When I was little, just *this* high, my grandparents lived pretty much around the corner from a very special place. Matica Srpska was... an institution. It was a venerable place, a library and a center of learning, an archive, a deep root into our history and all that had been written about it. It was, if you like, a Library of Congress, gathering everything published in Serbia - a copy of every published book had to find its way here. The mysterious and labyrinthine corridors and archive rooms in the back of the dignified old building in which the place was housed were legendary, a warren of paper and vellum and a welter of ancient words, kept here, cared for here, loved here by those who knew these matters and loved their work. The word "Matica" literally means "Queen bee" - but in a figurative sense it is also translatable into a concept which encompases the ideas of "heart", "core", "root", "bedrock" - a place where all things live and all things begin, where the language and the ideas of my ancestors are all kept and cherished and treasured for the generations to come.
We passed this building every day, my grandmother and I, as we walked from her house to the market. And I was very very young when I was first taken through its doors.
The bottom floor of Matica Srpska, see, was a vast and glorious bookstore, full of books both used and new, and sometimes true treasures could be found here. But quite aside from anything else it was a temple of books, and it was a little unusual in that most of the bookstores of that time and that place which I knew elsewhere were almost the bookstore equivalent of the old-fashioned grocery store - they had counters, and people standing behind them, and shelves of books BEHIND the counters - there were few browseries. The Matica bookstore was different - it was laid out in labyrinths of shelves, and you could actually go in and poke your nose into the volumes and breathe deeply of the scent of words and of time. I found many of my childhood treasures in here. I learned to love poetry in here. I pored over reproductions laid out in old-fashioned wise in old-fashioned alphabets which I could barely read, and wondered about the eyes which might originally have been resting upon them, and the world in which the owners of those eyes must have lived. The first book I cried over was bought in this very store. There were books bought here which had been published a hundred years before I was born, and which still had gilt-edged paper, and silk bookmarks, and marbled endbpieces - some were hand-sewn along the spines.
I dived into this place, and I never came up for air again - and I've been swimming in the sea of words ever since, language's handmaiden, a word-mermaid plunging into the quiet blue depths and then coming up into the clear air again with pearls in my hands.
My grandfather knew some of the people who worked here. I was introduced to them by name. I doubt that any of them are still there, or that those who might be have the faintest recollection of me any more - but I shiver to realise that in only a handful of months, now, the Serbian translation of one of my books will be published in Belgrade - and, as such, a copy of that book may find its way into these hallowed halls, be shelved on the very same shelves which once held my own childhood.
Thus are circles completed.
I wish I had pictures of the inside of the place to share. I wish I had pictures of the inside of the place, period. Alas, it only exists in my mind still in the way that it once was - and I haven't been there for many years. It may be very different today. But I hope, in one way, that it has remained the same - I hope there are kids like me still walking the streets of the town where I was born, and wandering into this place, and finding themselves lost in wonder. I hope at least one of them finds my book. I hope at least one of them grows up to write their own.
Read a little more about the place here.
(And if you want something from the original (their own) website, it's here, and a bit more about their collections is here - it's no Book of Kells, but I think 13th century is still impressive...)