I am at Ekberg Café on Bulevardi, having an Americano and chatting with Cecil Hagelstam, founder and owner of one of the few professional antiquarian bookstores left in Helsinki.

Please tell a bit about yourself.

I am Cecil Hagelstam, I’m 74 years-old, and I’m a book dealer. I’ve been running the Hagelstam bookshop for 46 years now. I was actually born in the third floor of this very building so I’ve been a customer of this café for a long time! We used to meet here with a close group of friends, for many years, to discuss work and other things, so the café has been an important place for me, I have spent a great part of my life here. The café was founded in 1852, and I knew the Ekberg family very well. Otto, the last of his generation, died a year ago…

What was your background, what did you study?

In my youth I was studying biology. I graduated from the university, but I was not a good biologist. I was a little “green” and I had ideals. Which is okay in a way, but I couldn’t make a living on that. And my other interest was books.

That’s how you thought of a bookshop?

Yes. I was visiting local shops, I knew the owners, and I was buying and selling books while I was studying. Then one day I rented some space in Pietarinkatu and started to buy more books and fill my new bookstore. And people began to come, to buy and to sell.

Without experience, how did you know what was valuable and what wasn’t?

Ah, that wasn’t easy. I had to learn by trial and error, and study hard. At that time there was no Internet, and few resources in Finland, so I studied book catalogues and auction records from Sweden, England, and so on. If you’re really interested in something you find a way and you learn.

The shop at Fredrikinkatu 35. Image courtesy of Kari Sarkkinen

What happened then?

In 1980, at the corner of Fredrikinkatu 35, there was a bookshop and paper shop. They were selling mostly academic books, and they could not compete with big guys like Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, so they moved away. I got in touch with the owners of the place, and when I told them I wanted to rent it and continue with the bookshop business they said okay, go ahead. So I kept some of the bookshelves and other things and moved in. In those times it wasn’t easy to get a good location, and it was a big change, very big. But now I’ve been there for 43 years!

What has changed since then?

Oh, a lot has changed! And we’ve had to adapt and evolve with the times, otherwise we could not have continued. Other book dealers who kept the same old books on their shelves, they are gone. We throw away and recycle a lot of paper, it’s the only way. If something stays too long on the shelf is not good and it goes to the rubbish, because it doesn’t help us cover our costs. We have two shops, the bookstore in Fredrikinkatu for second-hand books, and another one in Kapteeninkatu for more valuable collector books, maps, and other things. And our third one, which needs a lot of work too, is the online shop. I should put more people on it, but I can’t possibly employ anybody else. A problem for bookshops today is the high costs: book prices keep going down, but the costs keep going up. And finding competent help is not easy either. They may say they love books, but that means nothing (usually it means they’re not competent). So there’s always problems, but you solve them, you find a way, even though something is missing, or not a hundred-percent the way it should be. You can’t do everything.

The shop at Kapteeninkatu 9. Image courtesy of Kari Sarkkinen.

What did people want then, and what do they look for today?

In the past people wanted traditional novels, and classics. Today people read other things, even though they may be sometimes interested in the classics. In the beginning we were offering bilingual content, both in Finnish and Swedish. For Swedish-speaking Finns language is very important, they always struggled not to get swept aside. I used to have one window with books in Swedish and one with books in Finnish. If a book in Finnish ended up misplaced in the Swedish window you wouldn’t hear the end of it! But we don’t have that concern anymore. Most titles are in English nowadays, as we have so many foreigners living in Helsinki.

Is it true that book collectors can become obsessed, even violent?

That’s a very common subject among bibliophiles, there are many crime novels about it. But yeah, collecting can become an obsession, not only with books. When people desire something very much they have to get it, nothing else matters, it runs deep. And if they can’t buy it then they will steal it, or even hurt others to get it.

What do you think of digital books and e-readers?

I think it depends on the person. People like me, from the older generation, prefer printed books. I want a real newspaper in the morning, printed on paper, not a computer display. I want bookshelves at home, where I can see the books I have, close to me. On the other hand, where is an electronic book? For me the visual and the tactile are very important. Arranging the bookstore, the windows, the shelves, it’s all visual, and aesthetic.

How has the Internet affected the way you do things?

The introduction of the Internet twenty-odd years ago dramatically changed the rules. It also presented a big challenge for me because I’m not tech-savvy, so I had to ask for help. So now, because of the Internet, it’s the twenty, thirty-somethings who ask for very different books. We’ve had to rethink what we have in stock. The Internet has its plus and minuses. One downside is that the price of common books is going down. All the online dealers offer them, and they sell them cheap. They have price wars, lowering the price more and more, five euros less, five euros less… It’s no use to sell or buy them. Such problem did not exist when there was no Internet.

