There are two bookshops in Paris that have been specialising in Italian books for many years. Situated in different parts of the city, one in Marais (La tour de Babel, 10, rue du Roi de Sicile), the other close to the “grands boulevards” (La Libreria, 98, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière), these two bookshops are important points of reference for the Italian community and anyone who loves reading Italian books. A year into the health crisis, we asked the people running the two bookshops how they have faced this difficult situation.
Your bookshop sells books by Italian authors in both the original and in translation. What is the percentage in terms of the Italian and French versions you sell of Italian authors?
Tour de Babel.
For thirty-six years, Tour de Babel has been helping people who love Italy to learn the language and discover Italian authors. Many arrived with the insecurity of university students and are now retired, voracious readers. If we were to create an identikit of the bookshop’s typical client, it would be a woman, “a student for life” of the Italian language, a careful reader of quality literature in Italian, from crime novels (even Camilleri) to old and new classics, but also essay writers like Magris and Agamben. Until the start of the health crisis, 75% of our readers were French and 25% Italians who had been living in France for some time. During the last twelve months, the situation has changed and it is now 60-40%, with a marked generational change. The French, who are avid readers and like to discover new authors and new publications, keep up to date with all the French and Italian literary news, frequently buying books that have recently won literary awards. The translations, and their reviews in the French press, are obviously a very useful way of finding out about new publications, but we only sell one translated for every ten in the Italian original.
It is difficult to give an exact answer because we also sell books by foreign authors in French. Our bookshop is what is known as a “librairie de référence”, that is an independent general interest bookshop, but I think we can say that it is about 50%-50%. Let’s say that over time we have become better known and our customers also come from quite far away to buy Italian books. Italian customers in France, who are growing in number, demand an international publishing selection.
In what way has your relationship with your customers changed since the start of the pandemic? What solutions have you had to find to deal with this unexpected and unprecedented situation?
Tour de Babel.
I don’t think you can say that there’s been any sudden or drastic changes. There have been different stages, from the original almost total lockdown in March-April 2022, the less rigid one in November, when “click and collect” and deliveries were possible, to the current 6 PM curfew. After every announcing of a lockdown and subsequent “liberation”, we have seen a considerable increase in the number of people visiting the bookshop, especially under-40s. Our older customers, also because they are more at risk, continue to prefer having their books delivered, but when we are only able to open with six people present in the bookshop, it’s difficult to stick to the rules. There have been two initiatives, however, that have helped to support independent bookshops: firstly, the Government’s decision to refund the cost of delivering books throughout France during the periods of lockdown (November and December 2020) led to a considerable increase in mail orders; and, secondly, the anti-Amazon campaign (with news reports on the working conditions of their delivery drivers and warehouse workers, on the waste and on the pollution caused by the vehicles used for their deliveries) has helped to make consumers more aware of the need to be more responsible in their buying choices. Nowadays, it is very common for people to ask us for a book, adding that they were unable to find it, but “don’t want to buy it on Amazon”. Tour de Babel has tried to adapt to the increase in telephone orders, like in the old days, but we are also having to deal with an ever-greater number of e-mail orders, remote payments and deliveries. In the near future, we shall have a specific e-commerce website, but it is something that requires both time and money. We have started making much greater use of our Facebook page and, since we can’t physically meet in the bookshop, we have begun streaming meetings. We have tried to meet the needs of new customers by adding a section of children’s books and opening a comic book section, and we are also looking at the survival strategies of customers forced to stay at home during lockdowns: cookery books have never been in such high demand, for example. While during the first lockdown, people were asking us for books about plagues and pandemics, that eventually stopped. Readers are now increasingly asking us for “lighter” books – books that are fun, but intelligent, love stories that do not end badly, or family sagas (Leoni di Sicilia, Casa sull’argine, Piano nobile, Di guerra e di noi etc.).
