Making the future of reading: a bookshop in transformation, 6

In this sixth episode of our inquiry into the book market, we present the experience of an independent bookshop in Rome, interviewing Daniela Girfatti, children’s bookseller and publisher.

Daniela Girfatti was born in Caserta and lived in Aversa until she graduated in Classical Literature from the Federico II University in Naples. After moving to Rome, she attended a Master in European Public Relations and worked for many years in the non-profit world and in the field of events and fundraising. In 2015 she opened the Read Red Road bookstore, in the Piazza Bologna neighborhood of Rome, with a selected catalog of books for children and adults. Since then, her bookstore has become a meeting place for parents and children, but also for schools and adults in the neighborhood through reading groups and author presentations. In 2018 he founded a publishing house, which takes the name of the bookstore. The brave choice to embark on a new professional and life path is told in the book Until One Day. How to change your life at forty and stay fairytale in the middle of fairytales (Edizioni Efesto, Rome 2016).

The Gramsci Center of San Marino has approached the topic of bookstores from the Gramscian distinction between economic and ideological readers. However, we then felt the need to intertwine it with the everyday reality of booksellers, as they themselves tell it. So what I wanted to ask you was how you live this double nature of the bookstore, as a commercial activity and at the same time as a cultural stronghold.

The first thing I would say is that small independent bookstores are beginning to struggle to resist, precisely because they are the only ones that function as a cultural stronghold. In the large-scale retail trade you don’t even find booksellers anymore, but sales clerks. Of course, this is only talking about offline, not online. This means that we have a hard time living as an economic exercise. In the sense that I always have to participate in the call for bids, because I need it to make money, but it requires a commitment that is distorted by external logic. Example: the librarian asks me, for an order, for a list of titles, these are available on Amazon but are not available from my wholesaler. Why? Because the choice that large retailers make is: I’m going to stock Amazon and the chain bookstores first, leaving out the small ones. It’s a shame that without the small bookstores, book knowledge and the promotion of reading no longer take place. Obviously there is a monopoly, which resides in the hands of the distribution that, with a series of corporate affiliations, necessarily favors the chain bookstores. If a new book comes out, which for whatever reason I forgot to reserve, as an independent bookstore I will get that book after Amazon. This clearly upsets the dynamics. This is because usually whoever chooses to be an independent bookseller aims at promoting reading, is dedicated to it, invests time, thoughts, resources and then, I assure you that – at a certain point – fatigue emerges. On the one hand, you struggle with the hyperuranium of ideas, the absolute absence of concreteness of the public, which nevertheless helps to make money, and then on the other hand you try to do what comes from within, which is to bring books around. Bringing books around, however, means that I close the bookstore: to go to schools, to go to fairs, I either pay people to replace me, or I close the bookstore. Therefore, the idea of cultural presidium, which is a priority for me, clashes with that of economic subject.

Talking about books, there is also a problem of costs: a book for adults comes out with an average cover price of about 18 euros. Do you know how much 18 euros means for an average family that wants to buy books? An important figure in the family budget. Where I find myself, in Piazza Bologna, which is not a suburban area, where there is a capacity to spend, there is no library; and this is damaging, both because the promotion of reading lives on synergies in the area, and because not everyone can buy a book a week for the whole family. And so a short circuit is created. As a publisher as well as a bookseller, I ask myself: why do you come out with a cover price of 18 euros when I know that the book will have cost you a third of that price? You can put in all the supply chain, the promotion, the advances, the rights, whatever you want, but such a high price is not justified.

And here we come back to the gap between large and small bookstores. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that small bookshops decide which is the bestseller of the month, which is the novelty they want to promote, they do research; large bookshops, on the other hand, have been living only on novelties for some time now. On the main shelf you’ll find five titles, which have probably been on television, and they walk alone… and they’re not all valuable books. They’re what I call the easy books that sell by the pound. You put them there and they sell, effortlessly. The job I do, like all small booksellers, is to tell you that in addition to The Embers, you can also read Márai’s The Right Woman, but I have to tell you. And mine is a sale that presupposes a reading, a time, a recognition of the person who comes in front of me, and a question, a chat. That’s hard work, it’s passion, of course, but it’s time that I take away from all the other things of a commercial activity, which are also delivery notes, bureaucracy, invoices, administration, etc. All the things I do from 9 to 10, after dropping my son off at school, on my lunch break, which is no longer a lunch break, after dinner. And at that point you ask yourself: but is it worth it? And you stop.

One issue that has generated a bit of debate, at least among the booksellers we reached, is that of state support for bookstores. After the new National Plan for the promotion and support of reading approved in March 2020, which among other things set the maximum discount ceiling at 5%, what further interventions would be desirable?

