Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wellington Books Wades into the Literary Waters of Venice

Wellington Books is quite literally just a few steps from the Rossini Cinema
It was less than a year ago that over 100 published authors and illustrators gathered in the Biblioteca Marciana to call attention to the dwindling number of bookstores in Venice, a city which had once been at the very center of the early book industry and home to the great (and still-influential) printer and publisher Aldus Manutius (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/04/standing-up-for-bookstores-city-in.html). The city has managed to keep most of its bookstores in the months since that event, and in December it celebrated the opening of a new one: Wellington Books, a predominantly English language bookstore with a small selection of titles in German, French and Spanish.

At left, the tall shelves of books on Venice
Located at the end of Calle della Mandorla just a few steps from the Rossini Cinema (or Multisala Rossini), and a short distance off the narrow calle of shops that runs between Campo Manin and Campo Sant' Angelo, Wellington Books is, for the English-language reader, the perfect complement to Libreria Marco Polo. While Marco Polo is strong in used editions of contemporary and modern fiction and non-fiction, Wellington Books offers in new mostly paperback editions an array of classic literature (Dante, Austen, Tolstoy), canonical 20th-century giants (such as Wharton, Nabokov, Borges, Yeats), major 20th-century writers sometimes prone to being overlooked (such as the great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy and Giorgio Bassani), as well as some more recent classics (Edward Said's Orientalism, for example). It has a fine selection of books on Venice at the front of the store, and on its shelves of Penguin's pocket-sized "Great Ideas" series, you'll find seminal texts ranging from Epictetus to Leopardi to Frantz Fanon, as well as a little collection of Marcel Proust essays entitled Days of Reading.

Gaspare, the owner of Wellington Books
This last title includes a wonderfully subversive overturning of Ruskin's utilitarian notion (still popular today) that reading is a passive act by which we are inevitably improved by the lofty ideas of great authors as they are poured into us. Proust's essay, originally written as an elegantly antagonistic preface to his French translation of Ruskin's Sesame and Lillies, presents the act of reading as a deliriously idiosyncratic and private act whose effects can never be predicted, and concludes with a lovely and distinctly Proustian evocation of the twin columns of Venice's molo (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2012/05/proust-on-piazzettas-two-columns.html).

A glimpse of the children's section through the door behind the desk
Also of particular note to English-language readers--or at least to this one--is the children's section of Wellington Books, which has already become a favorite haunt of Sandro's, who has a particular fondness for a kid's book entitled The Mystery in Venice recently purchased there. Part of the Geronimo Stilton series from Scholastic Books, the book actually serves as a good introduction to Venice for young readers (or young not-yet readers), offering information on the city's layout, its glass factories, and the Regatta Storica in the course of relating the comic misadventures of its earnest would-be-mouse-of-the-world protagonist.

Hefty in both pounds and price
The most substantial work in Wellington Books, however, at least in terms of sheer weight, is the boxed 4-volume Annuario della nobilità italiana. Weighing in at more than 24 kilos (53 pounds), it's a curious book you'll find for sale nowhere else in Venice. Gaspare, the charming Anglophile owner of Wellington--a native Venetian entirely fluent in English language and culture--told me that his regular delivery man exclaimed, "Amore, what have you got in this box?!" as he lugged it into the shop.

A similar question might be asked about the bookstore itself, and though I've sketched out a bit of an answer in this post, I hope you'll visit and find out for yourself.

You can also keep up with what's happening at the store--such as tomorrow night's first in a series of  in-store book club meetings--on its facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/wellingtonbooks.venice

23 comments:

  1. Indy bookshops are a welcome site anywhere but especially in Italy. Auguri Gaspare.

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Lisa, and to open a bookstore in Venice is a courageous and much-appreciated act.

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  2. I'm heading over there today! I must have almost walked past the door last week but my bookshop radar (which is usually excellent) must have been turned off....

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    1. It's rather tucked away and small, Mary, so might be easily missed by even the most sensitive of bookstore radars, but it's worth seeking it out--and like so many places in Venice, located in such a seemingly obvious and easy place after you've been there once.

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    2. Successfully found, and an absolute delight........both the store and Gaspare. I've come home a little laden with reading treasures.

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    3. Yes, Mary, Gaspare is the perfect proprietor of such a store: pleasant and interesting and easy to talk to, as well as easy to be perfectly quiet around while simply focusing on the books.

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  3. I'd be cheating to not reveal up front that Gaspare is a friend and that I LOVE this little store - as soon as you open the door there is that wonderful Smell of new books books books. You've done a terrific job of capturing the images and concept of the potential in this small store. Thanks so much for adding this to your wandering and reporting of things wonderful (and sometimes hidden) in Venezia.

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    1. Thank you, pc. It's a small space, but it contains a lot of pleasant surprises and old friends and long-delayed meetings (things heard of but never yet read) on its shelves.

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  4. There is another nice bookshop in Calle della Mandorla, it's run by Bertoni père (the (a?) son is in charge of a bit more modern-looking branch in Calle dei Fabbri). They sell most of the books at half a price and titles they offer are many and varied, Calle della Mandorla specializes mostly in old books.

    Care to share your opinion of the Libreria Aqua Alta? Something tells me it's not much different from what I think of the shop.

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    1. I do like that bookshop you mention, Sasha--actually both of them you mention--and probably have neglected to mention them only because I'm usually focused more on literature in English (originally or in translation) than anything else. You remind me that I'm overdue to visit both.

