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feature 11 Jul 17

Artists Mourn Closure of Croatia’s Oldest Bookstore

Renowned Croatian bookstore Morpurgo is one of the oldest in Europe. As it prepares to close its doors, some still hope it will survive.

Relja Dusek
The closure of Morpurgo is a consequence of the fall of private company Algoritam MK – Croatia’s major bookstore chain which collapsed in May. Photo: Pixabay.

The small green, wooden door of Morpurgo is still nestled optimistically in its old stone building, closed since mid-June.

Located at the central People’s Square, or Piazza, as it is known by locals, the bookstore has endured as a symbol of Split, Croatia’s second-largest city. Generations of Split’s intellectuals met at the venue, which saw the birth of the Croatian National Revival in the 19th Century. It swiftly became a second home for writers and book-lovers.

“Morpurgo has a special place in my heart. When I was a girl, my father would always take me to that bookstore. It was the biggest joy of the childhood. I got my first books in Morpurgo,” Mani Gotovac, the first female artistic director in the history of Croatian theater, told BIRN.

“The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Morpurgo, in some way, determined my life,” she said.

From 1998 to 2002 Gotovac served as the Director of the Croatian National Theatre in Split. She was born in the city and spent her childhood there.

When she was in high school she would meet with her friends, Igor Mandic, Igor Zidic, and Zvonimir Mrkonjic. Today, they remain well-known Croatian intellectuals.  

“The atmosphere was different there. Books were always scattered all over the place,” she recalled.

“It was again the center of my life when I become Director of the Croatian National Theatre in Split. I used to go there with actors and directors, looking for plays and books,” Gotovac added.

The closure of Morpurgo is a direct consequence of the fall of private company Algoritam MK – Croatia’s major bookstore chain which collapsed in May. It owes millions of Kuna to other small publishers whose future is now uncertain. Algoritam MK was the latest owner of Morpurgo, so when it collapsed, it was only a matter of time before this small bookstore also closed.

When it happened, it was an unpleasant surprise.

Just a few days before the closure, a new book by academic Nada Topic was published and set in the window, called Bookstore Morpurgo in Split. Morpurgo is probably one of few bookstores in the world that has a book about itself.

Topic started exploring Morpurgo’s history during her PhD project and later wrote a book that has only just been published. It was on Morpurgo’s shelves for its final few days.

“I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news. It was a logical sequence given the poor management of Algoritam. But I was sad. I think it is a great loss to Split,” she told BIRN.

“A hundred years ago, Split had more bookstores than today.  Now it has only one. This is a tragedy,” Topic said.

Morpurgo was founded in 1860, by Vid Morpurgo, one of the most prominent people in Split history. As far as it is known, there are only two European bookstores which opened around the same time: Livraria Bertrand which was founded in Lisbon in 1773 and Galignani, in Paris, opened in 1856.

Vid Morpurgo was a publisher, industrial pioneer, and intellectual. He opened the bookstore when he was only 22 and managed it until he died in 1911.

“It wasn’t his only business. Among other things, he had a liquor factory. He didn’t run a bookstore to earn money. His goal was to educate people in Split,” Nada Topic explained.

In that time, 90 percent of people who had lived in Split were illiterate, so the opening of a bookstore was a cultural venture.

Morpurgo was very interested in politics. It was the time of Croatian national revival and over these years, more and more people in Dalmatia and Split wanted to unite with Croatia. Prominent revival movement members met in Morpurgo’s bookstore.

They fought for national recognition and against city government that leaned heavily on Italy.

“It was a place where people could buy a book but also discuss politics and social issues,” Topic said.

Vid Morpurgo is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery on Marjan Hill. On his gravestone, it states, “exalted in mind, noble in spirit, all his life of intellectual work he dedicated to people’s liberation from spiritual and material slavery, and in an awakening of people. Founder of the first bookstore, first bank, first factories, left irreplaceable emptiness when died.”

He had no wife or children, so his nephew took over the bookstore which stayed in the family until 1947 when it was nationalised. The bookstore changed its name to Luka Botic and run under this guise until the 1990’s.  

After the Croatian War of Independence, the bookstore was again privatised and its new owners reconstructed it under the watchful eye of conservationists.

“Contemporary bookstores should look back into history. Bookstores are not just a place where books are sold, they are a cultural movement,” Topic observed and explained that Vid Morpurgo used to hand out free books, just to educate people.

For Arsen Muzic, a well-known Split lawyer and poet, as well as a member of the Croatian Writers Association, Morpurgo was not an ordinary place, nor were people who worked in his bookstore ordinary salesmen – they were well informed and knowledgeable about books.

“It was a special place. When I was looking for a book, Morpurgo was always my first choice to go and ask for it. I remember I bought Sandor Marai’s book Embers there,” Muzic said.  

“It is easy today when you can search the internet and find whatever you want. But once when there was no Google, customers were relying on the salesman’s knowledge and experience,” said Muzic.

Zvonimir Mrkonjic, an award-winning Croatan playwright, poet and academic, told BIRN that he also had fond memories. “Of course, I used to go to Morpurgo. It was one of three bookstores in the city center. Unfortunately, bookstores are closing down. In the long run, I believe that small bookstores have more chances of lasting than the big ones that sell all and nothing.”

The new major of Split, Andro Krstulovic Opara, said that he is well aware of the importance of preserving places as Morpurgo. Just as new media is pushing books aside, new times are changing the cityscape of Split. Tourists and restaurants dominate the historic centre leaving less room for places such as Morpurgo bookstore.

“Many people objected when I said that Diocletian’s Palace became a kiosk for cheap bear. I’m determined to change it. We will return the life to the city,” Split’s major told Croatian media.

Topic believes Morpurgo will survive this crisis. Although its future is uncertain, the bookstore is on the list of protected cultural assets of Croatia, so any future owner of this attractive place is obligated to keep a bookstore.

Gotovac holds the same hope. “I just can’t believe that Morpurgo would stay closed. If it really happens, that would be a genocide on Croatian culture,” Gotovac concluded.

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