The pandemic has certainly not helped things. It must be said, however, that the lockdowns and social distancing measures (smart working, the closing of cinemas, theatres and restaurants, etc.) that have forced people to stay at home and isolate have resulted in people paying greater attention to books. This increase in demand has helped us to overcome the most difficult moments. Obviously, we have had to improve how we approach selling online (greater visibility on our website, more economic delivery solutions, etc.) and adapt to the new restrictions as regards social distancing and opening times (having to close at 6 PM). The “click and collect” solution worked perfectly during the lockdown in November. We are currently working on having a new, more efficient website in a few months’ time.
It is still not possible to predict with any certainty when the health crisis will be over. But will a return to normality mean a “return to the past” or do you expect that some of the changes that have taken place during the pandemic will alter the way in which bookshops work?
Tour de Babel.
The way we do things is changing, especially here in France, where Covid was preceded by a year of the gilets jaunes, with months of strikes and demonstrations, usually on Saturdays. Even before Covid, Saturday had become a day like any other, with actually fewer customers compared to the rest of the week, when at least you weren’t in danger of getting stuck somewhere because there was no transport or of finding yourself caught up in clashes between the police and protesters. People have got used to working from home, while senior citizens have discovered the Internet, e-mail accounts, Netflix and Zoom. I believe that it will be necessary to find solutions that are able to reconcile “the old and the new”. I think it’s great, for example, that meetings in the bookshop can also be streamed live, but streaming cannot replace the dialogue with authors when they are physically present. And e-commerce is great, too, when you can do everything with the click of a mouse, but you still need to be able to give readers advice, based on their tastes, the books they have read and the situation.
It’s difficult to make any predictions. We do not think, however, that everything will be the same as before. We are convinced that the mail order service will become increasingly important and for this reason we are trying to improve our visibility on the Internet and speed up Internet purchases and deliveries. But we are also convinced that readers and the people that visit our bookshop need the contact and advice we are able to give them. Bookshops are undoubtedly a safe shelter for many readers. And if there is one thing that we have noticed during the last few months it is that our customers like telling us just how much they need us! Many of our new customers have told us quite clearly that they do not buy books any more on websites like Amazon. And these are militant decisions.
In 2022, Italy is meant to be “pays à l’honneur” at the Salon du Livre in Paris, but it is still uncertain whether the event will go ahead.Are there already signs of greater interest being shown by French publishers in Italian books? And how are Italian books faring in France at the moment? Are there too many or too few translations of Italian books? Could more and better be done? How and why?
Tour de Babel.
In the last few years, Italian books have been faring very well thanks to a readership that is now truly into the Italian language and culture. Tour de Babel, thanks to its founders, managed to become a space for the promotion and dissemination of Italian authors at a time, the 1990s, when this well-known Italian bookshop in rue de Bourgogne, not far from the Italian Cultural Institute, was about to close. Thanks to the presentations organised together with translators, Mario Fusco, Jean-Paul Manganaro, Marie-José Tramuta and Nathalie Bauer, publishers and, above all, little-known authors such as Ammaniti, the young author of Io non ho paura, or Vincenzo Consolo, we took up the baton and – at certain point – even felt the need to set up a small publishing house for bilingual editions of authors like Bilenchi, Pontiggia and a young, unknown Sandro Veronesi, who has since won the Strega Prize twice. Leaving aside global successes, such as Ferrante, who is not surprisingly published by Gallimard, it is often the smaller and medium-sized publishing houses that decide to publish forgotten works. Think, for example, of Nous and Pasolini’s La Rage and Sciascia’s Portrait sur mesure; Ypsilon and Saba, Attanasio, Rodari and Pasolini; Allia (Leopardi, Landolfi, etc.); and Liana Levi, who made Milena Agus known not only in France, but also in Italy. Viviane Hamy, after the first German edition, published Goliarda Sapienza’s L’Arte della gioia, which enabled the author to be rediscovered in Italy. Personally, I am particularly grateful to Cahiers de l’Hôtel de Galliffet for having enabled me to discover the poetry of Nella Nobili, which has been almost a bestseller for us.
