Perm, Russia's 14th most populous city, with around one million people (called Permyaks), is home to the two-year-old Piotrovsky Book Store. Named after the city's first bookseller, Yuseff Yulianovitch Piotrovsky of the 19th century, the store was the brainchild of four friends: a historian (Denis Korneevsky, director of Perm's inaugural book fair last year), a philosopher (Dmitriy Vyatkin), a philologist (Mikhail Maltsev), and a poet (Sergey Panin).

For store director and owner Maltsev, restoring Perm's book culture to its height during the Soviet times is his main goal. "The book retail scene in Perm and the Ural region is downright gloomy," he says. "To help reverse this situation, we have made an effort to provide 10 times more titles than what people expect to find—or read—in order to encourage them to read more, as they did before. Things are certainly changing for the better, albeit slowly. People are buying books, reading more and influencing others in their sphere to start reading. We just have to work hard and wait for more changes to take place."

As to how dismal the retail scene is in Perm, Maltsev says, "It is only us and a used book store that offers titles published mostly during Soviet times." Having to pay commercial rental rates—without discounts or subsidies from the government—has stunted the growth of independent bookstores in Russia. "As proprietors, we are in the same position in terms of rent as, say, those selling vodka. But our profit is way lower. We also have to pay for the transportation of books from Moscow and St. Petersburg."

Comparing Russian book chains with indie bookstores is like comparing an apple with an orange, he adds. "We exist in two completely different realities. Readers going for quality books and literary titles, or those wanting a specific kind of knowledge, come to indie stores. That is the good news. The bad news is, such readers are still in the minority."

This summer, the 100-square-meter Piotrovsky, with 25,000 titles, will increase its display space by 60%. It is the only bookstore in the Ural region to specialize in serious literature (art, culture, philosophy, and other humanities titles) with a wide range of fiction as well as selected children's books. Store visitors will find philosophy titles in Russian ranging from early Greek to French poststructuralism and modern American works. It has also started to sell English titles (that have yet to appear in Russian) on topics such as speculative realism. In the area of design, photography, and art, Maltsev has brought in titles from such renowned publishing houses as Thames & Hudson, Skira, Phaidon, Taschen, and Rizzoli. "We do not stock pulp fiction or detective stories, and we deal mostly with indie publishers for poetry and fiction titles."

Piotrovsky's prices are "on par with the cheapest independent store in Moscow, with the average hardcover ranging between $9 and $11," says Maltsev, who finds that the 1,150-kilometer distance between Moscow and Perm has little impact on bestsellers. Permyaks are reading more or less the same bestsellers as Muscovites. But, as expected, pride and a special interest in local culture play a big part in readers' choices. On Piotrovsky's top 10 for 2011 the #1 slot was reserved for Alexey Ivanov's Urals: The Spine of Russia, as seen from the following chart:

Pride in homegrown talents also saw Piotrovsky hosting a media art installation by artist Sergey Teterin called "poetophone" back in June 2010. Looking like a rotary dial phone, audio-cassette recorder, and transistor radio rolled into one, it allows users to select and listen to any of 12 recordings by four Russian futurist poets: Vasily Kamensky, Aleksey Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and David Burliuk. This invention has been acquired by the Frants Gallery, which has spaces in St. Petersburg and New York City.

As one of the founding members of the Alliance of Independent Publishers and Booksellers launched last December, Maltsev finds that the organization has formalized the bond among indie players in the Russian book industry. "It gives a name to what we already have: friendship," he says. "I hope it will become something like a trade union for all indie booksellers in this country. However, funding is a major hurdle. Still, I can see the future potential of the alliance in bringing indie book players together and helping to create a more diverse book market."

Another current focus of Maltsev is the store's academic reading list. "We are putting the books not in alphabetical order or by author but based on periods, movements, or themes. We are hoping that reading known authors of a specific period or theme will lead readers to other similar authors or works, and that will help people read more and broaden their perspectives on a certain topic." Maltsev aims to make Piotrovsky not only bigger but also more comfortable and user-friendly, and "for that, we are studying the experience of the best bookstores in Europe and the U.S."

Quick facts about Perm
Located near the Ural Mountains on the Europe-Asia border, Perm is about 1,150 kilometers northeast of Moscow. The Kama River, Europe's fifth longest river at 1,800 kilometers and fed by more than 200 tributaries, flows through the city. It takes 20.5 hours to travel from Moscow to Perm by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Several daily flights to Moscow are available (two hours one way) from Perm's Bolshoye Savino Airport.