• Joshua Peach

Interview with a Bookstore: The Paperback Exchange in Florence, IT

A short walk from bustling jewellery market across Ponte Vecchio and tucked just two streets back from Florence's famous Duomo, is an unlikely, a delightful Anglophone bookstore called Paperback Exchange. The store has been serving the English speaking community in Florence as well as trading travellers' well-worn books for slightly less worn, fresh reads for over 40 years. With Paperback Exchange being such a find for the English speaking visitor, we thought we'd have a chat about how the shop came about and the state of modern bookselling.

How long have you guys been operating and how did the shop originate?

The bookshop opened in 1979 (it's been a long run!) here in downtown Florence, we just celebrated our 40th anniversary last March.

The idea came from a married couple, Maurizio and Emily (he's from Florence, she's from the US), who started Paperback Exchange as a small family business that dealed only used books at first and then, over the decades, became a very important place for the Anglo-American community in Florence and for many italians who love to read in Enlish, but I'd say also in Italy in general, given that we work with many English-language schools all over the country.

In the last 2/3 months or so, a friend of mine, Gianluca, and I took over the bookshop (I was working here as an employee for the last couple of years), keeping the business running. And we have a connection to Canada too: both our mothers are from Montréal, and although we were born and raised in Florence - and that helps a lot, knowing the city we work in- we have been many times in Montreal, as a matter of fact we lived there for a few years.

Does Paperback Exchange specialised in the books its stock? What's popular with the locals and tourists?

One of our strenghts is our vast selection. We do have many sections - Science&Technology might be one of our most popular ones, including minor section as Sociology and Anthropology. The idea is to have few copies of many titles; titles that we have to pick and choose very carefully, we must be able to know what works or not in our bookshop and also being able to make a few bets.

Other sections we are proud of are: History, especially the italian one (from Middle Age, Renaissance of course being in Florence, to last century and even current events), Philosophy, and Biography/Lives/Letters, a shelf where you can find many kinds of books.

I would also like to mention our Children Section (including Young Adult and Young Reader). Many times we have families coming in just for the pleasure of having a few moments reading to their kids.

Last but not least, as every bookshop, our fiction section, divided in Literature and Fiction General, maybe the biggest section in the shop, also because it's where we have the majority of used books.

The modern commercial market for bookstores is treacherous. How have you adapted to the rise of e-markets and what do you see in the future for bookstores?

Amazon, e-commerce in general, have been hard on independent businesses and bookstores, especially 10/15 years ago (here in Italy a little later) when it seemed like everyone was buying online and prices on Amazon were much, much cheaper.

Don't get me wrong, in a way it's still like this: every business, bookstores included, has lost over the years a remarkable chunk of clientele and they won't get it back. It's the way it is, we lost a piece of the market and we have to accept it.

But, speaking as a independent bookshop owner, I'm seeing people coming back and bookshops (not the big chains or franchising) reopening. I'm seeing also people who usually read on e-readers or that buy online stopping once in a while by the bookshop just for the sake of it.

That's what we cannot lose to Amazon and the online world: browising around in an actual environment with people who can help you suggesting you books, and doing live events (readings, presentations, music, and every art form available).

I must say, I'm not that pessimistic about the future of books (I suggest reading Umberto Eco's This is not the end of the book).

Any book recommendations for someone passing through Florence?

A couple of books suggestion: if your passing by Florence maybe something about the Medici (we have a little popular section about them) like Christopher Hibbert's The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, or something about Italy like classics such as D.H. Lawrence's Etruscan Places or E.M. Forster's A Room with a View.

Any other books you'd like to highlight?

A few interesting new releases: Celestial Bodies by Alharthi Jokha and Circe by Madeline Miller; and a couple of very good non-fiction titles: Upheaval by Jared Diamond, one of my favourites this year, for fans of popular science like Noah Yuval Harari (his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is still a top seller for us); the other one would be Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin.  

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