Friday, September 14, 2012

Libreria Marco Polo Celebrates 10 Years, This Evening

The fascinating little bookstore Libreria Marco Polo, right behind the beautiful little church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, celebrated ten years in business this evening with food, drinks and live music.

Since the advent of the internet it's not easy for any bookstore anywhere to survive 10 years, but Libreria Marco Polo has managed to do so with an extensive and interesting selection of used books in English (mostly fiction), a choice selection of used books in Italian, and an equally interesting selection of front-list books in Italian, both literary and non-fiction. They also offer courses in writing, photography and--a new five week course to start soon--in playing the harmonica (for beginners).

Last week I attended a bi-lingual reading by, and interview with, the Los Angeles-based American writer Aimee Bender at the bookstore.

I've read one American blogger remark that the books are priced too high, but I don't agree. Books are generally more expensive in Europe than they are in the United States, and they'll inevitably be even more so in a small town like Venice in which the flow of used English language books is extremely limited and rents are high.

Moreover, as one who managed and acted as a consultant to independent bookstores for a number of years in New York City, I can tell you from first-hand experience that a book lover can have actual bookstores in which to browse and interact and (sometimes quite literally) stumble across books and into people she'd never see on her computer, or she or he can have the rock-bottom prices of the internet.

But you can't have both.

I remember coming across an anecdote by Jill Krementz, the wife of Kurt Vonnegut, in which she suggested that instead of him having to leave their New York apartment to go buy a large mailing envelope every time he needed one, she could simply order him a box of them online from one of the monopolistic office supply chains.

Never, he said. If she did that he'd lose the whole human experience of going out into the world, of seeing things and people, of encountering the unexpected or the familiar, of chatting with this person or that: of the utter and ultimately gratifying unpredictability that lurks in even the most mundane errand--turning it into something not so mundane after all.

I've had the misfortune of seeing cities without  bookstores like Libreria Marco Polo, which makes me value it all the more.

And soon I hope to post a review of a book I'm just beginning to read that I was lucky to come upon there--entirely unexpectedly--by Guido Ruggiero entitled The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice. Don't let the scholarly title fool you: it's a well-written, entertaining (if sometimes troubling), and very revealing examination of the sexual mores of 14th & 15th-century Venice culled from the extensive state archives.


  1. The next time you are at that pleasant bookstore, please say hello to proprietor, Claudio, from me; he has the nicest smile in the world!

    Mind you, he won't know who I am, will he!

    1. I will gladly say hi for you, Y, but do you speak to Claudio in English or Italian? And does he know that you're from Oz, though you don't have the accent? He is a very nice guy.

  2. That's a great little bookstore, and I've visited it often - I'm so pleased that they're able to celebrate 10 years.

    And I do so agree about being happy to pay a little more for books from a bookstore than what you pay online. I have a wonderful bookstore in Melbourne where not only can I browse to my heart's content, but where the staff know what I might like (or what I probably won't enjoy), chase books up for me and are so knowledgable and happy to share their enthusiasm. Of course I do still sometimes buy online - as not every book I want comes to Australia! But it's not nearly such a pleasurable experience.

    1. I know the kind of bookstore you're lucky enough to have in Melbourne, Mary, is becoming ever more rare, but I hate to imagine a day when they won't be around. What will replace them? Certainly not the expensive clothing boutiques that line the streets of Manhattan these days. I also resort to the internet sometimes to find rarer books (from indie dealers), and it's such a great option, to be able to expand your chances of finding something, but, no, it's not the same.

  3. This bookstore is a life saver for us, or should I say money saver. My husband refuses to get an e-reader and when we are in Venice for two to three months a year, we need a lot of books. He finishes a book in about a couple of days.

    So grateful for Claudio and his bookstore. Best wishes to Claudio. We will drop by next month.

    1. I broke down and got an e-reader myself, simply to have free access to all the public domain classic titles I had to leave in boxes in Brooklyn when we moved here, but I entirely sympathize with your husband. It's not the same to read a book on an e-reader.

      But, I don't know, if I read a book every couple days and I was traveling... That might also cause me to finally give in.

    2. When I hold my Kindle - which I use without cover - I think a traditionalist in me can feel content because the form of the gadget is very much like that of a clay tablet, and these predate any book by centuries. And the change of text can be seen as magic - which it really is.

    3. That's a good point about the clay tablet, Sasha, but I still prefer reading an actual book to something on my e-reader. I know Bezos likes to say that in the "ideal reading experience" the book "vanishes" and one is left only with content in one's mind, but in fact Marcel Proust says something very different about reading in his little essay "On Reading"--that the most memorable reading experiences involve extra-textual memory and experiences--and I firmly believe Proust had an infinitely better grasp of reading & human experience than the ruthless aspiring monopolist who subjects his employees to truly inhumane working conditions.

    4. I'm not completely sure that Proust would've been opposed to e-readers were they available to the public in his lifetime. I can envision a perfectly Proustian text contemplating the spectre-like qualities of just vanished page that is replaced by a new one but linger in the reader's mind and can be summoned back to regain a solid presence- so much unlike most of the things past.

      Anyway, emergence of e-reader caused so much controversy. My son asked me not to give him one on his 20th birthday as I planned. He reads much but with a 1000 books in a tablet he is afraid to be flooded, to start skipping and skimming, losing the ability to appreciate a book fully.

      For my generation access was and probably still is the main issue, for his the dosage and restraint are crucial.

    5. If only there were many many more smart and thoughtful young readers like your son in the world! Perhaps there are? I hope so.

