Iconic Brussels bookstore Darakan’s dying days

 Space is at a premium in Darakan. Discounted gay porn DVDs, coffee-table photo books, detective novels and rock biographies are all crammed together in haphazard harmony. No caramel cappuccinos, occasional armchairs nor kilometres of shelving in sight. A lap around the central island would delay a sprightly octogenarian no more than fifteen seconds, whilst a cracked plastic chair is the only comfort granted to the determined browser. 

Belying its humble appearance, this diminutive, unassuming bookstore has proved a mecca for Brussels booklovers for over three decades. Darakan does not boast an exhaustive inventory nor a shiny interior, rather it eschews quantity and pretension to focus on the serious business of selling books. Books close to the heart of owner Jacques Paulus. “I got it in my head I wanted to run a bookshop, because while I love culture, I wouldn’t call myself particularly creative and so I thought it an ideal way to promote the creativity of others,” he explains. “I’ve always read a lot. My two brothers played football, and I read.” He chuckles at the memory. After an early diet of adventure books and whatever his mother brought home from the second-hand shop, Jacques graduated to the weightier Sartre and Camus as a teenager. “I grew up in a village in the province of Namur, coming to Brussels at 18. I was lucky because despite a Catholic upbringing, I had friends who were much more open. And they passed me books which opened up a different world to me.”

“Towards the end of the 70s I became convinced I needed to sell books, so I started to seek out a location and that search brought me here.”

He dutifully pursued studies in economics, spending several less-than-inspired years in the comfortable job that inevitably followed. However his love of books was an itch to be scratched. “Towards the end of the 70s I became convinced I needed to sell books, so I started to seek out a location and that search brought me here.” On the cusp of a new decade, on New Year ́s Eve 1979, Darakan was born. It was an auspicious start; a new shop for a different era. Within months, mainly through word-of-mouth, the shop had built up a steady trade and a loyal following. Darakan was the only bookshop around specialising in crime novels, gay literature, cinema and rock. It was a diverse but winning formula, “In fact, there were less problems at the beginning than now. Everything slotted into place quite fast and within six months we were turning a profit.”

If the crosshatch of streets bordering Darakan was not the buzzing gay district of today, on its doorstep were a number of bars where a melee of leftists, artists and gays rubbed shoulders. Jacques charts the genesis of an openly gay pulse in the area, “Well, when I opened Darakan it was early days of the coming-out of the gay community in Brussels. There were a few bars, but a bit out-dated in the sense you had to ring a bell to get in.” He marks the opening of the Belgica bar, celebrating a quarter century this summer, as a turning point. “At first I wouldn’t have labelled it a gay bar, it was quite a mixed bar, but then slowly it started welcoming a predominantly gay clientele.”

Many other bars have sprung up since, but Jacques stresses steady rather than stellar growth, “By the late 80s things were more open, but it wasn’t until the end of the 90s that it began to take on the markedly gay atmosphere of today.” Asked if the biggest event on the Brussels gay calendar, Gay Pride, features on the Darakan calendar, he shakes his head, “The shop is closed,” adding with an ironic laugh, “After all, who’s interested in books on a day like that!” Considering the changing face of the Gay Pride since its inception in 1996, he explains, “In the early years there were a lot less people, and of course very few straight people apart from the very committed. The atmosphere was a little less party and more geared towards calling for equality for the gay community.”

He is matter-of-fact about progress, “Fortunately we had a secular government in power, free from the habitual influence of the Church, and in those six to seven years much was achieved, not only in terms of enacting legislation, but in ensuring it was understood and applied.” Selling books has not dulled Jacques’ appetite for words and lots of them – he reads two to three books a week, adding up to over 5,000 books during his Darakan era. Reductionist then to enquire if there is a favourite author or book. Unsurprisingly, Jacques demurs. Instead he holds up “Last Night in Montréal”, which he has just finished. His verdict? “Not bad.” Initially at a loss to identify a bestseller down the years, Jacques indicates a small book entitled “Archétypes”. It is the latest comic book available in French by German artist Ralph König. Proffering it, he explains, “A new one is published every year or so, and in recent years it’s been like a bestseller for me. It’s a comic that gay people identify with, and a really funny read.”

“We receive a lot of shit, but at the same time we get to discover some gems.”

An avid reader, but also something of a cinephile, Jacques sells a limited collection of DVDs. “In my early twenties I saw a lot of the classics, and with them digitally remastered on DVD I get to enjoy them all over again.” Eclectic in image as in word, Jacques recalls the impact of the controversial Pasolini, and his reaction to Godard’s masterpiece Breathless, but equally finds time for an honourable mention for that most American of directors, Western supremo, John Ford. As founder of the Pink Screens Festival, now in its eleventh year, Jacques, together with a handful of volunteers, is busy preparing for the next edition in November. Currently vetting films for this year’s programme, he admits the task is a labour of love, “We receive a lot of shit, but at the same time we get to discover some gems.” The festival runs at Cinema Nova. “Definitely the most original cinema in Belgium,” declares Jacques. The decade-long cooperation has been a happy one, “For me, it’s the ideal place, I can’t think of any better setting and to top it all off, there’s a bar!”

Those hoping for an anecdote behind naming the shop after hired gun Darakan from French author Claude Klotz’s detective novel of the same name will be disappointed. Jacques reasons “Well I didn’t want to put my name on the shop, and I’d recently read the book and it seemed to suit!” Belgian artist, Eric Adam, was a young art student at the time and he both designed the logo and painted the dark, bold characters that still adorn the shop window. He also occasionally found his way behind the counter where he encountered some of the era’s most renowned cultural figures. He lists visits from French singer Alain Chamfort, Belgian chanteuse Lio, French actor and filmaker Jacques Perrin, and from Hugo Pratt creator of comic-book hero Corto Maltese. He also recalls a visit from French actor Phillipe Noiret, “he really liked the shop and stayed at least two hours which led many onlookers to come in and flick through gay porn books!”

If Darakan was once a portal to an exotic world, the advent of chain stores and explosion of online retail sounds the death knell of the independent bookstore. With his customer base stagnating and business dwindling Jacques, recently made a tough decision – to close-up shop. In June he circulated what he jokingly calls Darakan’s obituary. The dismayed reactions, nostalgic recollections and fond tributes are testimony to decades of dedication. Aspiring new owners notwithstanding, Jacques envisages winding-up within eighteen months. Time enough to savour the disappearing delights of a small, somewhat shabby but ultimately very special specialist bookstore.

Darakan, Rue du Midi 9 Zuidstraat – 1000 Brussels
darakan.net