Helga Weyhe, Germany’s oldest bookseller, dies at 98

BERLIN – After Helga Weyhe locked her bookstore in the town of Salzwedel, Germany, every evening she made her usual commute – a gallop to the upstairs apartment. She had made the same trip since WWII, just like her father had done before, and like her grandfather before him.

The H. Weyhe bookstore is one of the oldest bookstores in Germany. It was founded in 1840, before Germany was a country. Ms. Weyhe’s grandfather, Heinrich Weyhe, bought it 31 years later. It lasted during World War I, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime. Ms. Weyhe took over her father’s store in 1965, four years after East Germany built the Berlin Wall, and guided it through Communist rule and reunification with Germany’s Where is.

She locked up for the last time one day in December. She died at the age of 98 some time before January 4; her body was found at her home, said Ute Lemm, a great-niece.

“With her life, she closed a circle,” Ms. Lemm said. “She died where she was born.

Helga Weyhe (pronounced VIE-eh) became an anchor in Salzwedel, about 110 miles west of Berlin. The city was located in the former East Germany, and during the Communist regime it stocked religious books that were not available in state bookstores, which the regime frowned upon. It was a boon to the faithful, and for her a discreet act of defiance.

Ms. Weyhe was a kind of lifeline for her clients. She traveled far and wide after East Germans were generally allowed to leave for tourism, which gave her an infectious enthusiasm for the outside world again. “She brought a little bit of the world to Salzwedel,” Ms. Lemm said.

When the Iron Curtain was dissolved and those who had fled to the West returned to Salzwedel, they gathered in her store for readings she had arranged.

“They bought their school books from the Weyhes when they were kids, and now when they came back to town they were seniors,” said Steffen Langusch, the town’s archivist. He had long conversations with Ms. Weyhe about local history in his office at the back of the store, amid stacks of books and black and white photographs chronicling the store’s past.

Bookstores hold a special place for many Germans. During the pandemic lockdown, some were categorized as “essential” businesses; the 3,500 small independent booksellers in the country (compared to 2,500 in the United States) were supported by a law which fixes the prices of books, preventing small stores from being undercut by the big chains and Amazon.

Ms. Weyhe in 2012 was the first resident after reunification to be officially honored by the city, the equivalent of receiving a key to the city, and in 2017, she was awarded a special national award for his bookstore.

“She was not just an honorary citizen,” said city mayor Sabine Blümel. “She was an institution.

The interior of the store, with its well-stocked wooden shelves and display tables, hasn’t changed much since Ms. Weyhe’s grandfather renovated it around 1880. Ms. Weyhe printed quotes and poems and stuck them in store windows for the benefit of passers-by. by.

She prided herself on only stocking books that she knew and approved of, although she ordered almost everything online for her customers from her suppliers.

As she has told interviewers over the years, one of her favorites was a 1932 children’s book by Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika Mann, titled “Stoffel flies over the sea”, about a boy who tries to visit his uncle in America by hiding in a zeppelin.

“This was probably the last bookstore in Germany where you could still buy a copy of this book,” Langusch said.

The plot of the book appealed to her personally. Ms. Weyhe’s Uncle Erhard lived in Manhattan and ran his own bookstore at 794 Lexington Avenue near East 61st Street. His obituary in the New York Times in 1972 described him as “one of the last great art book dealers.” An old sign with the Lexington Avenue address hung on one of the shelves in Ms. Weyhe’s bookstore.

“Ever since she was little, she dreamed of going to the United States, but she had to wait all her adulthood until she reached retirement age,” in the 1980s, her great-niece Ms. Lemm, artistic director of a theater.

Helga Weyhe was born on December 11, 1922 to Walter and Elsa (Banse) Weyhe. Her mother also worked in the store. She graduated from high school in 1941 and was the first woman, and only the second person, in her family to attend university, studying German and history at institutions in Vienna and what was then Königsberg and Breslau.

The war having interrupted her studies, she went to work in the bookstore in 1944.

Ms. Weyhe never married and left no immediate survivors. Her extended family is hoping to find a new manager for the bookstore.

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