Not a lot of English language bookstores in Armenia. Bucharest had half a dozen places where you could look for English books, old and new; Armenia... not so many. And Amazon doesn't deliver here.
Since I'm one of those people who gets dizzy without a regular supply of new books -- even if I have very little time to read just now -- what then do we do?
In descending order:
1) Carlos. Carlos sends us books. Carlos is a good friend to us.
2) The Embassy. All US Embassies have a book exchange. The one at our Embassy is in the basement, and it's pretty big -- a decent sized room lined with shelves. It's free and operates on the honor system: you take books out, you bring them back. State Department employees are constantly moving around, and every time somebody packs up for a new assignment they're likely to cull their bookshelves. So there's a pretty eclectic selection.
There are some problems. One, I don't get to the Embassy too often -- maybe once or twice a month -- and when I do, I don't have a lot of time to hang around in the book room browsing. Two, I can't really stuff a stack of books into my briefcase. So I can only take a book or two at a time. And three, Claude doesn't want to give books to the Embassy, on principle. (They won't let her kids on the playground, they don't get books.) So I feel I need to bring the borrowed books back before borrowing more.
Still, it's good to know the books are there.
3) Trips home. We've been back to the States three times in 20 months. Each of these trips, we've loaded up on books. Obviously there's a steep limit on this: we can only stuff so many books into checked baggage. Just as obviously, we push that limit. Every time. Hard.
4) The secondhand booksellers. These guys gather around a complex of underground passageways downtown. They have tables which are piled high with thousands of books. These books are mostly Russian and Armenian, but there are a few English volumes scattered in there.
Problems: one, I get downtown even less often than I do to the Embassy; two, most of the English books are not so great (a lot of mass-market paperbacks); and three, any purchase must be accompanied by several minutes of intense haggling. -- No, that's not the problem. The problem is that it's hard to browse; if you say "English books", the bookseller immediately starts breaking out the English books, laying them out before you, talking a mile a minute (in Armenian) about how great they are and what bargains he has, and generally hovering. This sort of thing is fun when you're buying a carpet, but exquisitely irritating when you want to be left alone for a few minutes to look at books.
5) Trips to anywhere. Airport bookstores have gotten a lot better in the last ten years. Still ridiculously expensive (and the falling dollar isn't helping any) but you can usually find a thing or two. Vienna airport has a bookstore with, of all things, a remainder bin; a few months ago, flying to Moldova, I picked up last year's Stephen King novel for 10 euros hardcover.
6) Finally, there's the 1944 shelf.
There's a little bookshop downtown that sells high-quality old books. As usual, most are Armenian or Russian. But there's one long shelf of American hardcover books... and they're all from the period 1940-1944.
Obviously there is a story here. What it is, though, I'll never know. The bookstore owner speaks not a word of English. He'll let me browse, he'll take my money, but he's not talking.
This shelf contains a number of books that look damn interesting. In fact, I've found some real delights there. Charles Beard's Rise of American Civilization, a two-volume history of the US written in 1927. Suitors and Suppliants, by Stephen Bonsal -- a worms-eye view of the Versailles conference, written by Colonel House's factotum. I'll probably do a post or two on some of these.
But it's just one shelf. So, I only visit that bookstore once every couple of months. And in a year, I've bought just four or five books there. Because when that shelf is gone, it's gone.
Anyway. With one thing and another, we're getting by. But the next time you swing by the local public library, rip open a box from Amazon, or settle down with a coffee at Borders... take a moment to savor it.