By Rachel Aydt
New York writer Rachel Aydt is traveling through Europe this summer, and has been filing occasional posts on her bookish adventures. Today, she visits an English-language bookshop in Rome.
We headed to Rome for a few days after spending two days with my mom and stepdad, who’d done an apartment swap in Anzio (despite its somber WWII history, is a lovely little port and beach town in its own right — Caesar used to vacation there, after all).
This was my third time back to the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, but I don’t recall ever turning down the windy cobblestone corner that leads to the twenty-year old Almost Corner Bookshop, located at 45 Via Del Moro. When I first caught sight of it at night, it was closed, but the windows were so charming and crowded with books in English that I made a mental note to return. On my last day in Rome I had the chance, and I’m so very glad I found it again.
Dermot O’Connell, a lovely Irishman, moved to Rome eight years ago to take over the Almost Corner. His is the rare bookstore where the shelves spring to life as soon as you step in, their titles intermingling in a way that recalls a vibrant conversation. This energy surges when a small store lovingly and frequently restocks due to a brisk business of loyal regulars. In fact, the Almost Corner plays host to a dynamic community of expats and transient summer college students. In a tiny space, the shop heaves with books that can suit anyone (“I always say there’s something in here for everyone,” said his loyal Scottish staffer, Anita — and she’s right). There’s a solid mix of mystery, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, and classics. I asked them if they leaned toward any specialty or another and I got a confident “Books about Rome in English.” Dermot pulled down two titles that he said would never sell in the US, but that fly out of his store daily (ironically, he has to import them from the States, but I digress…). One of the titles was The Families Who Made Rome by Anthony Majanlahti, and the other was the saucy Mistress of the Vatican by romance historian Eleanor Herman, author of both Sex with Kings and Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics.
From Herman’s book, I learned that during the 17th century, in the very neighborhood where I was standing, a self-made and driven woman named Olimpia Maidalchini used to collect taxes from prostitutes for her brother-in-law (and lover?) Pope Innocent X. Apparently, she would hang the family crest over the brothels to indicate them as safe houses, places not to be bothered by other tax collectors or Church officials. Dermot told me that he’d learned from an historian friend of his that Olimpia’s crest was a dove with an olive branch hanging from its beak. He took me around the corner and pointed up to the top of an otherwise beautiful but nondescript residential building. There it was, her crest, still floating above the windows now filled with drying laundry. “What you’re actually looking at is a 17th century brothel,” Dermot told me. And so another copy of the book left his store, opening up a fresh spot for a new, thoughtfully chosen replacement.