parochial, below Parkside Avenue.
Dima told me he would continue to sell Russian books online, at least for now. If you live outside of New York City he probably won't deliver them in person, but UPS/FedEx surely will. And if it's in Russian and has two covers, chances are Dima has it in stock. If not, he can order it directly from the publisher.
RIP, Bookmaze. Long live Bookmazecity.com! Happy Birthday, mom!