February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Last chapters

By |2018-03-21T18:18:35+01:00March 1st, 2005|Features Archive|
Barbara Goldstein, above, bid farewell to an era last fall. Daniele and Dino Donati of the Anglo-American Bookshop in Rome count on walk-in customers.

n a rainy Saturday morning in late November, it was life as usual at Rome’s American Economy Book and Video Store. Owner Edna Goldfield, her American flag bandana tied cowboy style round her neck, rung up books as customers strolled through shelves of discounted items. A fat grey cat brushed up against the window of the back room.

Two months later, the scene was considerably different: All that was left in the shop were a few skeins of Christmas ribbon and an abandoned cash register. After forty years, the Economy, an institution in English language culture and expatriate life in Rome, had closed. It could no longer meet costs, and the owners knew it.

“You gotta’ go with life. We should have closed three years ago,” said Edna’s 40-year-old daughter Barbara, as she worked with her family to gradually empty the shop. “Sometimes it’s the hardest lesson to learn.”

The financial plight that sank the Goldfields is faced by the remaining English-language bookstore owners in Italy, who are struggling to survive. Some have turned to selling mementos and tourist items to boost sales. In recent years, national chain outlets led by the powerful Feltrinelli group have bulked up English-language sections to keep pace with Italian interest in the language. Internet companies, including Amazon.com, are discounting books and aggressively marketing international direct mail services. The introduction of the euro has also dramatically increased the costs of maintaining centrally-located shops. To say nothing of the effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which dealt Italian tourism a blow from which it has not recovered even four years later.

The scenario, says Barbara Goldfield, is bleak. Local book-sellers are antique and expendable. “People don’t have extra cash. At the end of the day, you can live without a book.”

The recession pinch that killed the Economy is being felt elsewhere. The English Bookshop on Rome’s fashionable Via di Ripetta will shut down this spring after suffering a 40 percent drop in sales since 2001. Trying to stave off closure, owner Cristiana Stame rented one of its rooms to a company specializing in hand-woven African bags and shoes. It was a desperate measure, and it didn’t work. “We had fun for a couple of years, but it’s not what I wanted,” Stame said. “I wanted to sell books. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”

But selling books is only getting harder. Augusto Morelli, a partner of the Lion Bookshop on Rome’s Via dei Greci, ruefully notes that even his wealthiest clients — mothers of children who attend the capital’s pricey international schools — are spending more gingerly. “Two years ago, moms would buy a half million lire of books. They left with bags of books,” Morelli said. “Today they spend €100.”

Though Morelli says book prices remained stable after the introduction of the euro in 2001 — unlike, say, the price of a pizza — people simply had less money to spend freely. This led them to buy more paperbacks, whose sales do not cover soaring rents.

Dino Donati, who owns the prosperous Anglo-American Book Co. two blocks from the Spanish Steps, says monthly rents in his posh neighborhood average between €12,000 and €14,000 monthly, squeezing out retailers that have been around for decades. “Individual bookstores really feel the high rent,” Donati said. “The only bookstores that can survive are chains like Feltrinelli.”

The cost problems are not confined to Rome. Adriano Lavino, owner of the American Bookstore in Milan, finally decided to purchase his store’s space. “If we had to pay probably €100,000 a year in rent, there’s no way we would be able to stay open,” Lavino said.

A few owners, including Dermit O’Connell of the Almost Corner Bookshop in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, are protected by rent-controlled contracts, which can run up to eight years. Some commercial landlords are pleased to avoid renting to restaurants or bars. “The owner of this building is delighted to have a bookshop,” O’Connell said. His store, stocked mostly with hand-picked titles, is one room with wall-to-wall shelves.

But vendors such as O’Connell are not in the book business to make money — “you’re never going to make a fortune selling books,” he says. Instead, the store, which he opened in 1991, provides him with a way to combine his enduring passion for books with a retirement lifestyle.

Feltrinelli, the Italian book giant with 89 stores nationwide, has moved aggressively to corner the English-language market. Its officials are mindful that Italian citizens, bound by the influence of the EU, are increasingly interested in reading in English. According to Paolo Saroci, Feltrinelli’s communications officer, 20 of the group’s stores sell English-language titles. Five are international stores with extensive English-language sections. The largest such store, located in Rome, has a ground floor comprised almost wholly of English-language bestsellers, classics, travel guides, and ESL (“English as a Second Language”) texts.

