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A School for Booksellers

Philippe Ridet and Florence Noiville, in an article on the Italian book (and more specifically bookselling) trade, write of the heritage of the Scuola per librai Umberto e Elisabetta Mauri (http://www.scuolalibraiuem.it/), a school for booksellers in Milan which is thirty years old this year.

The scuola is not just a school for booksellers, though that is a noble enough thing in itself – such things also exist in Germany. It is engaged, according to Achille Mauri, president of the distributor Messagerie Italiane (http://www.messaggerie.it/), in the creation of “actors involved in the understanding of the world and the diffusion of culture”.

Participants at the school not only attend courses on the technical requirements for successful bookselling, which one imagines must get more and more demanding each year, but participate in seminars and conferences attended by distinguished guests such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, writers Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Safran Foer, the directors of large book chains like Waterstones, Fnac and the German Hugendubel and even political figures like Romano Prodi and the founding father of the euro, Tomasso Padoa-Schioppa.

Faced with the competition of Amazon, says Mauri, it is no longer sufficient for a bookseller to be just a mechanical business machine: “The first question a bookseller, independent or not, must ask him or herself is ‘What is my role in society?’”

All of this comes against a background, write Ridet and Noiville, when many Italian booksellers, particularly in regions frequented by tourists one would imagine, have taken to selling Ligurian olive oil, Parma ham and the wines of Chianti to bump up the takings. All very pleasant of course but leaving less space perhaps for the books.

While acknowledging the necessity for bookshops to be aesthetically pleasing and spacious, the publisher Feltrinelli, already proprietors of a chain of 106 outlets, have set out a larger ambition with their new brand RED (read, eat, dream – pity about the recourse to English), which offers the standard extras (coffee, newspapers, armchairs) but also aspires “that our shops will become the new agoras, where our customers can meet and exchange views”.

No one of course wants to urinate in the agora, but it might be pointed out that in as rampantly commercial (not to say greedy) a real estate culture as our own, it will always be hard to stop the bookseller piling high the Fifty Shades in a desperate attempt to pay the rent. A meeting place, a centre for readings, even a space where book- and writing-related projects might find some form of accommodation, equipment and support – these are all wonderful aims, but perhaps they will ultimately come about only when it is realised that cultural distributors, as much as cultural creators, are (or can be) a public service and if we value what they do, if we need what they do, we may, eventually, have to support them or subsidise their existence from the public purse (through a city council's arts and culture budget for example). Let us hope this step is considered while there are some bookshops left. If not the only literary agora you will have left will be on the Amazon site.

Source: Le Monde des Livres, June 14th