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Twenty Years and Counting: Booksa’s 20th Anniversary in Reflection

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Srijeda
22.05.2024.

Booksa celebrates its 20th anniversary this year! This anniversary prompts us to reflect on Booksa’s past, present, and future, the values and people that make Booksa what it is, and the impact Booksa has had on its community.

As a new member of Booksa, and a student intern from the United States, I uncover a new side of Booksa’s character– unique collaborators, distinguishing stories, original programs, and imaginative events– every time I visit its space on Martićeva. I have only recently entered the world of activities, relationships, and aspirations that bring Booksa to life, but Booksa’s inviting vitality has helped make it as much a part of me as I am a part of it. I aim to illustrate a fuller picture of Booksa in honor of its twentieth birthday, but no written effort could offer insight more alive than if you come to Booksa, settle in with a tasty drink, and experience it yourself.

If you ask someone involved with Booksa to explain exactly what it is, you’ll get some variation of the following: a community-oriented cultural hub of literature that is a combination cafe, club, event space, and web portal. This definition, although correct and comprehensive, is not nearly enough to capture Booksa in all the history, values, programs, events, collaborations, contributors, supporters, and hot cups of kava s mlijekom that make it one of Zagreb’s beloved landmarks.

Booksa’s presence in the community is abundantly greater than the sum of its parts. This is not only because of how well each facet of the organization coordinates to form the literary “hub” of Zagreb and, arguably, post-Yugoslavia; it is because of the artists, learners, critical thinkers, and enthusiasts who bring it to life, as well as people running Booksa behind the scene: Miljenka "Mika" Buljević, Dušica Parezanović, Magdalena Sofeska Isakoski, Ivana Dražić and Lara Mitraković. In this article you can read insights some of Booksa's collaborators shared with me, namely Vanja Bjelić Pavlović, Vladimir Arsenić, Matija Prica, and Anja Tomljenović.

Booksa opened in January of 2004 and is run by the Association for the Promotion of Culture Kulturtreger. Miljenka “Mika” Buljević, Vanja Bjelić Pavlović, and Maja Župan founded Kulturtreger in 2003 with the aim of popularizing literature and other realms of contemporary culture. Booksa itself is a nonprofit, non-governmental association. It has five different lines of programming which constitute its multifaceted functions: the physical club and all events therein; the website portal Booksa.hr; Review of Small Literatures; an educational program; Booksa in the Park; the Center for Documenting Independent Culture; and publishing.

Moving to an everyday lens, Booksa is a place where people hang out, read, discuss, and drink coffee by day. By night, they attend events that challenge their critical thinking, deepen their imagination, and excite their enjoyment of literature. Booksa hosts workshops and exhibitions which enrich the creative, analytical, cultural, and political lives of the community. As Anja Tomljenović, one of the moderators for Booksa Book Club, the first of many Booksa’s reading clubs, states it, “Booksa has been the go-to destination in the city for engaging in thought-provoking discussions within a relaxed and supportive environment. It has consistently met the community's needs by offering relevant programs and addressing important social issues while promoting inclusivity and openness.”

A key component of Booksa’s engagement is its online portal, Booksa.hr, where you are reading this article now. In 2008, the website evolved into a literary portal which reports on and analyzes contemporary domestic literature. Booksa.hr was first shaped by editor Vanja Bjelić Pavlović, then continued under Luka Ostojić, and is now carried forward by editor Ivana Dražić. The website publishes book reviews, artist interviews, literary news, columns, criticism, videos, podcasts, and works of poetry and prose. Many of the articles are written by young writers and literary critics from Croatia and the surrounding region. Vanja, the first editor of Booksa.hr, reflects on the website’s impact: “Through Booksa.hr, we began collaborating extensively with people from other parts of Croatia, the region, and beyond, and it gave us a new perspective on our work and our ‘legacy’.” The extensive reach of Booksa.hr in the contemporary conversation of literature makes engagement accessible and easily integrated into the lives of people throughout the Balkans.

To reflect on where Booksa has come from and how it has changed, we must first remember how it started. To the excitement of our imaginations, the origin story of Booksa reads like a modern-day founding myth. One New Year’s Eve, Vanja Bjelić Pavlović and Mika Buljević stepped outside for a cigarette. They had studied English together, along with Maja Župan, a third co-founder who wasn’t there at the time. They were longing for a place to promote literature as a part of life; somewhere intellectual literary discourse was available and approachable to all, something Zagreb was desperately missing. That night, in the cold air of the New Year, Mika announced, “Vanja, it can’t be like this anymore, it’s time to change something!” New Year fireworks blared in the background as though they came from Mika and Vanja themselves, echoing their verve and eruptive resolve to create Booksa. Harnessing the momentum of this conversation, they committed to their New Year’s resolution and began to conceptualize Booksa in what Mika terms a “crime of passion.”

