Every day, on my way to work, I pass a homeware store by the name of Arel Materiale Elettrico Firenze. And always, in the window, a golden retriever is watching the world go by, his head slumped on a cushion that looks like a giant collapsed tennis ball. Catch his eye and his body tenses, and he starts thumping his tail.
I’m usually content to salute him through the glass, but for the sake of this article I actually enter the shop, feeling more than usually like the batty Englishman abroad. There’s no natural lead-in to my overtures, which have all gone something like: “Hello, yes, I know this is a bit of a strange question, but I work for an English language magazine here in Florence, and we’re writing an article about the shops that contain dogs.” I try this on the lady at the till, my confidence squeezed away by the tectonic frown that closes across her forehead, certainly more out of bafflement than hostility. Luckily, I am saved by a man who walks in and practically throws himself at the dog: “Dammi lo zampino!” he commands, and the retriever duly raises his paw and shakes the newcomer by the hand.
It turns out that this man is Vito, and he and his wife Laura run the place. His almost rabid passion for his pet suggests that my cause is maybe not quite so misguided. Sure enough, I learn all about the couple’s love of golden retrievers—a photo of their old one is pinned behind the counter—and that the dog who has marked my commute every morning for four years is called Archibald, or Archie. Vito and Laura tell me of his regional celebrity, how a primary school class once traipsed in to say hello, and how local artist Alexandra Leonetti, quite unsolicited, made a drinks mat with a little portrait of Archie on it.
It seems that a dog is happy in a mesticheria. Habitués of San Lorenzo market may be able to picture the ferramenta across the street, if only for the black Scottish terrier who usually sits in the doorway. Naturally, the one time that I actually go looking for him, he’s not in. “Tommy? He’s just out for a walk”, explains owner Gianantonio Annibali, once he’s fully grasped what I’m asking. “But be aware: he’s a personaggio.”
The personaggio returns after about ten minutes, which I’ve spent browsing the prerequisites of the civilized household: Creusets, griddle pans, and “piadina dryers”, which I now realise I need. Tommy dives behind the counter and drinks deep of his water bowl: it’s hot outside. At his leisure, he trots back out and starts patrolling the aisles, nosing his way behind customers’ legs and refusing to pose for my photographs. Like Archie, he belongs to a dynasty; and like Vito and Laura, Gianantonio has photos of their old dogs discreetly pinned up at the back, with the subjects curiously sporting goggles. “Sono tutti cani motociclisti”, Gianantonio explains. “They go in the sidecar.” Even as far as the Brenner Pass and Austria, I learn. I wonder what the curmudgeonly little terrier makes of these trips.
One of my students tells me to explore the upper reaches of Careggi, where I will find a print shop called Junior Copisteria, and a dog therein. I locate the establishment soon enough, but the owner Andrea apologises that his poodle, Minù, is at home today with his wife, Enza. Of all my interviewees, Andrea is the one who adapts the fastest to my line of questioning, delighted to talk about his animal that usually, he promises, can be found trotting between the printers. In fact, so happy is he to rhapsodize his dog, he pays no mind to the couple waiting outside the door, impatiently observing the residual Covid rules.
All pets, apart from maybe tortoises, give us an accelerated image of our own mortality; and just as none of us escaped the upheaval of Covid-19, nor did Florence’s shop dogs. A German shepherd used to sit in a jeweller’s shop on via San Zanobi, now closed. A leather-jacketed beagle used to guard the threshold of Pelletteria Aldo in via del Proconsolo, not that the new owner seems aware of it. And in piazza della Madonna degli Aldobrandeschi, a spaniel by the name of Olimpia once lived quite literally above the shop, or rather above Nobile Bistrò. Though she did not belong to the bistrò’s proprietors, she was talismanic of the place; and it is with obvious sadness that the bartender tells me that the family moved to Rome last year.
So there you are. I went a-hunting for six dogs, and managed to track down two. They never come when they’re called. If there’s a message in that, it’s to appreciate them while they’re around, and therefore to appreciate each other.