Helga Weyhe, Germany’s Oldest Bookseller, Dies at 98

BERLIN – After Helga Weyhe had closed her bookstore in the city of Salzwedel every evening, she commuted as usual – one step into the apartment above. She had been on the same journey since World War II, as her father had before and as her grandfather had before him.

The H. Weyhe bookstore is one of the oldest bookstores in Germany. It was founded in 1840 before Germany was a country. Mrs. Weyhe’s grandfather Heinrich Weyhe bought it 31 years later. It lasted through the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi regime. Ms. Weyhe took over the business from her father in 1965, four years after her father built the Berlin Wall, and ran it through communist rule and the reunification with West Germany.

She was locked up for the last time one day in December. She died just before January 4th at the age of 98. Her body was found in her house, said Ute Lemm, a great niece.

“With her life she closed a circle,” said Ms. Lemm. “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 in the former GDR, and during communist rule it stored religious books that were not available in state bookshops, frowned upon as if by the regime. It was a blessing for the believers and a silent act of defiance for them.

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

When the Iron Curtain was lifted and those who had fled to the West returned to Salzwedel, they gathered in her shop for readings that she had organized.

“They bought their school books from the Weyhes when they were children, and now, when they returned to town, they were seniors,” said city archivist Steffen Langusch. He had long conversations with Ms. Weyhe about local history in her office at the back of the store, amid books and black and white photos that record the store’s past.

Bookstores hold a special place for many Germans. During the lockdown of the pandemic, some were classified as “material” companies. The country’s 3,500 small, independent booksellers (compared to 2,500 in the US) have been backed by a law that fixes book prices and prevents the small stores from being undercut by large chains and Amazon.

In 2012, Ms. Weyhe was the first resident to be officially honored by the city after reunification. This is equivalent to receiving a key to the city. In 2017 she received a national special award for her bookstore.

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

The interior of the shop with its well-stocked wooden shelves and exhibition tables has not changed much since the renovation by Mrs. Weyhe’s grandfather around 1880. Mrs. Weyhe printed out quotes and poems and stuck them on the shop windows for the benefit of passers-by. by.

She took pride in only stocking books that she knew and approved, even though she would order almost anything online from her suppliers.

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

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

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

“She dreamed of going to the United States since she was a little girl, but she had to wait all of her adult life to reach retirement age,” said her great-niece, Ms. Lemm, the artistic director of a theater, in the 1980s.

Helga Weyhe was born on December 11, 1922 as the daughter of 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. She studied German and history at institutions in Vienna and in what was then Königsberg and Breslau.

After the war broke off her studies, she worked in the bookstore in 1944.

Mrs. 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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