Rome's independent English bookshops survive and, some, even flourish.
A few months ago, with the closure of the celebrated Feltrinelli in the Galleria Sordi on Rome's Via del Corso, local Italian newspapers published doom and gloom predictions for the future of book stores in general, with the shock revelation that 230 book shops in Rome had closed over the last 15 years. The covid emergency was expected to deal the death blow for those that were still in business.
However, a post-pandemic trip round Rome's independent English-language book shops paints a less gloomy picture. The four stores in our investigation, all run by dedicated women, revealed that owners were not only determined to carry on, but that they were also reasonably optimistic as regards the future.
Anita Ross, the dynamic manager of the Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere observes that: “Kindle reading is dwindling. In my experience, people who have read a book they like on kindle will buy it afterwards in hard copy to keep.” She also believes that a new trend is emerging.
“People want books to be more attractively presented with more attention paid to quality production. I think that we are now entering a de-growth economy when people want quality rather than quantity. They are tired of the philosophy of 'cheap and disposable' that has dominated the market these past years and this applies to books as well.”
The one English bookstore that has been worst hit by the crisis is the Anglo American Book Co. near Piazza di Spagna, owned by Cristina Donati, who comes from a family with a four-generation tradition of book sellers. Since the 1970s the Anglo American Book on the corner of Via della Vite was a fixed point of reference for the English-speaking community of Rome. In its heyday the store could boast a shelf stock of 150,000 books, including novels, biographies, history, science, travel, Italian art, school texts and anything that wasn't in the shop could be ordered and would arrive punctually.
However the store has been forced to move, due to demands for a 100 per cent rent hike from the proprietor of the building. Despite the fact that local legislation allegedly protects independent book shops and craft laboratories, by prohibiting a change of use for a number of years, many landlords of properties in plum locations seem to prefer to keep premises empty rather than limit their rent increase requests. And in fact, the windows of the old Anglo American Book now stare blankly out at the tourists who wander by.
The Anglo American Book moved on 1 September 2022 to a first floor apartment further down Via della Vite and is still finding its feet. Shelf space is now limited to 4,000 books while the bulk of the rest of the stock has to be kept in storage in a warehouse outside Rome. Donati laments that many previous activities such as book presentations and school visits have had to be curtailed.
In addition to moving and handling restricted space, Donati has had to cope with reduced opening times. The building where they are now housed is regulated by the working hours of the concierge who is not on duty on Saturdays and Sundays. The street door is also closed at lunchtimes: “But we are here if anyone rings the bell so come on up!” she says. The business is manned with the help of four friendly assistants – Patrizia, Edoardo, Pietro and Daniele.
“I'm grateful for my regular customers who have remained loyal and continue to come to the new premises,” says Donati. But she admits that the more casual passing-by traffic has been limited by the lack of a street level window display. “People don't always understand there is a bookstore just up the stairs, although we do have a sign outside the main entrance.”
The other independent English book shops have been more fortunate thanks to a more stable situation. A team of three women runs the Otherwise Bookshop on Via del Governo Vecchio, just off Piazza Navona. Marcella del Bosco, Giulia Melideo and Donato Porcarella alternate shifts to cover the long opening hours. The book shop is open every day including Sunday from 10.00 to 23.00.
A relative newcomer to the scene, Otherwise opened in 2017, an offshoot of the Italian Altroquando book store owned by Alessandro Alessandroni, situated opposite. Like all independent book shops, the personal touch is considered essential and Marcella says that things have been going well from April onwards when pandemic fears began to subside.
The store promotes works published by small independent publishers and delivers all over Italy. It also runs two book clubs on the premises – the Feminist Book Club and the Harry Potter Book Club. According to Marcella: “Harry Potter attracts all age groups.”
The two long established English book shops in Trastevere continue to flourish.
The Open Door is tucked away in the lesser-known tract of Via della Lungaretta on the S. Cecilia side of Viale del Trastevere.
Run by Lavinia and Paola Ciuffa, it specialises in second-hand books and relies mainly on a clientele of passing visitors and non residents who like to pop in and browse among the decks of shelves crammed with books of all epochs and on all subject matters imaginable, including curiosities such as the Lloyds Register of Shipping from 1760 to 1960, stacked beside old copies of The Last September, Elizabeth Bowen's 1929 novel on the Irish troubles.
The “steadies” are locals, who regularly bring in their surplus books to donate or to sell. The shop is so packed that only a corner near the door is reserved for the desk of the person in charge. Most of their stock is in English, but an archway at the back leads into a smaller room with books in French, Spanish and a few other languages.
On the opposite side of Viale Trastevere, near the Basilica of S. Maria di Trastevere and the celebrated Valzani pastry shop, is the Almost Corner Bookshop, run by Anita Ross who has taken over full command since Dermot O'Connell has moved into semi-retirement due to ill health.
The Almost Corner was founded in 1991 by Australian UN worker Claire Hammond who subsequently sold it to the Irish ex-pat O'Connell in 2002. Ross originally comes from Edinburgh, where she trained in Edinburgh City Libraries before she was drawn by the lure of the Eternal City and found her niche in the Trastevere book shop. She runs the shop with the help of two assistants, Jahan and Romina, who alternate with her to cover the extensive opening hours.
The atmosphere is casual, friendly and efficient. The shelves are tidy and a rotating display centre in the middle of the room gives customers the opportunity to view the latest arrivals. Ross's motto is: “A book for every customer and a customer for every book” and she is convinced: “If a book doesn't sell right away, it will sell eventually. There will always be someone who will come along and be interested in it sooner or later.”
“We are fortunate in being in Trastevere where we have a stable clientele of 40 per cent locals as well as a 20 per cent of students from universities like John Cabot University.” There is also a steady passing by traffic. “We clear 60 per cent of our stock in an average three months and a further 20 per cent within six months.”
Like all the other book stores the Almost Corner struggled through the pandemic. It is a matter of pride with her that: “We only closed completely for five days at the height of covid. A book shop, after all, is a public service.”
Business however has now picked up well, she says. She believes that the most damage to the book trade in recent years – “more than covid, more than competition from Amazon and online reading – “was caused by “the phenomenon of low-cost travel with people preferring to spend their money on trips rather than books."
Together with Cristina Donati, she complains about the negative impact of Brexit: “The book market to Europe from the United States is processed through London so the difficulties buying in American authors are the same.” Deliveries take longer and costs have escalated by 28 per cent, she says. “Inevitably this raises the price of the books.”
However, as book sellers know, true book lovers will never do without their books and luckily there seem to be plenty of them still around.
Anglo American Book, Via della Vite 27, tel. 066795222.
Mon-Fri 09.00-18.00 (ring the bell if street door is closed at lunchtime).
Almost Corner Bookshop, Via del Moro 45, tel. 065836942.
Mon, Tues, Wed 10.00-18.00. Thurs, Fri, Sat 10.00-19.00. Sun 12.00-19.00.
Otherwise Bookshop, Via del Governo Vecchio 80, tel. 066879825.
10.00-23.00 every day.
Open Door, Via della Lungaretta 23, tel. 065896478.
Tues-Sat 11.00-14.30 and 15.30-19.30. Mon and Sun closed.
This article was published in the December 2022 online edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
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