Tommy Tuna’s is like any student hang out – cheap food, blaring music, young people flirting, facebooking, and cramming for exams. If you ignore that those young people are speaking Russian and that the menu offers blinis and traditional Russian salad alongside of burgers and fries, you could imagine yourself in any university town, anywhere. Situated across a side street from Ural Federal University, it was the ideal setting for listening to a group of young Russian entrepreneurs lay out their plans for a new business venture: an independent bookstore and café in the city of Yekaterinburg, capital of the Ural Mountain region.
In an age of big box stores and the global reach of Amazon.com, the idea of a bookstore promoting Pushkin and Bulgakov instead of Stephanie Meyer and Tom Robbins seems like an idealist’s dream rather than something that might actually succeed. But, 23-year-old Sergey Soloviev, 19-year-old Olga Chernavskih, and 23-year-old Oleg Lutohin might be both ideal enough and business-savvy enough to succeed. They plan to open their bookstore, The Four Pushkins, in the basement of Number 4 Pushkin Street by the end of this year. It’s the kind of story that any regular at Flagstaff’s Bookman’s might truly appreciate.
“Bookstores selling intelligent books are very rare in Russia,” said Lutohin. He compared the big-box stores that feature “entertainment” books to supermarkets where books are just another commodity. The type of bookstore he envisioned will be “very popular with young and not-so-young alike.” Lutohin, who owns a Kindle e-reader, believes that despite the growing popularity of electronic options, “people still want to hold a book, to feel and to smell the paper.” The dearth of what the group calls “intelligent books” published in the mega bookstore market is what presents an opportunity. “If we want to read an intelligent book,” said Chernavskih, “we have to go to the library or the university. Our bookstore would be like a cultural object. We want to connect the community with culture.”
While their ideals are high, the Four Pushkins have done their homework. Soloviev “has a good business sense,” according to Lutohin and Chernavskih but speaks the least English of the three. Lutohin translated while Soloviev talked about alliances they’ve made with independent publishers and book fairs. They have also studied similar successful models in Moscow and Perm. They have applied for a small business loan (called the Moscow Grant) that will supply them with seed money at the low interest rate (for Russia) of only nine percent. They will also test market their idea over the summer with a temporary used bookstore that will provide additional capital when the bookstore/café opens. The three entrepreneurs believe they will fulfill an identified need in their community.
“In Pushkin’s time [in the 19th Century], there were salons, literature clubs, and other places where people discussed books and ideas. It was the trend at the time. People want to do this now,” she said.
“It’s another kind of entertainment,” said Lutohin. “The opportunity to sit in a soft armchair, read a book, sip coffee, and talk with people is kind of attractive.” The Four Pushkins will also feature the work of local artists, musicians, and periodic lectures.
If opening a bookstore in Russia, or even some other kind of business, sounds attractive to you, the economic and political climate may be increasingly favorable, according to Chris McCabe, consul for political and economic affairs for the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg. “On the verge of entering the World Trade Organization,” he said, “Russia is now making serious efforts to improve its business legislation and expand communication with the global business world.” Nevertheless, many challenges remain. “The corruption rate remains high,” said McCabe, and there is a great need for “transparency” and “economic diversification.” The Ural region, in particular, however, is especially dynamic economically. “Russia’s industrial heart,” said McCabe, “has a seemingly insatiable appetite for innovations. Telecommunications, real estate development, medical engineering, pharmaceuticals, computer technologies, and the energy sector appear to be prime opportunities for American entrepreneurs.” And, if The Four Pushkins succeeds, you’ll find a nice comfortable place where you can read an intelligent book. FBN