In Brussels there are currently two Italian bookstores. The best known to the whole Italian community in Brussels is Piolalibri, founded in 2007 by Jacopo Panizza and Nicola Taricco in rue Franklin 66-68, a stone’s throw from the European institutions. Two years ago, the Semami bookshop (rue de Namur 80) was opened by Mariangela Mincione, also in the center, which quickly became known in the city.
In 2016, Antonio Parodi’s Librebook (Chaussée de Wavre 128) also opened its doors. It can only be defined as partly Italian,. It aims to offer a selection of books in twenty languages from over 30 European countries to Brussels’ international public.
All these bookshops, as often happens today, offer their customers a bar and restaurant service.
We asked their owners a series of questions about their activity as promoters of Italian books in the Belgian capital.
Does your bookshop just sell Italian books in original edition or also books by Italian authors in translation (French, English, Dutch)?
Only books in Italian.
The assortment of our library was born from the intention of representing Italian contemporary culture. Show, promote, comment and sell it, through a well thought out selection of the most interesting material publishers have produced from the 1950s to today. We offer Italian authors’ titles in original translation and in French, but also books of foreign authors translated into Italian. For a couple of years, as publishers, we have started publishing bilingual texts (French, English, Spanish and Chinese).
Librebook is the only bookshop in Brussels that offers original language books from all over Europe and books that are translated into French and English. In addition, we order translations of Italian books in all European languages.
What criteria do you use when choosing your assortment of books and what is the proportion between literature, non-fiction, comics and children’s books?
After years of experience, we have adapted to customer requests, trying to address and stimulate them. A large part of our restaurant is dedicated to the classics and longsellers, but obviously the novelties also have their space. For the rest, we always have privileged literature for children and teenagers, without neglecting graphic novels and comics. In recent years, nonfiction has gained increasing prominence on our shelves.
At the entrance, you will be greeted by: on the right, our publishing house’s books, with a section dedicated to travel beside it, not only tourist guides, but also novels, illustrated books, collections of poems, cookbooks; opposite, we highlight thirty of our narrative and non-fiction choices; on the upper floor an entire wall is dedicated to fiction, while on the opposite side are the historical-political literary essays. In the mezzanine “Who reads, grows”: the corner for illustrated books and books for children.
The two basic criteria are curiosity and diversity. These criteria are obviously subjective but they allow readers to discover works, authors and publishing houses that are less known or, more precisely, less “mainstream”. We must take into account that we are specialized in contemporary literature of the last twenty years, with some “classics” from the second half of the twentieth century. In four years of activity we have offered about 1400 titles in Italian. 500 titles are normally present in the library, almost exclusively fiction, including graphic novels, with 10% of titles for children. For the rest we work a lot on order, we receive books from Italy once a week.
Which are the Italian authors who are most often asked for?
The usual: Camilleri, Calvino, Carofiglio, Bassani and Ammaniti.
The most requested authors are, in most cases, the most promoted and well-known ones: Manzini, Baricco, Carofiglio, Ferrante … the Strega awards. This is the market , we must not ignore it and some authors are also pleasant to read. But we always try to help our readers discover new horizons.
In our selection curiosity and diversity prevail, therefore the answer can only be “many and different”. Apart from the Ferrante “phenomenon” and the books of the authors who come to make presentations in Brussels, we promote and sell both famous and much less well-known authors. This is our strong point.
Based on your experience, which initiatives do you consider particularly useful in attracting the public’s attention and winning over loyal customers?
Events, meetings, presentations…, but also a lot of attention to the book cover price.
There are many successful initiatives. We continuously offer activities aimed at attracting a public that is already book orientated. But our choice to combine restaurant and bookstore allows us to successfully involve a new and different audience.
Basically, for us the customer is a person and not a number. We therefore try to personalize the relationship with the customer because we are part of the same community. Our work is obviously more difficult because we don’t turn to a single linguistic community, like other libraries. We make multilingualism a strength and a meeting point. With this objective in mind, we organize events that are heterogeneous in terms of languages, format and genres and literary topics to stimulate the direct participation of the greatest number of readers.
From your bookseller point of view, what “system initiatives” could be taken in Italy to promote the sale of Italian books abroad?
Have shipping costs paid to publishers or distributors. Recognize Italian bookstores abroad as promotion centres of Italian with consequent culture subsidies and tax aid.
In order to sell Italian books abroad to foreigners and not only to the Italian public, it is necessary to continue studying Italian in schools and universities around the world. Only a courageous policy of supporting the teaching of Italian outside national borders can help keep attention focused on the Italian book abroad.
First, I would like to draw attention to a tax issue, apparently secondary and often unjustly underestimated: Italian books are the only goods on which the foreign consumer pays twice the VAT, the Italian one included in the cover price and that of the country of purchase, included in the sale price. Italian books are penalized because they cost relatively more to the bookseller abroad (net of transport costs, obviously higher) than a book from any other country or the same book in Italy. If you want to promote the circulation of Italian books economically, this serious tax anomaly should be corrected.
In a broader perspective, I think funding aimed at promoting translation and partnerships between publishing houses from different countries for joint publishing projects are important. I am also referring to forms of twinning between Italian authors and authors from other European countries on common themes. I believe that national funding can be a lever to activate more co-financing from Europe and other countries.