On the other hand, when you have a good item to sell, like a book or a map, you can easily sell it abroad. I have many customers abroad buying good items, and that’s great because Finland is such a tiny market. There are only a few collectors here, and they either don’t want to spend money anymore, or their preference is very limited. Half of our orders come now from abroad.

Collectors buy books in Finnish language?

If it’s an important title, yes. Something by Alvar Aalto, let’s say. Nowadays all of his most important books are translated, but not all. And collectors, if they’re very interested, they will buy in Finnish or in any language. Collecting is a very old human hobby, more than 2.000 years old. They were collecting papyrus rolls back then, so…

Do you collaborate with other booksellers abroad?

Yes, I have very good connections with Stockholm, Berlin… And also here, even though there aren’t so many bookshops as it used to be. One legendary book dealer I knew was Seppo Hiltunen. I used to bring him piles of books, and he always took them all and deposited money in my account, no matter what I brought. He had a concept that nobody else could replicate: sell the books cheap and get more, all the time. Nobody could do it quite like him, he was a legend. Now he’s gone (he died five years ago) and I had a bronze plaque made for him in Senaatintori, in a wall in Sofiankatu, to honor him.

[At this point one of the waiters drops some cutlery onto the floor and both Cecil and I are startled out of our wits.]

I used to know all the waiters and waitresses by name here, for years and years. Now they outsource them and I don’t know any of them anymore.

Tell me something curious or funny that happened to you.

Hmm… Once I was in Stockholm in a book fair, and I had a stand to display my offers. Another book dealer, right next to me, had a beautiful Russian map on his table, an atlas. I bought it from him and, a few seconds after the sell was made, a collector from Switzerland stops at my table and asks me about the Russian Atlas. He says “what do we have here, how much are you asking for this piece?” I had to think fast and come up with a new price on the spot!

How do you know what has value and what doesn’t?

You do it for sixty years and then you know, he he! I have gone abroad to so many book fairs and auctions… Sometimes I visit private libraries, and in a short while I can roughly estimate the value of the whole collection. In other cases it’s a bit more complicated because you can’t understand exactly what you’re looking at. Certain books are not common and you need to study and analyze in more detail. But it basically follows the same universal rules: too much offer of something brings prices down, and vice-versa. Sooner or later you get an understanding of what is valuable and what isn’t. Still, books can be tricky sometimes, and you have to take a risk. It’s a business after all: if anything goes wrong, you lose money.

Are there many private libraries out there?

Yes. And sometimes entire libraries are sold when people move away, for example, or if the owner has died and their relatives don’t wish to keep it. I have obtained two excellent libraries like this, one from a former client of mine who passed away. I got contacted by a relative and I immediately remembered what a collection he had. So I bought the whole thing.

How do they know how much to ask, or do you make an offer?

Usually they ask several dealers for evaluations, but in this case they relied on me and I gave them a fair price, because you have to be honest. If you’re not, if you cheat people, the rumors spread and you get a bad reputation, the town is small. You can’t be sometimes fair and sometimes not. Even if you think nobody will find out, you must always be consistently fair. That’s how you build a solid reputation.

Are you a dealer for the love of books, or because it’s a business?

Both at the same time. You can’t only do it for the love of books. You are a book dealer and you must know how to make a profit. That’s very important because you are a businessman and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you succeed financially you can continue doing what you do. Money is a tool like any other, and if you make a good profit, good for you!

Do you ever say “I will keep this one for myself”?

Sometimes, but not so much anymore, because I have seen so many. A few of them I keep, others I just sell. But what I enjoy is that they pass through me; that I manage to get them and then… I am ready to sell them. You must have this determination, this commitment. If you don’t have it, you are not a good dealer. You have to be like a hunter, chasing prey all the time. It’s not called “book hunting” for nothing, you know?

What are you reading now?

Since I’m visiting Pompeii soon, I’m reading Robert Harris’ Pompeii. It’s fiction, but based on authentic research. I was watching the documentary Richard Grant Around the World and a guide to the Pompeii excavation recommended the book to Grant, so I ordered it online. The waiting line in the public library was too long and I couldn’t wait!

Are you passing on all your knowledge to somebody?

Yes, I am. Otherwise the shop won’t continue, and I’d like it to continue. But I’m not arrogant that it has to be MY bookshop to continue. I’ve been training somebody for the last ten years, a very competent lady. She works with me and goes with me to visit private libraries… She’s 39 years younger, so she has a future in this. But I fear a bit for her, because managing a bookshop is very demanding on your private life. You have to be there and can’t leave for long. A couple of weeks at most, so you get very tired sometimes. Still, the bookshop has given me so many good things in return.

For the full, old-fashioned experience of seeing, touching, and smelling books, maps, posters, and many other delightful items, it is best to visit Cecil’s shops in Fredrikinkatu 35 and Kapteeninkatu 9, Helsinki. You can also browse the website, and check out the Instagram and Facebook pages.