Certainly systemic interventions, not one-offs. It comes back to my own experience. On Sunday I did a writing workshop with Antonio Ferrara, an author, in which two teachers also participated. These teachers then came to the bookstore yesterday and asked me to do a reading group for teachers. Speaking with them, listening to their needs, I received confirmation of a fact, perhaps trivial, but fundamental: we don’t read in Italy. If you look at the data from the latest AIE research, it is true that during the pandemic the number of readers increased, but in particular the number of books read by strong readers increased. So you have to intervene from the bottom, jointly between the bookstore, the library and the teachers. Now you, the State, can give money to me, which is all very well, but you have to give me time, you have to make it easier for me to deal with bureaucracy, remove a whole series of burdens so that I can move around freely and promote reading. You have to encourage the sending of complimentary copies that I can pass on to the teachers, because if the teacher reads, then the work we’ve done reaches down to the other potential readers. If I intervene on the child, the 0-6 year old range, what I get back, after six years of doing this, is that I get a parent who starts reading again. But you have to work on the child; we forget children!

I also think about the issue of school libraries…

They are closed! They have become classrooms, they no longer exist in most schools [For an overview of the situation of school libraries, see the papers at the First National Conference of School Library Networks].

You need to do training, promote calls with community service. Librarians or managers, when they are there, don’t have a management system, they still have paper lists. This is a country that doesn’t really invest in bottom-up reading promotion, when that’s what you would need. So I can, voluntarily, do things, the teachers who come to me are people who normally dedicate, in a voluntary way, a few hours to this work, but more than that is not possible. What is needed is a structure that systematically puts experience and knowledge to good use. Instead, we find ourselves in the situation where school libraries become classrooms, books are dispersed and it is often difficult to access the schools. Next week [20-28 November 2021] there is the initiative #ioleggoperché and you have no idea of the difficulties to get in to do a free reading aloud, in the garden, outdoors, spaced out. Then we are good, we invent ways: if the school does not allow access I make a video. Technology helps and the booksellers are on average young, so from this point of view many of us are working hard. But it’s all left to the awareness of the individual. Because the beautiful thing is that if you promote reading, the child becomes passionate about it.

It would be nice if in schools there were a figure of the reader aloud, of the narrator: a structured figure who, once a week, could meet with classes and promote readings and workshops. Structured, regular, constant, and for everyone. Can you imagine what might happen?

In part you’ve already told me about the distribution problems, but it seems to me that there, on the issue of returns as well, is one of the biggest difficulties.

Before, there was the mechanism of the deposit account, that is, the publisher opened an account with the bookseller, so he delivered copies and then every 3, 6, 9 months, it was agreed, you made the statement. And you would pay for the sales. So I delivered 100 books to you, after 3 months how many do you have? I have 40. So you have sold 60, these 60 I publisher invoice you and you pay them. So you paid on sales. Today this thing doesn’t exist anymore, so the publisher charges you first. He gives you a higher discount, but with an upfront payment, or he gives you a 30/60 day payment with a lower discount. This means that I buy and pay for books that I haven’t sold yet. This means that I’m financially exposed, and that’s a lot for a product that gives you a 30% margin, because that’s the discount that’s applied, 30, 35%. With which I have to pay for everything. From that discount, from that margin, I have to take out the rent, the utilities, the package, the shipping if I do it, the padded envelope. Those are all things that are my responsibility, obviously. And this thing is getting more and more stringent, so the ones that can survive are the chain bookstores. Yesterday I made contact with a well-known children’s author: I told him I had a class that was interested, that would buy his latest book, and proposed a meeting. The request was 250 euros plus VAT for one hour online. If the request had been made by a chain bookstore, one of those that, perhaps, is also the publisher of the book, then the author would likely, by contract, have moved for free. Do you see what I’m talking about? Of course you make a selection among the independent publishers, you establish collaborations with them, you establish relationships, but then there are things that, objectively, are valid and are published only by the big publishers and there, necessarily, you come across logics with which you cannot do anything. This mechanism eliminates the idea of doing things for nothing, it doesn’t exist.