  4. For me these things are bittersweet.

    I'm sure the atmosphere there is of a great and genuine warmth, but everywhere money is a factor. Spending a nice couple hours in a place like this, talking to the people, leafing through the books is very endearing, but exiting the store - actually, a club - with a costly purchase can make one feel like he or she just paid for the privilege, and this little extra (the difference from the price) can be seen as a monetary equivalent of the more ethereal goods received.

    I can cope with these thoughts, shrug this off and concentrate on the finer aspects but there is an aftertaste, definitely.

    Some years ago I was attending an appearance of a well-respected Russian actor of an older generation, not very active these days. He spoke about things important to him and interesting to the audience, the whole experience was very moving. At the end he announced, almost embarrassed (for the people of his generation friendly conversation and the money don't mix at all) that signed copies of his memoirs can be bought at the table near the exit.

    We have said our goodbyes, the actor left the room, the people were exiting, just a few stopping by the table. The price of the book was 25 dollars, the money were supposed to go straight to the author, and everyone likes and respects him, but only 4-5 of almost a hundred present bought the memoirs.

    I don't think that spending 25$ would have strained anyone's budget. Most just couldn't handle emotionally that a very tender and nostalgic conversation ended in situation when you are supposed to buy something.

    But maybe it's something uniquely Russian and the rest are OK with this.

    1. That's an extremely interesting story, Sasha, and I really have to think about it more, because it is very different from my experience of such events. I've actually been the person seated behind the little table selling books at such events, and I've also even had the chance to be the person signing them.

      In America--I don't know about Italy--it seems very different from Russia. In the US if one likes an event, if one is moved or excited by a speaker, then one MUST buy the book or some other souvenir! The listener or the viewer is so moved by the experience that the thought of not being able to purchase some token of the experience can not be tolerated.

      It is as if one can not be sure that one has had a tender or profound experience UNLESS one has bought some souvenir of it.

      That is, for example, why every museum, no matter how traditional and proud (such as the Metropolitan Museum in NYC) has for at least 20 years made a point of having a gift shop directly attached to every major exhibit. That is, the Met has their large regular bookshop, but if you see a Van Gogh show there, they will also have a special gift shop at the end of it, with books and scarves and calenders and umbrellas with Van Gogh on them...

      I actually like to think of experiences that can be kept apart from the blatant aim of making money--I understand what you're saying--but when it comes to bookstores I don't feel it as you do. And I think in America I would seem very old-fashioned and probably quite silly. (Henry James is obsessed with such questions of keeping money out of intimate human relations, but he was writing a long time ago--and, as an American, he seemed to doubt it was actually possible in most cases. Money is both absolutely necessary in James and at the same time usually ruins everything.)

    2. With a museum it’s different, it’s not a friendly human interaction, but a contact with an institution. I have a t-shirt somewhere with a Greek vase from Metropolitan’s gift shop – bought without any qualms:)

      In my LiveJournal there was a very heated discussion about what’s acceptable when visiting Metropolitan Museum. A girl wrote in her blog – in fact, boasted – that when asked for 20 $ as a voluntary donation expected from the museum’s visitors she just gave a dollar, why pay 20 if you can get there for 1.

      I told her that even a ride in the NYC subway costs more. So what? – she replied. – They gave me an option of paying a dollar – or even less, I used it. Don’t see anything wrong with it. –

      A Russian resident of the USA joined in and explained that the visitors’ donations constitute just a tiny part of the museum’s budget, corporate sponsors come up with the rest.

      Neither of these arguments works for me. The first time I was there in 1997 I paid the suggested fee of 8$, on my most recent visit – 20. And it wasn’t a matter of any deliberation. I was asked courteously for a token of my appreciation, I was given an option to enjoy the MM’s collections without paying anything. There is nothing to think about, give a twenty and enter.

      As for the meeting with the actor I think most of the people there by ignoring the uneasy pitch helped him to save his face. Among Russian intelligentsia mixing friendly communication with commerce is still seen as something degrading, a sign of the marketplace encroaching on their cherished values.

    3. Yes, I think the entrance fee question in a museum is different, but I think placing the gift shop at the end of the exhibit so that one cannot hlep but pass through it right after the heat of the experience is closer to the issue you raise in your account of the actor & his book.

      But I think I need to make friends with some of the Russian intelligentsia, as it would be a nice change of pace. What I observed when I first began working in bookstores nearly 20 years ago is that whenever I overheard 2 published novelists talking in the store their conversation would inevitably center on agents, editors, deals, how much money they got paid for a book: that is, business. Whenever I overheard 2 published poets, their conversation was about art or literature. I fear over the last 20 years, the focus of US fiction writers on business has become even worse--probably by necessity.

  5. I think that an urge to create and possibility to do something with better than average skill and talent is such a blessing it's really not so important if you are also rewarded with hefty fees or not - the satisfaction is more direct and immediate than anything the money can buy.

    A month ago I dined with my childhood friend who's now a History Professor in the University of Memphis, TN. He is absolutely happy with what he does - researching, writing books. The guy wears polos bought at a truck stop for 2$ and a windbreaker with the logo of a company that is distributing these for free in a promotional campaign. I buy a book brand new for 70 $ and then nibble at it for a month, he buys an used copy of it for a dollar and reads it in couple sittings. When he was a resident scholar at the Library of Congress in Washington he was spending 16-18 hours every day reading. Give this guy a million - his lifestyle won't be changed.

    1. I agree with you, Sasha. People who, like the character in Joyce's story "A Little Cloud," like to imagine the pleasures of seeing their name in print, their work positively reviewed (even celebrated), and all the rest of what they think it means to be a writer, for example, may be disappointed to find that the best thing about publishing a book was simply the process of writing that book, not the things that come after--no matter how nice they may be.

      Memphis is an interesting city.