Candace Biamonti, who heads the book club of the American Women’s Association of Rome (AWAR), says that although the smaller Lion Bookshop gives its members a 10 percent discount, most women still buy from Feltrinelli. “They say they can find things they don’t find at Lion,” she said.

Many smaller booksellers dislike the trend and insist that the chain store’s selection remains limited in some respects. “If an Italian student wants to read a book in English, we always suggest Agatha Christie as the first one,” said Stame. “You won’t find it at Feltrinelli. You will find 100 copies of the latest Grisham. They [Feltrinelli] are taking away from the small bookshops with fast-selling titles.”

The Economy was torpedoed by the lurch toward best-sellers. “Instead of 1,000 copies of “The Da Vinci Code,” I was selling 200. That hurt a lot,” Barbara Goldfield said. But she also admits Feltrinelli directed customers her way when they ran short of populare titles. “So they gave and they took. But they took more than they gave,” she said.

But customer service is not a Feltrinelli strong point, say some clients. “I have never successfully ordered a book from Feltrinelli,” said Pat Fogarty of the AWAR club. “They just kind of look at you as if to say, ‘We’re a chain. We do not offer services.’”

Service, in fact, is where the small bookstores still have a competitive edge against the chains. Barbara Barresi, who manages the English language section at Mel Bookstore on Via Nazionale, close to both the Economy and Feltrinelli International, regularly sent customers to Economy until it closed. “It [Economy] was more of a point of reference than Feltrinelli International because a bookstore in English gives greater trust than an international bookstore with a bit of everything,” she said.

The Economy in particular was known for its emphasis on personal attention. Fogarty recalls that her efforts to start a writer’s workshop were taken seriously only at The Economy, which hosted the workshop for five years. “I beat the pavement at all the English language institutions in Rome. There was no response unless it was, ‘This is how much money we want,’” said Fogarty. “I started my spiel with Barbara Goldfield, and she said, ‘You are right, Pat.’ That was amazing for me at the time.”

Cultivating a sense of community was a part of The Economy’s goals since it opened in 1965. “I fell in love with this store because I thought it would be a place where things would happen other than just selling books,” said Barbara Goldfield.

The store was the idea of her father Max, who founded it; he died in 1969. A family friend, Maurice Rosenblatt, joined the family business in 1973. It was chemical engineer Rosenblatt, says Barbara, whose passion sold her on the bookselling business. A dancer, she had dropped out of Barnard College at 18. “Maurice Rosenblatt was my college education,” she said.

Paul Goldfield, a 44-year old jazz musician, brought yet another dimension to the enterprise. The Economy gradually became a gathering place for the expatriate community. “There were a lot of expats chasing after Gertrude Stein’s buon salotto,” said Paul. “The war in Vietnam seemed to cause a lot of people to want to leave America. There used to be a lot of people from the third stream — artists who came over here from America because they felt more accepted, lots of jazz musicians.”

The family matriarch, 80-year-old New Yorker Edna Goldfield, daughter of Polish immigrants, says Rome attracted the family because it offered the chance to meet interesting people. Her husband Max, a pharmacist turned debt-collector, drove the Arizona-based family through Europe intending to settle on a kibbutz in Israel. But kibbutz life was unappealing, so the family briefly doubled-back to Rome where Max taught science at the Overseas School.

Max Goldfield then returned to Berkeley to pursue a teaching degree. But Rome beckoned. The used bookstore scene in Berkeley gave Max and Edna the idea of doing the same in Rome. The family had always loved books. Paul recalls family road trips — through India, Iran, and Iraq — where books were their companions. “The books that we took with us became very influential: the Tolkein trilogies, Norman Mailer, ‘Catch-22,’” Paul said.

It was Edna’s own book-loving upbringing on New York’s lower East side that would profoundly influence the evolution of The Economy. Her immigrant parents had opened a Malt’n’Hop Shop, leaving Edna to spend hours at the lending library near the store. The library had a children’s hour, which Edna transported to Rome. Until the store’s final days, children’s crayon drawings of plants and butterfly cutouts adorned the back room. The store’s rent-a-book feature imitated aspects of a lending library.

