Tapestries, leather armchairs, candelabras, sculpted woodwork and figures of the apostles: Book Capella, a newly built, gothic-inspired library in central St Petersburg, is complete with all the expected luxuries of an ancient athenaeum – and a price tag to match.
To enjoy the library’s collection and atmosphere, you have to pay a ticket of just under £100 for a four-hour reading session – a markedly different experience to the free access readers can enjoy in Russia’s public libraries.
Book Capella’s 5,000-odd book collection is entirely published by St Petersburg-based publishing house Alfaret – also the owner and initiator of the project. The individual books have an average price of between 30,000 and 50,000 rubles, the equivalent of £400 to £700. All the books date from between the 16th and 19th centuries and are displayed in thematic rooms with names including The Book of Wars and The Book of Travels. Its motto is a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined paradise as a library.”
“One hundred pounds per visit is certainly not a low price, but it is less expensive than tickets to the opera or ballet,” said Irina Khoteshova, the project director. “People aren’t really surprised by the price itself. They are surprised that it’s the price for a visit to a library.”
While it may not be the only library in the world to charge for entry – the London Library charges between £255 and £510 for annual membership (and up to £22,000 to a lifetime subscription), while the Portico library in Manchester lifetime subscription will set one back £4,667 (discounted to £3,271 for those over 60) – Book Capella is comparatively exorbitant. Its “Book Apostle” yearly card costs 230,000 rubles (£3,209), while the “Preacher’s Book Apostle”, a lifetime subscription, can cost up to 5m rubles (£69,000).
Khoteshova said that the library, which opened in December, is mainly used by book collectors, historians and scientists – as well as businesspeople, who want to have meetings in a quiet space that also serves as an exotic change from their usual haunts.
When asked how academics, who earn less than the average per capita income in Russia, would afford such a pricey ticket, she said: “Some of the young professionals who recently graduated from universities and are just beginning their serious research would not be able to afford the membership, we understand that. But academics, professors, professionals who lead and create a historical transmission often become buyers of our books.”
Some of the library’s most expensive items include facsimiles of manuscript atlases of the main provinces of the Russian empire in the 1760s, as well as a complete edition of the pre-revolutionary Russian Niva magazines, which are much sought-after collectibles and hunted by private collectors around the world.
Founded in 2006, Alfaret mainly publishes traditional Russian and western history and art history books in luxury editions of around 100 copies, as well as print-on-demand titles; the kind of books that those who are more interested in power than culture would seek, for the purpose of putting on show.
“Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books,” Khoteshova said. However, while Book Capella proclaims its motto to be Borges’s heavenly vision, the space appears to be less library, and something more akin to a luxury showroom.
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