Some time ago I came across a mention of a Sea Library in Jūrmala, Latvia. This sounded intriguing, and so this month I chatted to its owner, Anna Iltnere, to find out a bit more about it.
What inspired the Sea Library? It’s such an evocative idea.
On a full moon I moved to a wooden house that sits between the Lielupe river and the Baltic sea. I was unemployed at the time [Anna was previously an arts journalist for Scandinavia and Russia] and I filled my time with books, really the first time I had read for pleasure since my teens. I read about Sylvia Beach, the American who opened Shakespeare & Company in Paris in 1919, and I was struck with the epiphany that I wanted to do the same. I wanted to open a bookstore right at the beach, with books about the sea – and call it Sylvia’s Beach Books! That idea eventually became the Sea Library.
How does it work?
The Sea Library lives on the first floor of my house, just three miles from the sea and a few hundred metres from the river. Anyone who wants to can come, borrow a book, and read. It’s become a really magical adventure. Jūrmala has a long history of healing spas under pine umbrellas, and what could be more healing that to choose a book and go for a swim? I will make you a drink, give you a towel, and even lend you a bicycle. What I would love for the future is to grow my collection of books and be able to invite even more readers.
Did you have a favourite book about the sea growing up?
I bet that every kid in the 90s in Latvia had a copy of the beautifully illustrated Sinbad the Sailor. Mom recently returned my old copy to me, so I’ve added it to the Sea Library.
What’s your experience of learning to swim?
Once I couldn’t see water as anything but part of the land. It felt cold, wet, and wrong – if I couldn’t reach the ground with my toes I started to panic. I couldn’t let go. Last summer my eldest son learnt to swim in the nearby river. He told me, “It’s a game of feeling… feel how the water holds you.” I was intensely curious because books about water ignited curiosity to experience the sentences on my skin. When I let the land go, I caught myself swimming in the sea in late October, leaving the gravity back with my clothes on the shore. So I believe I learnt to swim age 34.