By Thuc Anh Nguyen
In an international city like The Hague where many diplomats, expatriates, and foreign students reside, there is without a doubt a high demand for books in various languages. While most stores here may have a small selection of English, if not exclusively Dutch, books, Stanza Bookshop is a hidden gem in the center offering titles in eight languages.
Situated near Noordeinde Palace, Stanza Bookshop is an independent store that prides itself on being an international bookseller providing works in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Russian, and Polish. These are in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, young adult, science fiction, poetry, and children’s books; therefore, readers of all ages can find a book for themselves here at Stanza.
In an interview with Diplomat Magazine, the owner Karina Romay shared the story behind her store. Ms. Romay originally came to the Netherlands to pursue a Ph.D. degree in International Law. While she studied, she volunteered at a 140-year old book store that she discovered, and the more time she spent there, the more she adored it. She always loved to read and she soon realized that she felt the most joy working at the store. It was during this time that she had second thoughts about her career path. There were many challenges that she faced as an international lawyer and she was no longer confident about pursuing her Ph.D.
“My heart was telling me to quit law”, said Ms. Romay.
After a couple of years of volunteering, the owner decided to close their physical store. Ms. Romay who was uncertain about her profession and was becoming more passionate about books, literature, and culture saw this as a new opportunity. “What do you think if I take over the shop?” she asked them. The owner agreed on the one condition that she continues with a different name. The name “Stanza” was the first thing that came to mind, and so it was settled that Ms. Romay would be given the store; Stanza Bookshop finally opened its doors on May 5th, 2018. She got her name inspiration from an English Literature course she was studying online, in which she was tasked to analyze a poem. A stanza is a unit of structure in a poem composed of several lines arranged together, which are separated by line breaks. This literary term seemed like a fitting name for her new bookshop.
Initially, Ms. Romay only planned to have English, French, and Spanish books but she quickly decided to expand the range of languages available. Her intention has always been to make a common place for locals and expatriates interested in these three languages. However, the readers coming in started making many requests for books in other languages, such as their mother tongues. Ms. Romay herself has an international background as she is from Brazil and had lived in Germany before the Netherlands, and she too speaks several languages.
Therefore, she understood everyone’s desire to have books in their first languages; and so, the expansion began. Bit by bit Stanza Bookshop built up a collection of German, Italian, and Russian books. As Portuguese is Ms. Romay’s mother tongue, this was also added to the collection later on. Stanza Bookshop mainly works with titles from Portugal, but they are slowly incorporating titles from Brazil as well; Brazilian Portuguese is Ms. Romay’s first language. Most recently, the store also started offering Polish books. While Stanza Bookshop cannot cater to all languages, if there is a specific title that is not available in-store, it is possible to make a personal request and they will bring it to you.
This also applies to books outside of the genres available such as comics. Concerning the types of books offered by Stanza Bookshop, in addition to the common genres, the store has a niche of international law books as well. This, of course, stems from Ms. Romay’s background as an international lawyer. The collection covers general international law, arbitration, international criminal law, European law, chemical weapons, artificial intelligence, etc. It is certainly a store worth going to for students and practitioners of international law.
When asked about the book selection process at Stanza Bookshop, Ms. Romay revealed that there is quite a strict procedure. The general selection is based on several criteria: personal tastes, familiarity, and customer requests. It is expected that the store has some well-known titles and bestsellers, but the Stanza team makes an effort to showcase more “unknown authors” as well. As readers in Western Europe tend to read titles from the same region in addition to the United States or the United Kingdom, Stanza Bookshop wanted to shine a light on authors from other parts of the world, including Asia and northern Africa. For example, one of the four members of the Stanza team is very fond of Japanese literature translated into English, which is why the store has a selection of Japanese titles. However, behind every book on their shelves is a much more rigorous process. Every single work available has been read and explored in some way before being brought to the customers. Aside from reading the books themselves, the Stanza team personally goes through literary magazines and synopses to truly understand the works. This is especially the case when they work with languages they are not fluent in. For international law books specifically, Ms. Romay can read and analyze them to evaluate whether it is truly valuable for students, lawyers, and scholars.
“What we bring is something that we know about… We cannot read everything but we know what is here”, said Ms. Romay.
