Since 1979, Emily Sue Rosner and Maurizio Panichi have driven the Paperback Exchange, an independent Anglo-American bookstore that has become a cultural hub for the international community with its trusty trade-in scheme and stock of new and current releases. This year, their 40-year old “third child” is being handed over to the enthusiastic young duo, Icaro Rotunda, 28, and Gianluca Romeo, 31. We chatted with the outgoing and incoming owners to find out what’s in store.
Helen Farrell: Here we are at the end of an era. Why did you open the bookshop all those years ago?
Maurizio: Emily’s mum and dad opened a bookshop in the States and they suggested we did something similar in Florence; they even offered to provide the books. Between September 1978 and March 1979, Emily, my brother Vincenzo and me spent five to eight hours a day in the original via Fiesolana store, building the shelves, preparing and designing. We did everything ourselves.
Emily: Then we opened on March 27, 1979.
Maurizio: It proved an immediate success. We had an incredible response from the city.
HF: Any funny stories to share?
Emily: We have a notebook of stories. Some people would come in and ask if we had pipes! Others would venture inside and say, “I’m looking for that comedy and it’s, I don’t know, something about hell, this Dante guy…” Yes, a lot of funny things have happened in the store.
Maurizio: For a lot of people, the most amazing thing is the atmosphere. It has a very international style, so expatriates feel at home here.
Emily: It’s like a little watering hole.
HF: How hard was it to find the right people to become your heirs?
Emily: We’d been talking about selling the bookshop for many years. In June last year, we thought, ok, we’re doing it. This is really our third child and we’re very attached to it. I was afraid that somehow people would abandon us because bookshops were closing; I was afraid people would think we were closing the bookstore.
Maurizio: We were steadfast in our thinking that the bookshop is irreplaceable. For the last 15 years, the prediction was been about the end of books and that everything’s going digital. When we were talking about the idea of selling the bookshop, people would say, “Who’s going to buy a bookshop now?”
Emily: Long story short, I had 97 requests for information in September, from everywhere, from Australia, the UK, all over, thanks to the advertisement we put in The Florentine. It was just wonderful. In the end, it came down to 6 offers.
Maurizio: We chose Icaro and Gianluca for two reasons. Icaro was already working here and we decided he was the right person to do it and do it well. In the last ten years, Emily and I became conscious of growing older, because we were thinking of the future of the bookshop. We needed to find somebody young with enthusiasm and energy, and Icaro and Gianluca have that.
HF: Icaro and Gianluca, why invest in a bookshop in 2019?
Icaro: First of all, we love books—that’s very important—and the fact that I was already working here helped a lot because I was able to learn more about the bookstore. Gianluca and I spoke about it and we thought, why not? We’re young, full of energy, we have ideas, and we want to keep this place alive. It’s very important for Florence, for many people, so we decided to go for it.
HF: Are you both from Florence?
Gianluca: Both our mothers are from Canada, they were friends in Montreal and moved to Florence together. They both got married and stayed here, so we’ve known each other forever. We were born and raised in Florence, although we’ve both lived in Canada too.
HF: I see you’ve made some changes to the bookshop.
Icaro: Yes, we’ve changed it a little bit inside to create some space for events. Not just book events, as we’re going to be open to every art form: photography, painting, music… We both have a background in music.
Gianluca: Some customers might be concerned that we would try to change the bookstore. They mustn’t worry. We’ll add some new things, but the spirit of the bookstore won’t change.
HF: Most bookshops are not just bookshops anymore, of course.
Icaro: Now you can purchase a book anywhere, and not just in a bookstore, in other ways too. So we have to give something else to our clients. People need to have a place they love to go.
HF: Out of curiosity, what are you reading at the moment?
Icaro: What I’m into lately is very specific. I’m reading Homo Sapiens e altre catastrofi by a professor called Telmo Pievani. I’m hoping it will be translated because it’s a beautiful book.
Gianluca: I always have a light read and something more challenging on the go at the same time. Currently, it’s The Once and Future King by T.H. White, a classic, as well as a book by Carl Jung.
HF: Emily and Maurizio, how do you plan to spend your much-deserved retirement?
Emily: We’re going to travel a bit. At the end of June, we’re going for a walking holiday. I was thinking of studying German again, and I want to read! And then rest, you know, it’s been a long time.
HF: Icaro and Gianluca, we already have an event planned for June at the Paperback Exchange!
Icaro: Yes, we’re hosting a reading of The FLR Issue Five with The Florentine on June 13. Follow our Facebook page for more information about other forthcoming events. Plus, we’ll be opening an Instagram profile very soon and in September we are going to launch the new website.
June 13, 5pm, Paperback Exchange, via delle Oche 4R, Florence
Discover what goes into making a literary magazine with TF's Helen Farrell and TheFLR's Diego Bertelli, Alessandro Raveggi and translator Johanna Bishop. Reading by Elia Nichols, actress and communications coach. A glass of wine will be offered by wine shop Vino al Vino.