Notebook: Bookselling at the Crossroads

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

In a way the place of an English-language bookstore in a non-English-speaking country is a kind of paradigm for the lot of bookstores everywhere. A shop full of books in English sends out a quiet signal—come here to be among your folk—to anyone who shares a language and wishes to be immersed in it for a while and surrounded by others who wish the same.

If Dermot O’Connell of the Almost Corner Bookshop in Rome were not real, bookstore kismet might have invented him. Like many bookshop proprietors he came to the life by chance. He had visited Rome in the late nineties and registered the pervasiveness in Italy of many of the pleasures of life that were somewhat thin on the ground at his desert teaching job in Saudi Arabia—opera, art and architecture, wine and conviviality. He says that during his entire tenure there he never saw Saudi woman’s face. In Rome by contrast couples and families played out their lives on the streets, and the pleasures of the senses had been on the agenda for hundreds of years. Into the twenty-first century, as Dermot was growing jittery in Saudia Arabia, a friend told him out of the blue that Claire Hammond, who had founded the Corner Bookshop in 1991 in Rome’s studenty Trastevere district, was looking to sell. He didn’t quite drop everything: he visited the shop, he visited friends who ran a university bookstore in his native Ireland, and finding nothing to dissuade him he took the plunge. With threatened eyesight he has recently sold the shop after fifteen years but he still shows up every day and is the social and bibliographical heart of the business.

Claire Hammond had founded the shop when space became open below her apartment on a picturesque corner of the Via del Moro, where she lived while working for the United Nations. She had been vexed that there was not then a bookshop equal to Rome’s readerly English-speaking habitués. Of course Rome has been a destination for literary types since they wore togas. Keats is buried there and the apartment where he died, beside the Spanish Steps, remains a destination for Anglophone melancholics. Many travel to Italy to study language, art, archeology, classics, and so on, and Claire’s shop was an instant hit and gathering-place for Rome’s revolving cast of Anglophones. It became too big for its little corner and moved a few doors down the street (hence “almost corner”), into the shop of a greengrocer whose children did not want to take on the business: the grocer’s bank of green wooden shelves is still used to array books in the shop’s window.

They do a robust business in books in English that have anything to do with Italy, like Donna Leon’s crime fiction set in Venice. Elizabeth Bowen’s A Time in Rome is their all-time bestseller; they have sold more copies than any other bookstore. They sell lots of Calvino, Bassani, and Dante in all translations; books about the artist Caravaggio are hot (we recommended our own Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, of course); they can’t keep Elena Ferrante on the shelves. Dermot says they don’t have room to stock books that will not sell; he had to part with the tomes on Verdi and Puccini that he brought in for love and let linger too long. University departments abroad are expanding and there are more visitors than ever, says Dermot, thanks to AirBnB and cheap flights, but strict limits on luggage put constraints on travellers’ book-buying, especially when it comes to the big art books that a plunge into the Renaissance has been known to stir a hunger for. Dermot notes that even his travelers and transients seem not sold on the e-book. When visitors enter the store, like bookstore fans everywhere, they pause to register the smell. He feels that over the years the sort of English-speaker who comes to Italy has remained a constant—a person drawn to the Old World, often someone with Italian roots. Northern Europeans continue to have a fascination with the Mediterranean and to appear on Roman doorstops.

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The throng of local English-language authors presents their books regularly in the shop and bring in a crowd. Once so many people showed up for an event with Matthew Kneale that Dermot ran it twice, dismissing half the multitude to a bar down the shop’s tiny cobbled street and then summoning them back for round two. One customer came in expressing an interest in Giordano Bruno, and Dermot handed him Ingrid Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic, adding, “and this is the author right here,” gesturing toward Rowland herself, browsing a few feet away. (Rowland remembers when Trastevere was the haunt of pickpockets and miscreants, before today’s crush of semester-abroad students and eminences like those filtering down from the American Academy in Rome up the hill.)

When asked if Amazon seemed a threat from where he sits Dermot’s eyes widened. He said that Italians were relatively slow to embrace e-commerce, because they cherish their local shop culture, tend to be distrustful of corporate intrusions into their traditions, and have small mailboxes. But Amazon secured a big advantage for itself by locating its European operation in Luxemburg and negotiating a secret tax deal (c.f. its original decision to base itself in Seattle to avoid US sales tax) that in 2014 led to its being charged a fine of 250 million euros for receiving illegal tax benefits. (The European Commission is aggressively pursuing tech giants on a number of fronts; they levied a similar penalty against Apple for avoiding taxes by basing operations in Ireland.) Amazon continues to fight the penalty and has since found ways to offset its earnings and lower its tax burden.

The biggest threat to Almost Corner’s way of life however is the prospect of Brexit. Dermot says he and his fellow booksellers have no idea what the consequences will be for them: currently 99 percent of all English-language books come to Europe via the UK. He mentioned that he does a lot of his business through the European sales arm of Penguin Random House, and if they are able to locate to a Continent-based point of entry that would address a lot of the potential problems, but one winces to be dependent on corporate consolidation to provide books to all of Europe’s readers of English, the de facto lingua franca. (Dermot notes that most German cities, for example, have an English-language bookstore.) Almost Corner’s clientele, too, linger precariously on the precipice of Brexit. Dermot himself managed to obtain an Irish passport in order to remain a European, an option not available to most of his customers. The exuberant life of the Almost Corner Bookshop and its eclectic cast of characters certainly seems like an advertisement for a united Europe and the place of bookstores and books in supporting a mutually tolerant (indeed celebratory) culture.

For more on bookselling abroad see our three-part Notebook on an English-language bookstore in Spain and Spanish-language bookstores in the US, our Notebook on European supports available to booksellers and publishing, and Geoffrey O’Brien’s Diary on the bookstores of Paris.

By the way, we were in Rome working on residencies for Russian writers in Rome, on the model of the American and other academies, in memory of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Give if you can to help support a cosmopolitan reading and writing culture in these times of retrenchment …

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Photo by Dicky Del Hoyo