By Beth Kephart
FLORENCE: I wanted to walk where Dante might have walked, wanted to stand where Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Uccello, and Ghiberti might have stood, wanted to make a visit to Galileo’s tomb, and so I went to Florence. I found the rare alleys the tour guides neglected, the time-burnished side-street churches, the sun-wedged cloisters that are, miraculously, silent. I ate where the real Florentines eat and photographed the city at dawn and then again at midnight, when it was most like itself, or, at least, most like I had imagined it would be. Fewer umbrella-led tours. More room to breathe.
And then I set out for one of the best-loved Anglo-American bookstores in all of Italy — Paperback Exchange, just off the Piazza del Duomo — to find out what people like me read when visiting or living in a city like Florence. There I found owners, Emily Rosner (of New York) and her husband Maurizio Panichi (a Florentine), who have been trading in books and real conversation since 1979.
The two have changed locations since they opened their first “higgledy-piggledy store.” They have broadened the scope of their offerings and the size of their community. But clearly Emily and Maurizio remain who they were years ago — two socially conscious, politically engaged passionistas who believe in the power of books that you can hold in your hand.
The store, which they run with their son Jacopo as well as a small staff fluent in both books and English, has something for everyone — not just the newest releases and the big-name bestsellers, not just the travelogues, but also titles that will appeal to academics, psychologists, artists, and sociologists, not to mention the more than 800 new second-hand paperbacks that come in each week as part of the store’s Paperback Swap Scheme.
There’s a corner for children — a growing segment for the store in part, says Emily, because “children’s books will continue to be read, and in our opinion, not substituted by the digital option.” There are young adult titles. There is the story of Florence told through both pictures and words. And there are, often, two versions of key books—the British version and the American one. J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was sharing the front table with Ken Follett and Ian McEwan’s latest titles when I stopped by. A Fifty Shades paperback on a nearby shelf reflected the store’s decision to meet the demand for “the ‘hot, new’ novels, like Hunger Games, and ‘mother’s porn,’” a trend about which Emily and Maurizio express “mixed feelings.”
According to Emily and Maurizio, the large expatriate community in Florence doesn’t tend to read about Florence, or Italy. But these expat customers are, says Maurizio, “big readers (percentage wise, higher than in the U.S.), and more literary, more international, with tastes more varied. The Italians who come into the shop also tend to have these reading habits.”
Key to the success of a store like this has been, say Emily and Maurizio, the commitment to pay attention, to listen well to customers, and to bend when bending is required.
“We have never, in all of our history, relied on publisher’s reps suggestions, or fixed/automatic/contracted new publications shipments from the suppliers, a common practice in most bookstores,” says Emily. “Poring through the publishers’ catalogues, media reviews (both mainstream and not), and, most important, listening to our clients needs and wishes, we choose new publications ourselves, one by one. We prefer to buy small quantities and have a very fast turnover. This permits greater flexibility. What sells, we reorder; what doesn’t, doesn’t get reordered.” All except for literature and classics, notes Emily, who likes to keep one to two copies of such books in stock, even if they are “unpopular.” The store’s academic offering is broad as well — not for turnover so much as to telegraph the store’s commitment to real ideas, and true art.
Clearly with Europe in crisis and Italy changing, with guided tours filling the streets but never the stores, it isn’t easy to run an Anglo-American bookshop in Florence, but Emily and Maurizio are doing far better, they say, than many store proprietors in their city. They also remain committed to a place where they have made and kept many friends.
“The dollar is low, the euro is strong, everything is terribly expensive, there are no jobs to be found, and business overhead is enormous,” Emily acknowledges. And yet, she says, Paperback Exchange has given her and her family their happy, and meaningful, Florentine existence. It has given her an opportunity to build what she calls her “understanding of social awareness and the growing need for civic and cultural education.”
“We are doing what we can to keep the bookshop well-stocked with “food for thought,” she says.
From the looks of things, they are succeeding.
Beth Kephart’s fourteenth novel, Small Damages (Philomel), takes place in southern Spain and received starred reviews. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com and is at work on a novel set in Florence.