BAD SOODEN-ALLENDORF, Germany — At five minutes after seven on a Saturday morning, the bookstore in this idyllic town was not yet officially open — that happens at 7:30 a.m. — but Susanne Frühauf had already rung up the first three customers of the day. At a shelf in the corner, behind a rack of discount paperbacks, her husband Wolfgang was working as quickly as he could.
“They’re like moths,” said Mr. Frühauf, genially, of his customers. “As soon as the lights go on, they come.”
With that, he got back to work, stacking not books, but rows of freshly baked bread rolls sprinkled with poppy, pumpkin, flax, sesame or sunflower seeds that have brought townspeople flocking. Next to him stood a small refrigerator hung with “ahle wurst” — a delicious air-dried, salami-like pork sausage that is one of the region’s culinary specialties — while in the center aisle, organic tomatoes and cucumbers vied with crime novels for table space.
With this unusual assortment, Mr. Frühauf has bolstered sales and kept people coming in, no mean feat in a place like Bad Sooden-Allendorf, population 8,500. Here, in the wooded, castle-studded region where the Brothers Grimm gathered their fairy tales, the decline in readership seen in recent years across Germany as digital media competes with books for people’s time and attention is compounded by a number of typically rural problems: an aging population, weak local economy, deteriorating infrastructure and the rise of big-box shopping centers and chain stores.
“In 2013, we had something like a quarter less revenue,” said the third generation bookseller, of how the idea of selling bread and sausage came about. “There had always been seasonal ups and downs; you sell less in the summer, then there’s an uptick in the fall. But this wasn’t like that.”
Mr. Frühauf’s grandfather founded a bookbindery nearly a century ago, right here on the ground floor of the family house on the market square; Mr. Frühauf grew up above the bookstore, which his parents and uncle ran together. Five years ago, when he saw the numbers, Mr. Frühauf — who still lives upstairs, with his mother and his wife — said the situation was clear: “We had to do something.”
At the same time, news came that the town’s last two bakeries were closing. For residents like Mr. Frühauf, who remember when half a dozen local bakers strove to make the town’s best cream-covered plum cake, cumin roll or pumpernickel loaf, this blow was followed by hopeful news: Norbert Schill, who had lost his storefront lease, wanted to keep baking.
“I said, ‘before there’s no fresh bakery, I’ll clear a shelf, and we can sell the bread here,’” Mr. Frühauf said. Mr. Schill agreed to give it a try.
The experiment was a success. Mr. Frühauf began keeping baker’s hours, and Mr. Schill’s former customers started coming to the bookstore to buy their daily bread. Some, like Norbert Bergmann, a retired Catholic priest, got into the habit of picking up a book or TV guide, too.
Some of Mr. Frühauf’s regular customers found the idea strange at first, but they came around quickly. “It’s fun to eat breakfast again,” said Regina Kistner, who raised her family here, and had been making do with the processed rolls sold at the supermarket. “These taste good,” she added, leaving the store with two rolls (one rye and one sesame), a tabloid paper (for her neighbor) and the British romance novel “A Summer at Sea.”
Mr. Schill, the baker, said he for one was very happy to have found such an open-minded partner in the bookseller. “There’s a saying, I remember learning as a child, from the old people. ‘Go with the times, or with time, you’ll go.’”
Before long, customers asked Mr. Frühauf if he could start selling the sausages Mr. Schill used to sell — like the bakeries, the town’s once plentiful supply of butchers had dwindled, as shops went out of business or owners grew old and died. Customers, particularly older ones, were not always able to drive out of town to get their cumin or garlic fix. So Mr. Frühauf cleared some more space and bought a small refrigerator.
Now, these sausages are one of his best-selling products, with 50 to 80 changing hands each week. “It’s a taste of home,” said Frank Hildebrandt, who is in the military and stopped by to pick one up on his way to work. The sausages here, he added, are almost as good as the ones his grandfather used to make.
Of course, these traditionally made products are more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts. But Jürgen Meyer, an electrician who comes to the bookstore for sausages and whole grain rolls, and might pick up a magazine now and then, said the extra money was worth it. “It has to taste good,” he said. “Food is important.”
“Good products cost money,” agreed Manuela Busch, one of the butchers who works with Mr. Frühauf and likes to read Stephen King novels. “That’s just the way it works.”
Readers, said Mr. Frühauf, tend to understand this. “As consumers, readers are very aware,” he said. “It matters to them where things come from, what they are made of.”
Narrative, he added, is as important for food as for books: “I know the story of every product I sell,” he said. This includes the fact that his eggs come from chickens whose view is of not one, but two local castles. “Even when supermarkets have regional products, no one there can tell you about them,” said Mr. Frühauf, who only sells things he personally thinks taste good.
Timm Fuchs, who works for the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, said that sales models like Mr. Frühauf’s are emerging in rural centers, whose downtowns empty after big-box shopping centers open down the road. “What’s important is to have a central place, whether it’s a bookstore or someplace else, to consolidate and sell these regional products,” he said. “That also improves the quality of life in these towns and villages. Suddenly there is a meeting place, again.”
Andreas Hilme, a school principal, brings his children Anna, 7, who likes books about twin vampire sisters, and Alex, 9, who likes all books, every weekend for just this reason. “We want to support local businesses,” he said. “There is a problem with young people leaving and going to Hamburg or Berlin. But this is a great place to live, and we don’t want all the stores to disappear.”
Older people in particular like to drop by for a roll, said Mr. Frühauf, and stay for half an hour to chat. “For me, that’s part of the job,” he said. “We’re in the countryside, everybody knows everybody. It’s very personal. Someone might come in and say, ‘what book should I get my mother-in-law?’”
The Frühaufs hope to work another 15 years or more before retiring. But for now, they are glad to have not just shored up the business, but actually increased sales by some 20 percent. They’re looking forward to the store’s centennial, and, if all goes well, keeping it open until they reach retirement age.
In the meantime, the bookstore continues to serve as a hub for town life, past and present: In addition to hosting regular card game evenings for young and old, this year Mr. Frühauf published a book about the town’s 800-year history, from its origins as a center for salt production to its less publicly memorialized Nazi history.
Locking up after a long, warm morning, Mr. Frühauf paused. He took a look around at the 17th century building that houses his eclectic store, and said he enjoys being at the center of a new network of butchers, bakers and beekeepers. “In Germany, I think there’s a tendency now, to be very backward-looking, to say, ‘everything used to be better,’” said Mr. Frühauf. “But all you really need are some new ideas.”
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