But the human touch, in an age when supermarkets have replaced alimentari, lost its commercial appeal. “The whole book world has changed,” Edna said. “Publishers look for bestsellers, not the development of literature. What I feel bad about is how do new writers get known?”

Even Barbara tired of the fight. “As hard as I was working, it just wasn’t working out,” Barbara said. “We were kind of riding down a river of hope for three years. At the end, the hope wasn’t there.”

Colleagues sensed the end was near. “It had an increasingly desolate air to it,” said Elaine O’Reilly, among the owners of the Open Door Bookshop used bookstore in Trastevere. “They [Economy] became very ambitious. They had so much space, and the space became a problem. So they started selling puzzles and greeting cards,” O’Reilly said.

Even Economy’s most faithful customers were unsettled by the store’s apparent change in focus. “I think a lot of people were perhaps a bit put off by the things on display,” said Fogarty, referring to the posters and Christmas ornaments at the store’s front end. “They perhaps had the best selection of poetry in the English language in Rome. But you had to look around to find it.”

“The English [Book Shop] and Economy no longer had a lot of books to choose from. They had become gift shops in the end,” said AWAR’s Biamonti.

But Stame’s decision to sell African goods and the Goldfields’ choice to offer greeting cards and posters were eleventh hour survival tactics in a bleak market.

There is no lack of savvy approaches to keep book businesses going. Maurizio Panichi of Paperback Exchange in Florence takes advantage of the weak dollar and purchases from the United States. “If we buy a book from Vintage U.K. at £6.99 pounds, we sell it at €12. If we buy the same book from the U.S. for $5.99, we can sell it at €7. We lose a little, but we are competitive,” said Panichi.

Paperback Exchange, which opened in 1979, decided early on to focus on textbooks for the thousands of itinerant students on exchange programs. Textbook sales represent 50 percent of the business and keeps them afloat.

Some sellers have tried offering direct purchases through publishing companies. O’Connell of the Almost Corner Bookshop says he sold 600 copies of “The Da Vinci Code” at €10.95. Feltrinelli sold it for €11.40. “I can usually match the Amazon prices unless it’s 50 percent off,” O’Connell said.

But The Lion’s Morelli says bestsellers are Amazon’s best allies. “You get a discount, and you don’t need to see it because you already know it’s a successful book,” he said. With technical books, Amazon offers a 50 percent discount and delivery in two weeks, Morelli says. He admits he could only sell a similar technical book at full price with a thirty day wait for delivery.

Yet the Internet is not for everyone, booksellers say. And, it’s just not the same experience, said Barbara Goldfield. “Amazon is great but there’s something about browsing. I had a woman the other day who made my mother cry [by saying], ‘You gave me the book that changed my life,’” Goldfield said. “With the Internet, everything is so concentrated on what you’re looking for, but it’s the book next door.”

Some stores are content just to pay rent. “None of us takes much money from the shop. We all do other things to keep going,” the Open Door’s O’Reilly said.

Barbara Goldfield, in turn, worries about drops in teen reading. “Maybe they are reading on the Internet. But it’s more for studying, not that mind-liberating thing that reading a book is, losing yourself in a book,” she said.

Feltrinelli’s Soraci cites sobering statistics on adult reading habits. “Forty two percent of Italians said that they had read at least one book in the past twelve month, which means that 58 percent of Italian adults have not read a book,” he said. “There is an enormous production [of books], with 5,000 bookstores and over a thousand that have at least ten thousand volumes.”

At the same time, Italians are reading more titles in English — at least according to Barresi of Mel’s. She says Italians buy bestsellers in English because they’re considerably cheaper than the translations. Specialized stores are also on the rise. Lavino in Milan said he stopped carrying sports books when a specialized store opened.

But for The Economy’s Barbara Goldfield, the trials and tribulations of the book business are over. “It’s like losing a member of the family,” she says of her store’s closure. If current trends persist, the English-langauge bookshop family also stands to get smaller in coming months and years.

— John Pitonzo in Florence and Aaron Maines in Milan contributed to this report.

Kristine Crane is Associate Editor of The American and the author of the "L'Americana" column. She lives and writes in North Central Florida. She was formerly a Fulbright scholar and journalist in Rome, where she helped found "The American." She is originally from Iowa City.