Last week, Novoye Russkoye Slovo ran an article heralding the passing of a Russian-American institution: Viktor Kamkin, Inc.
Viktor Kamkin opened its doors in Rockville, Maryland, in 1953, it had cornered the local market for Russian-language books and periodicals thanks to an exclusive contract with the Soviet export firm “International Books.” Writer Vladimir Abarinov visited the store in 2002 and saw the writing on the wall: the store looked like a Soviet bookstore circa 1970, and few if any of the books appeared to have been touched by human hands, let alone the hands of customers.
Apparently, the bookstore had been subsidized by the Soviet regime, and therefore it never had to accommodate American marketing techniques or build a client base. “It seems that the Kamkin company could not adapt to the standards of modern bookselling and lost to the competition.”
The store ended up being forced to close, owing $200,000 in back rent on their premises. The contents were confiscated and after local authorities failed to find a library or other institution that would accept the roughly two million books, the sheriff ordered them burnt.
Ultimately, (now former) Maryland State Representative Connie Morella intervened, and joined forces with Librarian of Congress (and noted Russophile) James Billington to save the books. Landlord Allen Kronstadt agreed to forgive the back rent and to donate the books to the Library of Congress. Kamkin owner Igor Kalageorgi agreed to work with Billington to sort out where the books would end up, either at the Library of Congress or at other American institutions.
Later that same year, Kalageorgi managed to reopen Viktor Kamkin at a new location in Gathersberg, Maryland, but the rent backed up again and the store was lost. The Manhattan branch of Viktor Kamkin, Inc., located at the corner of Broadway and West 21st Street, closed in the late 1990s. Viktor Kamkin continues as an internet-only bookseller.
Read Vladimir Abarinov’s “A Conversation Between a Bookseller and the Sherif” [NRS, 22 February]