It’s hard to believe now, but back in the Berlin of 1999, crossing Münzstrasse from Neue to Alte Schönhauser Strasse felt a bit daring, like heading into edgy frontier territory. The shops got newer, funkier, more cultural. Instead of clothing boutiques, you’d find impossibly hip record stores displaying Kreidler and To Rococo Rot records. Further along, you’d peer into the window of a tiled butcher’s shop and read that it was about to become a radical bookstore focusing on “the city, politics, pop, economics, architecture, design, art, and theory.”
Pro qm means “per square meter.” Founders Katja Reichard (a designer), Jesko Fezer (an architect), and Axel Wieder (an art historian) wanted a place to expand – and finance – their projects in urbanism, art, and politics. Inspired by a diverse range of things – the store “Apartment” just down the road, a Martha Rosler project about homelessness they saw at the DIA Foundation in New York, and the radical tradition of Berlin leftist info-shops – the trio took a crash course in book-selling with the veterans at b_books in Kreuzberg. Their store – now in an ever-developing site around the corner on Almstadtstrasse – features the kind of design and music that makes you want to spend time there, browsing and meeting like-minded people.
In the era of Amazon – defined by ghostly, universal, immaterial warehouses – Pro qm is an actual place and a sharply honed sensibility. The books you find there are eclectic yet tightly-focused. They’re about creativity and its impact on society. They’re also beautifully designed, tactile. You can’t fail to leave the store filled with a sense that an aesthetic and political transformation of the world is possible; that art, architecture, design, urbanism, and theory really can change things. You feel uplifted, inspired, ready for constructive work.
Were the trio influenced, I wonder, by 1990s select stores like Colette, which – though very different – also owes its success to becoming a sensibility rather than just a shop?
Axel looks a little cautious. “We knew about Colette, but only after we opened. We relate more to the history of specialized bookstores, like Buchhandlung Welt by Hilka Nordhausen in Hamburg, an art bookshop, or Printed Matter in New York.”
I ask them if they mind when people come just to hang out. “I love it when students come and take notes,” says Katja. “This is a social place.”
It’s true; I interviewed Axel and Katja at a launch evening for my own first book. About 50 people sat on wooden chairs or arranged themselves up and down the steps next to the fashion magazines as I read from The Book of Scotlands. Afterwards, with glasses of wine in hand, the guests clustered happily on the sidewalk outside, chatting in the light of the windows.
Ten years on, Pro qm has survived the economic downturn and a challenge from a big new Walther König store focused on art and theory. They’re doing fine. The highlight of their decade? Perhaps the moment, Katja tells me, when Mark E. Smith, at a Book Works presentation, bellowed lyrics down from the balcony and made off with a book about Disney, while ballet dancer Michael Clark climbed the spiral staircase and bashed his head through the ceiling. They kept the hole as a souvenir – a symbol, perhaps, of art’s capacity to transform the world.
*032c 18th Issue Berlin Winter 2009/10, page 30