The first English-language bookshop in Latvia is owned by Robert Cottrell, an Englishman and former journalist who worked previously with the Economist and the Financial Times.
The store, Robert’s Books, is located on Dzirnavu iela opposite the Albert Hotel in the famous Art Nouveau district of Rīga (the official address is Antonijas iela 12).
Cottrell is married to Solveiga Silkalna, the Australia-born former Latvian ambassador to the United Nations in New York. The couple, who met in Brussels 12 years ago when they were both working there, are now raising two young children who are fluent in English and Latvian. Cottrell, who claims to speak only rudimentary Latvian, said he is trying to keep up with his children with the help of books given to him by his Latvian in-laws. Silkalna, who is now based in Rīga, has been seconded to the prime ministers office as the advisor on foreign affairs.
Cottrell said that living in Latvia, he decided he needed something to keep him occupied and therefore set up a bookshop.
Originally Cottrell opened the bookshop in Jēkaba iela in Vecrīga in May 2009, but there was insufficient passing traffic, so new premises were found in Dzirnavu iela and the shop reopened in November. An interesting fact about the first shop, which was located near the Saeima (Latvian Parliament), was that the leaders of the new political grouping Vienotība signed their cooperation agreement in his shop.
Cottrell, who obviously thrives on challenges, was the main organizer of the international Isaiah Berlin Centenary Conference last year, which brought many distinguished speakers to Rīga. From time to time he also hosts informal talks at his shop, which can accommodate about 20 listeners. Among the invited speakers and visiting authors have been Edward Lucas, Gideon Rackman, Bruce Stokes and Pauls Raudseps.
What he finds attractive about Rīga, Cottrell said, is the scale of the city and the range of cultural activities, a favorite being the opera. Rīga, in his view, is an easy and pleasurable city to live in with plenty to do without the logistics of life in New York, London or Moscow.
Cottrell had no previous experience in shop-keeping or the book trade, but was inspired to open a shop after seeing English language bookshops like Prospero in Tbilisi and Globe in Prague. Besides his own vast book collection, he sources his books from three dealers in the United Kingdom.
Although the shop was started up more for pleasure and as a hobby, he is already selling a few hundred books per month. He has noticed a very intellectual customer base experiencing a large demand for the classics and books about philosophy.
The anticipated demand from foreign tourists was much slower than expected with customers coming mainly from returned diaspora Latvians from the U.S., Canada and Australia, as well as university and high school students. With the recession in Latvia, he has found that there certainly is a market for cheaper English language books costing from one to three lats.
Plans to run a coffee shop in the bookshop have been put on hold as the health regulations in Latvia can be quite daunting. Cottrell admitted that when setting up a business here, there seem to be a large amount of forms to fill in and that a good bookkeeper is essential for running a business in Latvia.
For more on Robert’s Books, visit www.robertsbooksriga.com.
Robert Cottrell, a former journalist, is the owner of Robert’s Books, which specializes in used English books. (Photo by Daina Gross)
An unassuming window alerts passersby to the location of Robert’s Book in Rīga. (Photo by Uldis Brūns)
© 1995-2023 Latvians Online
Please contact us for editorial queries, or for permission to republish material. Disclaimer: The content of Web sites to which Latvians Online provides links does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Latvians Online, its staff or its sponsors.