While I was writing my post on 10 must-visit coffee places in Vilnius, I realised that I struggled to fit in all the words I wanted to say about some of them in that little description. I wrote and I cut the text again and again. In the end I gave up. There is just too much to say about some of those places. They need a post for themselves and a voice of their own.
Mint Vinetu for me is the absolute classic. I remember my friend bringing me there some eight years ago, when I didn’t even drink coffee. This was a place to read National Geographic in English and drink mint tea; so foreign and cosy at the same time in my Vilnius. Many years later I now often swap my mint tea for a cup of coffee. Instead of reading, I started writing about my own travels. Coffee culture invaded Vilnius, and you can buy magazines in English in most shopping centres. But I have still got 1001 reasons to go to Mint Vinetu and recommend it to all of my friends.
So I went there recently to talk to Jonas Valonis, who is one of the Mint Vinetu founders. I found out that after all those years I still could learn about this place. So, this text is for both the old and new friends – come and join me for a cup of mint tea or a bouquiniste coffee (you’ll have to read on to find out what this is!). With this, I give the word to Jonas.
How did it all begin?
Our idea came from books. Some eight years ago my colleagues were on their way from the annual Book Fair in Vilnius. They started to wonder: “Where do people put those books after they are done reading them?” The new books were rather expensive in Lithuania and at that moment there were not many bookstores selling old books. So we started buying the books and quickly became a kind of point for re-distribution. People would call and tell me, what books they have, and I would take them or send them to other stores or buyers. For the books people give us, we offer money and 50% discount on our book selection.
Although eight years is a lot, we still need to do a lot to make people understand, what we really are. Sometimes we just give up – think what you want. Some people think it is a library. Sometimes they want to take books for free. Some think they are just a part of the interior.
The name of this place is Mint Vinetu. We were thinking of what an old book is for us. “Winnetou” by Karl May is probably that book for many Europeans of my generation. It is a book from your teenage years, which you remember well, but which at the same time is somehow an old book. And the word mint comes from the beverage part of the concept – we started with the mint tea.
What is Mint Vinetu?
Our first mission was to pull the old books out from people’s bookshelves and let other people read those books. So in the beginning the book part of Mint Vinetu was much stronger. When we opened eight years ago there was not much on the coffee scene of Vilnius, and we also were more oriented towards the tea. During those years the two parts – books and coffee – became equal, and now it is rather difficult to say, whether we are more of a coffee shop or a bookstore.
What I would like to communicate, however, is that Mint Vinetu is a meeting point, where people are free to do what they want. This is not really a cafe, where you come to drink a coffee and are supposed to leave, when you have finished it. It is neither a bookstore, where you come to buy a book. It is first and foremost a centre for communication. Our events range from book presentations and exhibitions to birthday parties. We are open to anything, which can fit in this space, and a lot can fit. We could not have a dancing club here, but pretty much anything else could be possible.
We are the first second-hand bookstore in Vilnius, and some people still do not understand the concept. The foreigners get it much better. In their mind books and coffee go very well together and the only question they would ask is: “Why don’t you serve wine?” In most European capitals you can easily find a place selling wine, coffee and old books.
And for those foreigners we are a kind of starting point, from which you get to know Vilnius. Not only physically through guided tours (although some of them start here), but also metaphorically.
Books in English and other languages
The book sales depend very much on the location of the shop. For example, in our store there is not much demand for the books in Russian language, although in other localities in Vilnius they can be popular.
We focus on fiction in Lithuanian and English. Generally people continue to read the types of books they started reading in high school.
Mint Vinetu has one of the biggest selections of books in English language in Vilnius. We also have books in other languages: Norwegian, German, Spanish. They are not very popular and the shelves might have some 10 buyers in the whole town, but there are always some people who come for those books in particular. And when sometimes you have a guy from Sweden noticing the shelf with “svenska” [Swedish] written on it, he is so happy that it is worth having this shelf just for the sake of that joy.
When you are abroad and see something of yours, it gives you a warm feeling. I believe that if I would notice a book in Lithuanian in a shop abroad, I would buy it just for the sake of being able to, even without having any need for it.
And what about the cafe part?
Tea, coffee and cakes have become very important. Now it would be impossible for us to work only with books. The beverage selection has changed throughout all this time. It was only recently we actually got a proper coffee machine. Because we are not really a coffee shop, it gives us a lot of freedom to play with coffee. All the coffee-based drinks you will get here do not follow the standard proportions, except for the espresso. Even cafe latte will be prepared in different proportions of milk and coffee: the way we think it tastes best.
We also have our signature drink: bouquiniste coffee. It is a coffee which our staff always drinks. It is a bit bigger than a double espresso, but a bit smaller than americano. And it is rather strong.
We started with tea and this is what is still most popular. We mix some of the tea blends ourselves and call them based on our favourite books. We have teas which are called after the books “Oh, wie schön ist Panama”, “Lord Henry”, “Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froide”, “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Macondo”.
If I have to chose our most popular drink, it is probably our Panama tea.
We also sell souvenirs to give people something to take with them when leaving Lithuania. The most popular Lithuanian product is a trolleybus. We have trolleybus postcards from one designer and fabric bags from another, and they sell best.
What to do with old books?
In the Western Europe the book culture is at least several hundred years old. In France, England or Germany no one would bring boxes full of books to sell. Even stranger would be the idea to throw books out on the street, like some old furniture.
Many people do not know what to do with those old books they have and often end up throwing them away in the garbage. When people need to get rid of the old car tires, they know (well, let’s hope they do!) that you cannot just throw them out in some garbage container or in the forest. You have to call a specialist and bring them there. The same attitude should be towards the books. Sometimes you just do not know what you have. If you don’t need a particular book, it does not mean that others do not need it. It is up to the people dealing with books to decide whether this book is of value to the public.
We are not targeting ancient rare and expensive books. Our supplier is a person, who has many bookshelves at home. And the most common reason for selling books is either moving or dying.
The mainstream history of Lithuanian books starts with the Independence in 1918. The books from those times are of great value and there is still a lot of them in people’s cellars. I am afraid those books will be mostly destroyed or thrown away. A couple of times we were given a couple of old boxes of books. When I opened those, I was shocked. Books like these are in the National Museum archives. And they were one small step away from being thrown away.
I encourage all the people to bring the books to the book sellers and let them decide what to do with those books. Sometimes people think that if it is old and dusty, it is of no value. They throw those books away without knowing what they are. To avoid this we need more awareness. And maybe a little bit of a book cult.
Will the books ever disappear?
Throughout those eight years I have not noticed any decline in demand for books. I do not believe that they will ever disappear, despite all the new technology, readers and mobiles. But then again, I am a person who lives and works with books and I am surrounded by people like that. So how can I believe that books will disappear?
The only changes I notice are seasonal. During the winter people read more and even the bad kids are kinder to the books and bookstores.
If Mint Vinetu would travel, where would it be?
There is a bookshop I would love to visit in Los Angeles. It is called The Last Bookstore. I had a correspondence with the founder and it made me realise, how similar our work actually is, although we are located in different corners of the world. And of course our shop is much smaller.
Another one is the Talk Story Bookstore in Hawaii. It is the Western-most second-hand bookstore in the United States, as they say, but probably also in the world.
I will not even start mentioning those hundreds of bookstores in London. They are all ancient, good and alike. I am actually more interested in the book market stalls.
In France there is a book town of Becherel. In this small town you would find at least 14 used book shops, but also book markets, annual fairs and galleries, dedicated to book art. And of course there is Shakespeare and Company in Paris. This is so far probably the most popular old bookstore in the world. It is also the place where I have spent longest hours.