One year later, Booksa opened on January 4th, 2004, as a cafe, club, and bookstore. The initial vision, Vanja says, was “a place for people to hang out [and] get to know each other with plenty of books and discussions about literature.” At first, they aimed to create a commercial space and sell books to finance Booksa’s cultural programs. Unfortunately, the bookstore was not financially viable, so the founders closed it in 2011. Instead, they devoted their energies to program development and fortified their orientation toward literary culture. Vanja states the “mission gradually emerged as people recognized the concept and began participating in our programs. Over time, we broadened our focus from literature to other community programs, but literature has always remained our priority.”

No matter which way Booksa expands, they always keep an eye toward the community’s needs and interests. Anja comments, “I’ve always admired the commitment and perseverance of Booksa’s team in designing programs that cater to the community's needs…[They] ensure that initiatives align closely with the community's aspirations and priorities. There's always a sense of curiosity and excitement about what comes next.”

This process of collaborative expansion with participants and the community has resulted in many well-known Booksa events and programs. Especially notable is the Review of Small Literatures, an author festival created in 2005 which presents works from authors who have not yet been published in Croatia. The authors represented first were from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but inclusion has expanded to Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Kosovo, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, and many more afterwards. Mika calls it “the smallest literary festival in the world.” Although small, its impact is lasting. For example, when Booksa first included Bulgaria in the Review of Small Literatures, there had been no translation from Bulgaria for over thirty years. Ten years later, there were 15-20 translations of contemporary Bulgarian literature.

Another notable event is the annual Booksa in the Park. For several weeks during the summer, Booksa’s usual programming moves to the courtyard in front of Booksa on Martićeva. Every day and into the evening, Booksa hosts literature, film, and music programs among the roses and birch trees in the park. Booksa coordinates with local artists and publishers to craft programs suitable for the neighborhood, drawing in a wide audience to share, learn, and socialize under the summer sun.

In the first ten years, 12,045 members joined Booksa. Five years ago, Booksa had over 17,000 members. Today, Booksa has 23,900 members. When reflecting on Booksa’s growth, Vanja observes that “building support and patronage from the community turned out to be easier than expected.” Booksa had a unique way of communicating to their audience because “there was never a distinct ‘us’ and ‘them’, so people felt invited and welcome, and responded in the best possible ways.” Pretty soon, this audience became active participants and, in some cases, program contributors.

Booksa attracts people who express their love of literature in many different ways. Among them include students, writers, artists, readers, translators, editors, and activists. They all come from different backgrounds, interests, and generations. What remains common among them is their shared openness to new experiences and their interest in people dissimilar to them. Booksa maintains this diverse community because of its approachabile atmosphere and central location. Anyone can come into Booksa and understand the events and conversations, yet this receptive, unpretentious environment maintains its intellectual rigor. In a recent interview, Mika states, “we are very proud of the non-professional reading and writing community that has gathered around Booksa.” This non-professional group of participants are the ones who make Booksa’s work meaningful, and “for whom it is all intended.”

At the foundation of Booksa stretches a philosophy which intertwines literature, culture, and societal engagement through the individual. Mika, the last co-founder remaining at Booksa, believes that literature provides insight into society not as a cultural stratagem or tool of mobilization, but as a means of change at the individual level. Literature expresses the complexities and nuances of life which are often oversimplified. Literary spaces allow us to hold onto these complexities as an act of resistance against totalizing generalizations. In an interview for Tandem, Mika states, “the very existence of such places is the greatest subversion.” Therein lies the substance and strength of Booksa: a place which encourages critical awareness and balances the internal discomforts of challenging oneself with the joys of interacting with others.

Booksa’s contributors exemplify this philosophy of literary social engagement. Many of them share Booksa’s vision of literature as an art which induces critical self-awareness and connection between people. Vladimir Arsenic, one of Booksa’s leading literary critics, is a good example of this common aspiration. Vladimir’s own career is representative of the regional cultural unity Booksa aims at. Before Booksa found him, he had a literary column in a Serbian newspaper where he critiqued post-Yugoslav literature across an array of Croatian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian texts. He has been involved with Booksa for the last fifteen years, senior to all except Mika, since he joined in a project which cross-culturally and reciprocally critiqued Croatian and Serbian texts.

In an interview, Vladimir comments on the shared purpose between him and Booksa: “Their field of work is literature and [I’ve been] bound to literature all my life. I feel very attached to Booksa and this is my home. I really feel this is very significant not only in Zagreb but in the region […] in post-Yugoslavia, in every country that speaks one language which has four names (Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Bosnian). They’re all independent languages but they're all mutually understandable.”

Booksa’s ambitions and atmosphere made it the first of its kind in the country. To be the first of a kind is also to be a first of many. For Booksa this includes, among many others, the first regional program to educate young literary critics through a program called Criticize This!, the first archive of texts on the independent culture scene made accessible to the community, and the first literary program hosted in a common, approachable, and unpretentious setting. Before Booksa, the Croatian literary scene lacked an organization where young people could collaborate and have a sense of community. Booksa filled this role and established itself as the region’s literary hub by hosting literary life for people of a variety of ages and nationalities.