In Austria, in Vienna, there is this bookshop, Hartliebs Bücher, which has two branches and also has a section in Italian and one in French. In the book she dedicated to her gamble of being a bookseller [P. Hartlieb, La mia meravigliosa libreria, trad. di J. De Angelis, Lindau, Torino 2019], Hartlieb tells us that usually at Christmas they receive complimentary copies of books from publishers, for reviews and promotion. Here in Italy it doesn’t exist, the book goes to bloggers, journalists, rarely to booksellers. So maybe I’ll take one of the copies I bought and I’ll have to keep it in a certain way, if I want to put it back on the shelf and sell it. If you, the publisher, were to give me a copy, even an unfinished one, an almost definitive draft, that is, something that costs you two cents, everything would be much simpler. What is missing is the relationship with reality. It’s thinking that a valid initiative like #ioleggoperché, for example, you can’t do it just before Christmas, because for me, as a bookseller, it’s chaos. You have no idea the size of the bookstore, the fact that I’ll have boxes, orders, people who can’t get in. Really there is a thought that has nothing to do with the concrete. [With reference to this, see also the statement of the Roman board of the Italian Booksellers Association regarding the National Fair of Small and Medium Bookshops, Più Libri Più Liberi, organized every year in Rome in December].

What role does the bookstore play in the social context?

If you come to Piazza Bologna and ask “Can you direct me to Daniela’s bookshop” they will take you there. I can say this with joy. Either that or it doesn’t exist, for me. The bookstore becomes a community, it goes beyond. It’s really about the relationship you create with people, but because you have an interest. It’s about welcoming questions and making them become research. “Do you have this book?” No, but I inquire, “But what do you need it for?” “Because I’m a neuropsychiatrist and I’m working on this topic.” And you study. We have to, I use not by chance an indicative, rediscover this attitude and to research. There are things that touch you, and you go after them and then they open up unexpected paths and knowledge. But you have to be open to that question and be interested in understanding.

What strikes me is the ability to keep up with economic constraints, because the bookstore is still a business, but it also preserves the freedom to follow the stimuli and research that arise…

Exactly, so in my bookstore you can also find what’s new. In my opinion, it is not necessary to have something new, because why do I necessarily have to get the latest book published? This is a freedom that I take on, with all the risks it entails in terms of the very existence of the business. But your arms fall off when you think: why does a large chain bookstore that has, on paper and in reality, all the possibilities to have access to any title, have a staff that remains stuck to what is on the shelf. That looks in the management system for the exact title and then says: “No, I don’t have it”, “Thank you”. Instead it should be: “No, I don’t have it, but I could suggest this…”. Nine out of ten it doesn’t happen. You definitely need to have studied, to have read. And let’s get back to the point: how many booksellers and readers still exist in large bookstores?

Here’s another question: how do you choose the titles?

Certainly by comparing myself with the market, following experts and enthusiasts, exchanging information with other booksellers and with the authors I know, looking at publications for children, following awards, fairs, and magazines.

Then there are the bibliographies that are created by following themes or authors, so if a new author comes out, I go back to previous publications, which may be interesting. And then, in my case, the selection takes place, and this is very much part of the role of the bookstore as a cultural stronghold in the neighborhood, going along with the age of growth of the children. Having a given space, and therefore not being able to put in 10,000 titles, because I would not have sufficient capacity, I try to cater to the users. So now the bookstore, which was born with a very strong 0-3 area, is becoming important also in the primary and, in part, also in the secondary school. Because the children have grown up. Those who were 3 years old when the bookstore opened are now 9 years old and their siblings may be older, so you’re slowly expanding the catalog.

Then it’s not certain that there are so many interesting titles in the new books, you don’t always find the masterpiece. So the idea is to have the masterpiece, which you still have to propose, The Neverending Story must still be in the bookstore, Roald Dahl must exist in the bookstore, Gianni Rodari, Bianca Pitzorno just to name the authors that are dear to us, and then titles just out that you see but that make sense. Obviously this also means that you, the bookseller, have to read, to know. Sometimes I go to big stores to browse, I spend my mornings looking at what’s out and what I might be interested in and then I make my purchases.

It’s a nice idea that the bookstore transforms as the audience changes, in your specific case as the kids grow up.

It has to! That’s the beauty of the small bookstore, that it’s alive and gives me the freedom to be able to do this. Imagine if I were stuck in a chain that required me to have ten titles by a certain author. But it also means that you see who you have in front of you, in my case you see the child in his growth phase. It’s being able to propose something together and to follow what is proposed to you. Do you know how many titles I get directly from them? “But you haven’t read this one?”. No, and then they bring it to you, make you read it, lend it to you. That’s a beautiful thing: the loaner to the bookseller. “I’ll bring it to you, but you read it, if you like it then you put it on the shelf.” This is beautiful, because it means that the children who go to the bookstore know that they can afford to have this kind of relationship with me. As a bookseller, I’m very interested in what they offer me, I wouldn’t be able to read everything, I wouldn’t be able to keep everything in mind, and instead they bring you things. So that really helps with the creation of the catalog. It’s the exchange. And I would add that this is how I have discovered so many books, with the words exchanged while you’re making a package, with the older ladies who guide you to discover authors who are still unknown to you. An infinite richness for which I am daily grateful.

