Looking for a book in English? Thats not a problem these days. Theres Feltrinelli International in Via Orlando, theres Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina, theres Mel in Via Nazionale, theres the big bookshop at Stazione Termini and if you are flying in or out of Rome, there are the airport stores. All these Italian shops have a good selection of the latest best-selling novels and some of the classics too. Then theres the giant virtual store on the internet, Amazon not quite the answer for an impulse buy but easy, reliable and usually cheap. With all these alternatives, are the expatriate bookshops in Rome taking a knock?
The closure of the Economy Book and Video Center at the end of December was a sad moment for the English-speaking community. The almost-simultaneous decision by the English Bookshop in Via Ripetta to close its book section was also an indication that times are changing.
The Economy, as it was known, was a fixed point of reference for several generations of English-speaking foreigners first in its small, welcoming premises in Piazza di Spagna during the 1970s and 1980s and then in its rather more formal but much more spacious location in Via Torino in the Via Nazionale area of the city. Over the decades the Goldfield family provided the English-speaking community in Rome not only with books and then videos but also with advice about all aspects of life in the city, as well as a place where the various expatriate associations and groups could meet.
When it first started in the 1970s, the Economy was the only bookshop in Rome to provide a source of cheap, second-hand books in English. The Lion Bookshop, then still in its premises at the Piazza del Popolo end of Via del Babuino, was the more up-market English bookshop; but the Economy was where you went to trade your old novels in and to look at its notice boards for jobs and apartments. It was where you went to feel at home in a strange country.
But the success of the small bookshop in Piazza di Spagna meant that its underground, rather cramped location soon became too small for its needs. So the Economy moved out of the historic centre and the atmosphere was never quite the same again. It became an ordinary bookshop, in an ordinary part of town. The less convenient location might not have mattered if the prices had been right but they werent; sometimes they were more expensive than elsewhere. So the old clientele dwindled and started to buy elsewhere.
Location and price are in fact two of the keys in Rome to selling books in English, and probably in most other cities where there is a large foreign community. Having a place on the foreigners beat is important. In Rome that means the historic centre or Trastevere. It is not by chance that all the foreign bookshops, including the French, the German and the Spanish, are in one or other of these areas. Although it is close to the American-Episcopalian church of St Pauls within-the-Walls, Via Torino is not in an area where foreigners normally go.
Price is also crucial in these days of Amazon and other online bookstores. If it is possible to buy a book cheaper on the internet than in the shops, and without moving from home, why bother to look elsewhere?
How much has online book-buying hurt the English book trade in Rome? Two of the English bookshops, the Lion Bookshop & Cafe and the Almost Corner Bookshop, had exactly the same answer to the question. Jovica Todovic (always known as Theo), who has been working at the Lion for four years, admits that best-selling paperbacks and popular novels may be cheaper through Amazon, but when it comes to the specialist, more expensive end of the trade, Amazon prices are often higher, and delivery times are longer than what the Lion can offer. If its distribution companies have the book in stock the Lion, says Theo, can have it in Rome in a few days. Dermot OConnell, the owner of the Almost Corner Bookshop, was in agreement both on price and deliveries, and he believes that Amazon is not a threat to a good bookshop.
As to competition from Italian outlets, the English-language shops can beat their big Italian counterparts on service and delivery. Although the choice of books in English on the shelves of the Italian sellers increases by the year, if a title is not in stock then delivery time may be weeks rather than days. Italian shops usually have to order through their Italian wholesalers, which then pass the request on to the British or American distribution outlet, whereas the English shops order directly from the publishers supplier in the home country.
The English-language bookshops also provide something else that no Italian can provide the home-from-home atmosphere that many expatriates like when getting to grips with a new city and a new culture. Here, the Almost Corner Bookshop excels, just as the Economy did in its golden days. It is one of those rare commodities that hardly exist in the home country any longer small, friendly, and with an answer to almost every problem. Customers dont just drop in to the tiny space in Trastevere for books; they also drop in for a chat, for advice and because they love browsing through the shelves. The Almost Corner Bookshop has that feel of a bygone era, when life was leisurely, when both the seller and the buyer knew their books and loved their trade.
The Lion Bookshop still has a bit of the old-country welcome that expatriates like so much, left over from the good old days when it was owned and run by two English women, now long gone. In addition the shop, which is presently owned by an Italian, is in the historic centre, which still counts for something. It has plenty of space, a coffee shop, an exhibition space and it is a good place to meet your friends.
The other English bookshop in Rome, the Anglo American Bookshop, which is also close to Piazza di Spagna, offers quite something else. For the private reader, looking for a book in English, the shop has a good selection of titles, but here the feel is more of a modern business than of a love of books. Mr Donati, its owner, realised long before anyone else that books in English were not just for expatriates but for Italians as well. His shop has been in the front-line of the language boom, catering not just to those who want to learn the language (the Lion specialises in English language textbooks too), but also to students and experts in the fields of information technology and science, where English is the universal language.
Probably in this day and age, the old traditional expatriate bookshop is now as much a luxury as the small, friendly, independent bookshop in England. Hopefully foreigners, as passionate about home books as they are about home food, will continue to support them. As long as there are owners whose love of books outweighs their concern about their balance sheets, they will probably continue to exist.