After over three years of operations, Stanza Bookshop has expanded into a team of four, including Ms. Romay, offering a wide variety of books in a range of different languages. It has become a beloved store in The Hague for many of its customers, with multiple five-star reviews being left online. When asked how this has been achieved, Ms. Romay said that “You need to be personal… Someone that comes inside our store is not a customer… that person is a reader, a book lover”. She explained that while this is a business and it is necessary to consider income, prioritizing passion first and seeing the people who come in as an equal will make a significant difference; then the business aspect will naturally follow.
When someone purchases at Stanza Bookshop, Ms. Romay believes they are one of her team, as part of a community of readers and story lovers. This is because it is much more than just a transaction at the end of the day. “Buying books is something extremely intimate”, said Ms. Romay. A lot of the time, the process of choosing a book is one of communication and connection between the buyer and the store. When they explain what they are looking for and for what reason they are buying it, it reveals something about that person. The reason for this is simply because the reader at that moment is feeling an emotion that is leading them to a specific book, regardless of whether it is happiness, sadness, anger, etc. Therefore, a natural bond tends to form between the buyers and Stanza. The team ends up knowing their readers’ names, tastes, stories, family, and more as if a new friendship has been formed.
Ms. Romay in particular has a special skill of remembering most of her buyers and their preferences. Even if a year has passed, she would still remember the person’s name and their book choice. It is something that bewilders even her colleague, who could only say “She has a special antenna, she sort of keeps it all in her small library”. When inquired about how she can remember all these details, she reveals that she does not make an effort to keep track of them. Ms. Romay shared that “I have an extremely good memory [and] I like to not listen, but hear each person”. As a result, she understands her buyers’ tastes extremely well. For instance, one of Stanza Bookshop’s frequent visitors once came by to ask about a new book by one of her favorite writers. Without any prior notice, Ms. Romay already had a copy reserved for her, as she knew the reader would be here searching for it. “I knew you would have it!” said the delighted buyer.
However, while Stanza Bookshop wants to connect with their buyers, they understand the importance of treating them with respect and of giving them the space they need. For the team, all buyers are to be treated with courtesy, and this means being recognizing the customs and conventions of different cultures to ensure a pleasant experience for everyone. Ms. Romay shared that her international background has been very helpful with this. Simultaneously, however, operating the store has been a learning experience as she gets to know more about other heritages through the readers. More importantly, the Stanza team knows the line that must be drawn between them and the visitors.
“We are just the in-between of the reader and the books, our job is to know where the reader needs to go”, expressed Ms. Romay.
What she desires most from each interaction with a buyer is for them to leave the store while being at peace with themselves and the books they take. Stanza does not wish to impose choices on anyone, especially if it is a work that the person dislikes or is not prepared to read. While Stanza is ready to give recommendations, the title that leaves the store is ultimately in the hands of the reader. This is because “that book will change that person in little ways, even though unexpected”, said Ms. Romay. She only wishes for these books to change the readers for the better.
When questioned about where she sees Stanza Bookshop going forward, Ms. Romay revealed they will not expand into new languages anytime soon as once again, they want to ensure the quality and legitimacy of their products. Nevertheless, they are considering expanding their store online. At the moment, the only online books available to their buyers are academic books. They are given access to these books and they can download them in their reader. For other genres, however, buying e-books is not yet a possibility. The Stanza team has been fully focused on the physical store these past few years but their next step is to hopefully have an online platform for buying paper books and e-books very soon. Stanza Bookshop already has a website on which you can order books through email and they will be hand-delivered or mailed to you, but the store is aiming to develop and refine it even more.
The physical store itself is an extremely cozy space that is tastefully decorated with a friendly and relaxing atmosphere. Aside from their wide selection of books, Stanza Bookshop also offers other merchandise including bookmarks, postcards, stationery, and tote bags. Additionally, they host literary events from time to time, including book presentations and special readings for children. It is definitely a place worth visiting for book lovers of all ages and backgrounds, including those with an interest in international law.
Stanza Bookshop is located on Noordeinde 98, 2514 GM The Hague. For more information, they can be found on Facebook and Instagram, as well as their website www.stanzabookshop.com.