LVIV, UKRAINE (AFP) – In the basement of the bookstore she runs in western Ukraine, Romana Yaremyn shows off hundreds of books stacked to the ceiling after they were evacuated from the torn east of the country by war.
Packed together in white parcels, titles rescued from Kharkiv fill what was once the children’s reading room. They are only a fraction of those in the eastern city’s boutique publishing house under Russian fire, she said.
“Our warehouse workers tried to evacuate at least some of the books. They loaded up a truck and it all came through a postal company,” said the 27-year-old, wearing a yellow hoodie.
They started with these, their newest and most popular publications, many of which are children’s books.
The western city of Lviv has remained relatively safe from war since the Russian invasion two months ago, except for deadly airstrikes near the railway line last week.
Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women and children, have fled to or through the country’s cultural capital since fighting broke out.
“I don’t know how my colleagues from Kharkiv stayed there,” Yaremyn said.
“Those who fled and stayed with me said they felt like they wanted to raze the city.”
Yaremyn said the bookstore quickly reopened a day after the invasion, providing shelter in the basement when the air raid sirens went off and hosting reading sessions there with displaced children.
In the first wave of arrivals, parents who had left home with next to nothing flooded in search of fairy tales to entertain their children in the bunkers.
A few parents bought Polinka, the story of a girl and her grandfather, published just before the invasion and written by a man who is now at the front.
“He wanted to leave something for his grandson,” she said.
From the shelves of the adult section, Yaremyn pulled out a collection of essays about Ukrainian women forgotten by history. Her writer too is now fighting the Russians, she says.
“A lot of our writers are in the military now,” she said.
As sirens wail across Lviv to signal the end of an early morning air raid alarm, baristas return to their cafes to turn on their espresso machines until the next warning.
The sun pours down from a blue sky, and a young man and woman shake their heads while sitting on a terrace.
The many bookstores in the city are open.
In a pedestrian tunnel under a downtown road, several small stalls sell translations of foreign classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell or even manga titles.
Near the Royal Arsenal Museum, a pigeon sits on the head of a large, muscular statue of Ivan Fyodorov, a 16th-century Moscow printer buried in Lviv.
At its feet, when it’s not raining and there are no sirens, a few booksellers await customers.
Dressed in a light blue coat and woolen cap, Iryna, 48, sat near rows of literature and history books for sale or rent.
Low-cost rentals were once popular with the older generation, she said.
Iryna, who did not give her middle name, said she stopped working for more than a month after the war broke out.
When she returned to the cobbled square in early April, many parents from the East came to pick up books for their children.
“I gave them a lot, because kids want to read,” she said.