Visiting an Italian Bookshop

A Guest Post by Kim Allen-Niesen, co-founder of Bookstore People

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Having spent the last two weeks in Italy, I couldn’t help noticing lots of the small bookstores scattered throughout the country in both large and small cities.  Finally, towards the end of the trip, I dropped into Almost Corner Bookstore in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, a store for English books, and talked about their shop and bookselling in Italy.  The differences in our cultures and what it means for bookselling is interesting.

Almost Corner Bookstore is a relatively small shop with wall-to-wall books.  A center table stacks current bestsellers and books with Italy as the subject matter. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, due to the recent release of the film, received the center spot. An observation from a customer who lives in Rome, “clearly Dan Brown didn’t visit Rome before he wrote the book.” I also noticed several bestsellers in paperback that were still in hardback in the US. The shelves had a huge variety of books, from English fiction and non-fiction to contemporary Chinese literature.

almost-corner-booksThe atmosphere was fun, when I visited two booksellers were in residence along with a professor from Cal State Los Angeles and an ex-pat who later delivered us to a terrific dinner restaurant. Their customers are tourists to a certain extent (apparently an Australian Cardinal drops in every time he’s in Rome to buy a novel for the plane ride home), but at least a third are English speaking Rome residents, and many are Italians who read English books because book options are limited in Italian, the publishing world is smaller.  The store’s bestsellers are detective and mystery books, even before the likes of Dan Brown, especially if the locale is Italy. Once Almost Corner buys a book, they keep it until it’s sold. No remainder shipments here. While the store doesn’t sell used books, some of them may be very old.  There has been a slow down in business because fewer people are traveling due to the recession, but they’re surviving, much like many American bookstores.

Finding a native English speaker and bookseller, I asked about the prevalence of bookstores everywhere.  The answer, there isn’t competition.  To buy a book is to buy it at the local bookstore.  I remember those good old days. There are bookstore chains, Feltrinelli being the most prevalent, but the stores themselves aren’t huge and they haven’t permeated everywhere.  But what about Amazon?  I was shocked to learn that there is very little e-commerce in Italy.  The Italians firmly believe that if they give their credit card online, the next day their entire bank account and retirement savings will be gone.  Moreover, there isn’t anywhere for a book to be delivered.  Most Italians live in apartments with small mailboxes and no one trusts their neighbors enough to leave a package by the mailboxes or the door to the apartment. The person I was talking to said that there isn’t evidence of mass theft from the mail; it’s just a cultural belief. I was stunned and asked what does an Italian do when a package is to be delivered?  A few neighbors have their packages delivered to the bookstore, but mostly they simply do not receive packages.  E-commerce hardly exists in Italy.  I felt like I was stepping in the early 1980s before the advent of Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.  Italian suspicion is saving the small store owner.

And that unique store name?  Years ago the store was situated on the corner and was called Corner Bookstore.  A larger space with better heating opened up down the block and the owner grabbed it and changed the name to Almost Corner Bookstore. If you are fortunate enough to be in Rome, stop by and chat.  You may find a new but yellowed book to keep you company on the plane trip home.

Almost Corner Bookstore

Via del Moro 45

Trastevere, Rome 00153

Tel:  39 06 583 6942


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Bookstore People

5 thoughts on “Visiting an Italian Bookshop”

  1. Hello. I am planning a trip to Italy, and would like a suggestion for a good contemporary Italian novel that is 1) fun and engaging (I’m on vacation, after all) and 2) that gives a modern/contemporary flavor of Italy. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this article – it is always interesting to see and hear about the book business and its operators in other locales.

    One of the huge benefits of being in the book business, if you can generate enough funds to travel, is the ability to connect with others who share a common passionate interest.

    Personally, I am glad there are still some civilized people out there who have managed to live without Amazon’s house of cards. Sadly though, it is likely it will only be a matter of time until the internet shell game envelops the world and succeeds in obliterating the book business we shopkeepers know and love.

    It is a shame to think that the charms you describe of a bookshop in Italy is destined to be crushed by the growing numbers of money grubbers looking for the easiest path – and worse yet that they have somehow managed to continue thinking of themselves as book dealers – rather than wheeler dealers.

    Progress can be ruthless in the wrong hands.

  3. Thanks for your wonderful article. It’s a common daydream of mine to operate bookstore/cafe in some Umbrian hilltown or along the Cinque Terre. I figured it’s more of passion than a viable business because I don’t want to even think about the hole that will be burning in my pocket. It’ll ruin the romance of it, including the eccentric patrons and the pensioners who come daily to complain about the city services or younger generation. But that’s what the retirement savings are for. Italy will be a springboard for my own book project on the small, unknown churches and chapels of Umbria, La Marche and Abruzzo.

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