Interview with Silvia Chiarini, an Italian bookseller in Vienna
Hartliebs Bücher, Livres & Libri (Porzellangasse 36, 1090 Wien), opened in 2013, is a German, French and Italian bookshop in which each section is managed by a mother-tongue bookseller.
Does your bookshop only sell original Italian versions of books or also translations? What criteria do you use when selecting Italian books and what is the ratio between literature, non-fiction, comic books and children’s books?
Most of the books in my bookshop are in German, with a particular focus on children’s books and fiction. Then we have about 4000 books in the French section, while the Italian section, in which there are around 2500 books, contains both original Italian editions and translations.
At least half of the books in the Italian section are works of fiction, including gialli (crime stories), which are almost all original Italian versions and are arranged on a regional basis, and then there are poetry and graphic novels. About a fifth of the books are for children, above all illustrated albums and stories to read aloud. For their independent reading, we have books that have been selected for the Premio Strega Ragazzi (the children’s section of the Strega Prize), which thanks to the Italian librarian Anna Bellé and the translator Tania Spagnoli, also includes a group of readers and voters from Vienna. The rest is non-fiction, with as many topics and interests as we can manage: travel, cooking, art, music, biographies, science, philosophy, history and current affairs, economics, mythology, feminism, the environment, literary criticism and a section devoted to Vienna. For me, who has to choose these books carefully, I think there are a lot of books, but obviously compared to the number of new publications each year, there are not really that many. And this means that I choose by trying to find the right balance between titles and authors that are in demand and others that are less well-known, trying to work as much as possible with independent publishers.
Which Italian authors are most in demand?
Italian crime stories are most in demand, especially those set in certain cities or regions, but, above all, the original editions of the books which, arriving in translation in the German-language book market, arouse the interest of readers abroad. And we shouldn’t forget the books of authors we present in the bookshop, which are often bilingual events, as these moments of socialisation and mingling help us to present Italian books, and their translations, to a greater number of readers. Moreover, very often, Italian language courses also use literary texts as a way of learning the Italian language and culture.
In your experience, which initiatives are most useful in attracting the public’s attention and gaining the loyalty of customers?
I think that a bookshop has to be run remembering that it is a space to be shared. Readers should be able to frequent a bookshop and feel at home there. I also think that you always need to give them a chance to contribute to making it a space in which they can meet people, exchange ideas and grow personally. Initiatives such as literary circles (we founded La Giostra) get readers to exchange opinions and ideas, while presentations of books in the presence of their authors enable readers to form opinions and learn about the craft of telling stories. When you have a foreign bookshop, the work you do locally becomes even more essential: getting people to learn about Italian literature, telling people about Italian literature, and, whenever possible, doing this together with the authors and translators.
We have hosted at least forty Italian authors in the bookshop and for at least half of them we were able to do a bilingual presentation as the book had already been translated. These presentations are quite onerous, also in economic terms, and many of the presentations have been made possible by our cooperation with the Italian Cultural Institute. This synergy between Italian bookshops abroad and Italian institutions is essential.
In our case, the cooperation between the Italian Cultural Institute, the bookshop Hartliebs Bücher and the association Librai in Corso has resulted in our organising the first bilingual festival of Italian literature in Vienna. Called LA FONTE, the festival, which will take place on 25-27 February 2022 and includes nine bilingual presentations and a reading in Italian for children, is aimed at giving people a taste of contemporary Italian literature.
From the point of view of a bookseller, what “systemic initiatives” could be taken in Italy to promote the sale of Italian books abroad?
Let’s start with the problems – due, above all, to the different structures of the book market in Italy and German-speaking countries – to try and understand what could usefully be done.
One problem for Italian booksellers abroad is distribution as official Italian distributors do not operate abroad. For this reason, we have to get the books from wholesalers, who are very efficient, but the discount they offer booksellers is much lower. And shipping costs amount to 5%. The promotion of books is another thing that doesn’t reach this side of the Alps and for booksellers this means that we don’t receive information on what publishers are planning to do, we don’t get previews and our book launches always take place after the book has been released in Italy.
The French section receives cooperation and support from France – we are an authorised bookseller listed by the CNL (Centre National du Livre), from which we receive funding and all the French distributors and various promoters work with foreign markets, enabling us to have more flexible discounts.
There is a need for both structural and economic initiatives to ensure that Italian bookshops abroad are considered, in all respects, Italian bookshops in the Italian book market and, above all, are supported in their dissemination and promotion of Italian literature in the world. For example, our being included in the list of quality bookshops (the list introduced following the reform of the law that came into effect in March 2020 excludes us because we are located outside of Italy), funding to support distribution costs and funding for Italian publishers that organise presentations abroad with bookshops and/or institutions.