John Francisconi, the general manager of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn. Is finishing up a three-week residency at Otherwise Bookshop in Rome. The residency was made possible by Bookselling Without Borders (BWB), the collaborative program between 13 independent publishers that organizes fellowships for booksellers to attend international book fairs around the world.
Otherwise Bookshop is a tiny English-language bookstore that is a collaboration between Roman bookstore Altroquando and the Italian publisher Edizioni E/O, the owner of Europa Editions in the U.S. Reflecting on his experience, Francisconi said, “Generally speaking, it doesn’t feel a whole lot different from, say, moving from one bookstore to another in the U.S. There’s a till that needs counting, books that need to be received and shelved, phone calls to be answered.”
Despite the similarities in the day-to-day, Francisconi said “the difference in culture/place is, unsurprisingly, profound,” and added that there’s a constant feeling of “dislocation, the rug constantly being pulled from under my feet, and all the unpredictable amazements of everything in this city — it’s hard to put words to, but it’s already been one of the greatest gifts of my life.”
As for his impression of Italian bookselling, he said that the Italians too have to deal with low profit margins and difficult terms and discounts— 40% from the distributor Bertrams and 35% from Penguin UK. And fellow booksellers confirmed to Francisconi that developing a career in bookselling was itself a challenge, much as it can be in the United States.
Amazon, unlike in the U.S., was seen as less of a threat to bricks-and-mortar stores; In Italy, Amazon is limited to offering a maximum discount of 15% and legislation is being considered to limit that to 5%, as it is in France. He added that there is also a larger diversity of voices available to Italian readers. “Walk into a place like Altroquando, or Feltrinelli, and [you] see so many kinds of writers, from all over the world, in their original languages or in translation. It’s a completely different approach to bookselling.”
Still, one thing remains very much the same: handselling. “Yesterday, I handsold a copy of Sing to It by Amy Hempel,” said Francisconi, “[I] was thrilled to share with the customer stories about seeing Amy read and speak in Cambridge, when I was a student there. We also talked about her editor, Gordon Lish, a postcard pen-pal of mine. The customer had studied with Amy in the 1990s, and adored her teaching style. It could’ve so easily happened in Mystic, if he was passing through there, but how much better here in Rome!”
The next Bookselling Without Borders program will take three booksellers to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. These are Jonathan Woollen from Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C.; Lesley Rains from City of Asylum Bookstore in Pittsburgh; and Chris McDonald from Bear Pond Books, Montpelier, Vt. In January 2020, Arsen Kashkashian of the Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Co.,will start a residency with Seagull Books in Kolkata, India.