Then, to be concrete, of course I joined Bookdealer, Takeaway Books, made the call to have the online shop. All things that the pandemic has fostered. Even there, you have to get into it, study it, and get active. And they’re tools that have to be used. So then if you, who are a buyer, want to go to Amazon for a 5% discount, that’s your choice, but I have offered you all the alternatives. The problem is that this mode of online shopping, of consumption, is changing the very head. It’s making people lose the taste for waiting, for accepting no. “No, it’s not here now, it’s coming in a week.” And someone gives up on getting it from you. This is dramatic, even with orders. For example, always on returns, people think I can buy a single book, when in fact I have to reach a minimum economic value for the books to be shipped so sometimes a title is late to arrive because you’re waiting to put together multiple reservations.

Similarly, I can’t just render one title.  Because rendering one title at a time has a cost. The point is that this mode, which has its own logic, is not that of Amazon and then begin the problems. Because you, the user, reserve a book for me, I don’t charge you for the reservation (instead I’ll have to start), it arrives, you look at it and say “I’m not interested, I’ll send it back”, only here it’s different. There’s a supply chain to be respected, costs to be incurred, taxes to be paid. In a physical Italian bookstore, that mechanism of hit and run, book and return, cannot work. In order to compete with the online market, initiatives such as Bookdealer or Takeaway Books are important, as they offer an Italian alternative that enhances the fabric of bookshops. But why does the private sector do it and not the public? One of these calls for proposals should include a database, a useful tool for the digitization of the book trade.

In the Czech Republic, a tool of this type has existed for ten years, dedicated to second-hand bookshops: Můj antikvariát. It is a free specialized search engine that tries to index and network Czech used bookstores.

Beautiful! That’s it, the second-hand bookstore is another field that I’ll have to get into, because these parents who buy a lot of books for their children, at a certain point, when the children are grown up, have to change the titles and have no more space. What to do with it then? But in order to open the bookstore to that, you have to talk to the bureaucracy and open a SCIA, that is an authorization to sell used books, which means making a transition between papers and new costs, and all this is complicated by the fact that the digitalization of the public administration is, often, a fake digitalization, so everything that is digital has to be printed, signed, scanned, reloaded. And this has an extremely onerous fallout for small merchants.

This second-hand bookstore discourse is a concrete example of what we were saying earlier, that the bookstore must keep up with the movement of customers, in my case children. Resistance has to be exercised against a system that tries to stiffen everything, and therefore also to stop, but as a bookstore you are necessarily a movement, you have to be. Children are movement. And this approach is upsetting for people, who are no longer used to it: “But how, you’ve changed the space again?” “Yes, you know, because I needed this space for these other titles”. It’s beautiful fun, but it’s also natural. You arrive and you say to yourself, today I have to change something and you move the furniture, rearrange the shelves, move the titles somewhere else: then you realize that maybe it’s because the quotas of books for younger children had increased and you needed the space. These are movements that come naturally to you, you do them and only later do you realize: that’s what it was for! Movement is the key to the bookstore, in fact the fatigue of the bids is that they are regimented, hinged.

The other issue, as I said, is that of time, of giving yourself time. Rather than take all the various new releases in bulk, I prefer to order multiple issues of a single title that has caught my eye, because I want to read it, I want to promote it, I want people to be able to delve into it. I don’t have this idea of bulimia: I prefer a few things that we study well. That we accompany in time, in evolution. And then you move on to another title. Or it happens that while you’re reading one thing, a hundred other references open up to you, which you then go on to study in depth. You try to make things systematic, otherwise it’s like trying everything and then in the end you risk getting confused. It’s like with children: why do they always repeat the same book? They really need to learn it, to grasp all its aspects, to experience it to the end and then to separate from it, and that’s it. They take it, they know it by heart and then they say goodbye forever. But we don’t learn these things!

Some of it you’ve already told us, but how can we build a future for reading?

…By continuing to read and tell. By continuing to read aloud. By going into schools. By encouraging the presence of authors and reading meetings. By creating the conditions for the book to be known, encountered, savored. Last week we read at Villa Torlonia and so we did throughout September and October, a towel, a bag of books and the desire to share a text aloud.

For three years we have had a reading group for adults, for two reading groups for all primary classes. We choose a book, read it at home and once a month we meet to talk about it. It is a training, an education, a healthy habit that we cultivate and that becomes contagious, at home, at school, among friends. Books and the relationships they create must be part of our daily lives because, as the claim of our bookstore summarizes, if you read, you will make your way, if you read, you will grow, if you read, you will walk, if you read, you will move forward and with you, the community in which you live will move forward.

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