We don’t know the exact figures, but, to give you an example, at the beginning of 2021, between winter and spring, about thirty Italian novels were published in translation. That is a considerable number, with novels quite different from one another, often excellent. I think that this high number of translations is probably the first step towards the 2022 Paris Book Fair with Italy as guest of honour. But, in any case, definitely not too many translations! While French publishers are interested in Italian literature, the majority of readers are still fairly concentrated on just a few contemporary and classic authors: Erri De Luca, Milena Agus, Elena Ferrante, Goliarda Sapienza, Antonio Tabucchi, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino… It is difficult for new authors to find a space for themselves. This year, there was considerable media coverage of the two Strega Prize winners (Scurati and Veronesi) and the sales of their books have been excellent, but other authors find it difficult to get themselves known. We support them in the bookshop, doing readings and organising meetings with them (before Covid, we used to have about one meeting a week with Italian authors). It has to be said, however, that we have never been approached by any Italian public institution (except for the Italian Cultural Institute, with whom we have been collaborating successfully ever since we opened). French bookshops abroad are known to be well supported by the Centre National du Livre, an important tool for the dissemination of French culture abroad. Isn’t it time that some sort of interest was shown in our small, but extremely dynamic activity? We know that, however small, we are an important element in the promotion of Italian literature in France and we do not believe that this is sufficiently recognised in Italy. Why is what we do ignored? The creation a few years ago of Italissimo, the festival of Italian literature, by Fabio Gambaro, the former director of the Italian Cultural Institute, and Cristina Piovani and Evelyn Pradwilo, was a wonderful initiative. We take part in this festival as an Italian bookshop and we believe that adding to it, making it an official event and giving greater visibility to the Italian publishing world, would be an intelligent move and would not cost very much.
La Libreria collaborates with the jury for the Marco Polo Prize, which is awarded to an author and translator of an Italian novel published that year (in the four years since it was created, it has been awarded to Sandro Veronesi, Emanuele Trevi, Giosuè Calaciura, Cristina Comencini and their translators). The Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute are actively involved, but what seems to be missing is greater visibility in Italy. It is a great award precisely because it recognises the essential role of translators. Is there any support for translation?
From the point of view of a bookseller and thinking ahead to what Italian public institutions can do to promote the 2022 edition of the Paris Book Fair, what kind of initiatives would you like to see and who should be responsible for these initiatives to improve the situation of Italian books in France?
Tour de Babel.
The cancelling of book fairs in Italy and elsewhere has affected the exchanges between authors and readers, publishers and authors, and, above all, between literary agents and publishers, who use these occasions to negotiate authors’ rights abroad. It is very important that the Salon du livre takes place, is open to the public and that Italy remains the guest country to resume these meetings and exchanges. I also think that the organisation of the event should be adapted to accommodate recent developments: promote the event in the widest possible way (including enormous “vintage” posters in the metro) and reach agreements with the major publications of literary criticism aimed at non-experts, such as Le Monde, Télérama and the Nouvel obs. It will take at least a year to tackle one end of the problem, working together with bookshops, schools, universities, libraries, associations and any other bodies that are in contact with people who actually read books.
While we hope that the current health crisis will soon become a distant memory, we are certain that many French people will take part in this event. Italy and Italian culture are highly thought of in France, even though Italians are not sufficiently aware of this. We see this in our bookshop every day. People think so highly of Italy. We, therefore, believe that offering meetings with Italian authors, both new and established, in emblematic “Italian” spaces in Paris (and the rest of France), such as museums (Louvre, Jacquemart-André…), theatres (l’Odéon di Strehler…), the many busy Italian language schools, cinemas (le Champollion, le Panthéon, le Balzac), places where people go to eat Italian food (increasingly authentic!), striking buildings of Italian culture and, of course, bookshops, is perhaps an obvious idea, but it would undoubtedly have a great impact. Another possible idea would be to invent walks following Italian writers who have lived in Paris, from Goldoni to Tabucchi, or to focus on writers who have found in Paris or France the land of their inspiration.