      I've found some interesting things in Libreria Aqua Alta--The Venice Report, for one thing, soon after I moved here--but it's rather hit and miss. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel the same way about the much much much larger Strand Bookstore in NYC. As an old bookseller the treatment and state of some of the books pains me, and though I'd truly hate to see it disappear (and hope it never does), I don't go in as often as I once thought I would or probably should.

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    2. The Strand is much more hit than miss – in my experience. They have a great collection of children books, much better than in some specialized shops like The Books Of Wonder, etc.

      As for the Libreria Aqua Alta it’s kitschy ambiance is almost endearing, but hundreds of books bastardized at the backyard is something very, very wrong.

      I’ve made a commentary about that in a blog you follow but the lady erased it – it didn’t fit the breathless tone of her stories about remarkable men and women of modern Venice and their cute businesses.

      At the LAA I’ve found a very interesting history of Venice in 1797 – 1997, “Venice: The Fragile City”, even Studium didn’t have it at the time – but now there are several copies at the Pavillion near the Royal Gardens.

      I think LAA is a nice quaint environment for these who are not too much into the books, it looks good in blogs when reported with unavoidable pictures of La Scala delle Libri.

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    3. Whenever I used to go into the Strand with a particular book in mind, I never succeeded in finding it, but I always found other things. This was before I had a child so I never looked at that section, or even knew they had one.

      Thanks for mentioning that LAA had Fragile City. Last Saturday I first went to the Pavilion, as you mentioned you'd seen it there, but the bookstore part was was closed for "ferie." I tried 2 other places, had no luck, then went to LAA, didn't find it, and (without much hope) asked if they had it. Indeed they did: the guy behind the counter located a copy for me beneath some other books.

      As for the remarkable men and women of Venice or elsewhere, it all depends on who's doing the looking--and the nice thing about a blog is that, on the one hand, one can choose to include or delete as one chooses, as well as to read or not read it, on the other.

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    4. My son is 21 already - I collect the well-illustrarted children books for myself:) The illustrators I like most are European, but to make the collection more representative I buy the best of the Americans too.

      As for the Fragile City it was the same with me the time I bought it in LAA - the book was buried under some pictures and brochures, I found it only by chance. This book it's a real treasure - very well written and the topics it's covered are not the most explored.

      I like this period in Venice's history - if you'll find a couple minutes please have a look at my post about Giuseppe Volpi, "the last doge of Venice", there are dozens of historical photos there.

      http://venices101st.blogspot.ru/2013/12/blog-post.html#more

      Have you seen the book about 2 hundred of the remarkable Venetians of our days? I’ve told Alberto Bertoni (a bookshop owner from Calle dei Fabbri) that he is listed there and he knew it, he reminded me that the actual term the book’s title uses is quasi famosi, almost famous.

      It’s a nice and amusing book, most of these people live just a few steps from you.

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    5. Those are great photos of Volpi, where did you find them? An interesting difficult character. Has there been a book-length biography of him?

      I'm also enjoying Fragile City, but have only just started it. The writer's inclination toward the passive construction is rather tiresome though. Here's a sentence selected at random: "Canaletto's capacity to conjure in paint from Palladio's plan a fully authentic-appearing Rialto Bridge as if it were actually on the canal and subject to Venetian light [etc]... are some measure of a formidable architectural imagination, as well as lessons in the absorbency of the Venetian environment."

      "Lessons in the absorbency of..."?! Some sentences almost read like parodies of the old "magisterial" academic tone, and good as the book is, it suffers because of them. Or the reader does.

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    6. I'll have to find that book on 200 almost famous Venetians of the present; I haven't seen it, and thank you for telling me about it.

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    7. I think you can find it at a Giunti bookshop at Strada Nuova. I saw it there some time ago.

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    8. I know of one book about Volpi (Giuseppe Volpi. Industria e finanza tra Giolitti e Mussolini) but my Italian is not good enough to let me read it faster than one page per hour.

      As for the photos I have an archive of more than 8 000 historical photographs mostly from Volpi's times. Here are a few more: the Venetian girls from the fascist era:

      http://sashha.livejournal.com/1148420.html

      Currently I gave up - temporarily, of course - on the biography of the doge Francesco Foscari written by Dennis Romano, I've stumbled halfway through the book and was trying to get back to it but...gave up.

      The funny thing about the style of Fragile City it seems to correspond to the times described in any given chapter. I've started to read the book at the part where XX century starts, and the language is not so elaborate.

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    9. I'll have to check out Giunti, Sasha, and I like those photos of the Veneziane on your site.--one taken behind on the beach-side exercise area of the Ospedale del Mare on Lido. I think I've acclimated myself to the prose of Fragile City now. It's an interesting book.

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  5. Sandro might like a book written by a good friend of mine, Garry Kilworth. It's set in a fictional Venice inhabited by animals; the gondoliers are otters!

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    1. Sorry- it's called The Silver Claw.

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    2. I'll have to check that out, Andrew; we've always had a certain fascination with otters so it sounds like a great suggestion. Thanks very much for it.

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  6. Grazie for the title "The Mystery in Venice". I looked it up an can buy it here in Seattle. I was looking for a gift for the two charming little girls who helped their father care for my cat while I spent a month in Venice. And I plan to visit this bookshop next time I'm in the City of My Dreams.

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    1. I hope they like the book, Michelle, it's pretty silly, but maybe that makes it more effective--at least for some kids--as a way of finding out about the city.

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