Life beyond Edison

Tova Piha
October 6, 2005

I like Edison as much as the next person.  Indeed, when I first arrived in Florence, I jokingly referred to it as my second home.  It was where I checked my e-mail, had my morning cappuccino, went to the loo, did my Italian homework, and wrote in my journal.  It was where I always arranged to meet people, and where I ran into people by chance.  On occasion, I would also purchase a book.

 

For the Anglo-American community in Florence, there is a certain comfort to supermarket-style bookstores like Edison, Martelli, MelBookstore, and Feltrinelli.  In addition to carrying a smattering of English titles, they function not only as bookstores, but also as social centres, reading libraries (inadvertently!), and coffee shops.  Not particularly Italian in design, size, or layout, they are a taste of home; they provide indoor space that does not require ‘renting,’ as does a table at a restaurant or a roomy apartment, and has, to boot, the built-in activity of browsing for books in the company of other, book-minded people.

 

All that said, however, Florence has not been immune to the usual side-effects wrought by the advent of such behemoth bookstores.  In the mid 1970s, Florence was home to a large number of – some say over one hundred – small, independent bookshops.  They have since been whittled down to about a dozen.  Adapting to a mutating market, Florence’s commercial landscape has changed, and those small bookstores that have survived are, for the most part, the more focused ones, specialising in a particular reference area and thus providing a profundity that the bigger shops do not offer.

 

Among these specialised stores are those catering to the many English-language readers living in or passing through Florence.  Although they are not quite as central, nor as social as is Edison, they offer a broad range of genres and titles that cannot be matched by the “supermarket” bookstores whose English selection is comparatively limited.  Furthermore, they provide a more personalised service for lovers of books who are far from the country of their native tongue, and not, contrary to popular belief, at a higher price.  BM Bookshop in Piazza Ognissanti 4r, Paperback Exchange in Via Fiesolana 31r, and McRae Books in Via de’ Neri 32r are well worth your patronage, despite the additional ten minutes’ walk and the ‘sacrifice’ of the all-in-one booksocialcoffeecouch experience.

 

Particularly outstanding and noteworthy among them is the Paperback Exchange.  Established in 1979 by husband Maurizio Panichi and wife Emily Rosner, it traded in used paperbacks for the first four years of its existence and has since expanded to include classics, history, and new books, as well as to supply many of the English-language Florence-based university programs with the academic materials they require.  The bookshop houses thousands of titles, most of which arrive from the US and the UK within 2-4 working days, and the staff’s careful attention to customers’ tastes and new literary trends ensures a constant updating of their selection.  Books can be traded in for store credit and used books, even current bestsellers, are available for purchase at significantly reduced prices.

 

But what is truly unique about the Paperback Exchange is that it goes beyond being an efficient, reliable, well-stocked, service-orientated establishment.  If you are looking for a particular, elusive title, Emily will go the extra mile to locate it and order it for you.  If you are looking for reading recommendations, you will not be met with a blank Barnes & Noble stare.  Even if you are looking for a store in Florence that sells pipe cleaners, glitter, and googly eyes for a craft project (as I was last Halloween), Maurizio will, without question, point you in the right direction.

 

Emily, American but here for 35 years, and Maurizio, a Florentine, understand that Florence, as many a new environment and culture, can be inhospitable, and so they strive to put people at ease, to make the Paperback Exchange a safe haven.  “I want people to feel at home when they walk into the bookstore,” says Emily.  People come in with all sorts of questions entirely unrelated to books, and Emily and Maurizio, together with their staff, are happy to help.  “That’s the fun part, relating with customers” Emily continues, admitting that she would love to put in a couch, a coffee machine, but that sadly, space is an issue - even for the books! 

 

Which are, after all, the point.  And as much as Edison is still a part of my Florence experience, when it comes to the books - the ones in English at least - it is places like the Paperback Exchange that really value serving, and serving well, a multicultural, communicative, book-reading, mind-feeding community.

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