Rather quickly, Booksa became the primary literary outlet of the region. As Vladimir puts it, “Everything somehow goes through or touches Booksa in a way…Booksa is the focal point of many things that are happening in literature in the region.” Booksa’s success as a key player in the literary scene is due to its adaptability to the fluid and ever-changing world of literature. Booksa prioritizes versatility by including collaborators from a variety of age groups who have different outlooks, experiences, and expertise. This wide array of participants, from young adults to 55 plus, shapes Booksa as a welcoming space strengthened by its variety of perspectives. As Matija Prica, Booksa’s Thematic reading club moderator, puts it, Booksa is “a place for beginnings.” It draws people together through its inviting atmosphere and compels them to return time after time. These beginnings have “[given] opportunity to a lot of people, and now those people are starting to come together, and good things are brewing here.”

In one sense, Booksa has not changed over these twenty years because its character remains as the same distinct identity in which it established itself. In another sense, Booksa is constantly in flux to keep up with the world of literature and shifting demands in its community. Matija helps make sense of this paradox: “The way people use the space has changed but the general character and [its] general tendency to always introduce new– new people, new programs– has stayed the same.” Booksa has essentially remained true to its original idea, but, Vanja notes, “many things have changed over the last 20 years– the way we live, communicate, socialize…. If the first 10 years were loud and extroverted, today, I would say people retreat to Booksa, seeking concentration on their work or interaction with smaller groups of people with similar interests.”

The Booksa Book Club program offers settings where people have repeatedly retreated to Booksa’s intimate communities. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a book club meeting facilitated by Anja Tomljenović to get insight into one of Booksa’s cornerstone programs. Ten of us, including Anja and I, gathered around the sofa in Booksa. Anja “opened the circle” by inviting participants to share their impressions of the book and what they found interesting. As responses progressed around the circle, discussion became livelier, bouncing back and forth between people. It grew into an open forum where people were free to speak up when a point interested them, and everyone remained respectful of each other’s insight. The atmosphere felt safe to share personal interpretations and challenge each other’s opinions.

After the discussion ended, I asked participants about their experience in the book club and Booksa itself. One member said she was glad the club includes different generations, different opinions, and, as a result, different readings. It’s a diverse group which makes discussion engaging and fun, and “we do not bore each other,” she joked. Another member shared that it makes him think more about forming his own opinion on the book– not only if it’s good or bad, but a deeper understanding of why he enjoys or dislikes it. These book clubs, analogous to Booksa itself, are open-minded spaces free from judgment.

When I asked Vanja about what she imagined Booksa’s legacy might be, she responded, “I believe it’s up to the community, the city, and the region to define that legacy. We certainly didn't anticipate the gentrification changes in Martićeva street and the neighborhood, but they occurred, with Booksa unintentionally playing a significant role. We are responsible for a few love affairs resulting in marriages (with kids), a few business partnerships, a number of new published writers, Croatia's crazy enthusiasm for pub quizzes... though, perhaps with the exception of new writers, none of this was intentional.”

Booksa’s community-minded orientation fosters connection at any opportunity. This phenomenon is not possible without the active, continual participation of Booksa’s members. As Matija puts it, “The culture is alive here.” Booksa’s impact– the reality of its legacy– distills into how it participates in everyday life. Every day for twenty years now, Booksa has brought literary culture to life by providing a place where “you can live culture daily.” The culture is renewed in its daily interactions. It takes a different shape in each instance yet holds onto the same balance of critical engagement, thoughtful connection, and genuine enjoyment.

After reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, it’s time to return to the present. This year we celebrate Booksa's birthday through Booksa in the Park taking place in June, the publishing of The Writer’s Diary, written by David Albahari, in September, the Review of Small Literatures in October featuring “Queer Balkan” as its theme, and a presentation of the "Štefica Cvek" award at the Review. In addition to these events, you are more than welcome to join all the literary forums, reading clubs, storytellings, and readings happening at Booksa every week. All these opportunities for celebration are a part of Booksa’s #booksinih20 campaign on social media. If you are on Instagram or Facebook and have photos and experiences from Booksa, be sure to share them with the hashtag #booksinih20!

Since its opening, Booksa has established a diverse community of creatives and critics which welcomes intellectuals and enthusiasts alike. Booksa’s ever-evolving, mutual engagement with its community makes it a landmark not only in Croatian culture, but in people’s lives. It’s no question then why Booksa has persisted for twenty years, and why we look forward to its continued invitation as a center for connection, discussion, learning, and enjoyment for years to come.

Molly Talbot

 

This feature was produced in collaboration with European Center for the Study of War and Peace

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