The Struggle Of Independent Bookstores

The number of Italian independent bookstores has been — not too slowly — decreasing over the past decade.

The number of Italian independent bookstores has been — not too slowly — decreasing over the past decade

Do you remember the movie You’ve Got Mail? What we’re interested in right now is not the love story: it’s the bookstore story. Yes, that’s right. If you recall, Meg Ryan runs her mother’s independent bookstore and she sadly has to succumb to the power of the big chain which, ironically, is owned by Tom Hanks.

Even though the film dates back to 1998, the struggle it portrays remains a current topic. Here’s the exchange that Kathleen, the protagonist (played by Meg Ryan), has with her two employees when they see that a ‘Fox’ mega bookstore is about to open just around the corner:

George: A Fox Books superstore.

Christina: Quel nightmare.

Kathleen: It has nothing to do with us. It’s big, impersonal, overstocked and full of ignorant salespeople.

George: But they discount.

Kathleen: But they don’t provide any service. We do.

As author Guido Catalano writes in his novel Tu che non sei romantica: “Today, being an independent bookseller is not an easy job. The competition from Amazon and from the big chains gives a hard time to booksellers like Lucia, who have to come up with lots of alternatives in order to survive, such as hosting lots of presentations — even one per day — or small shows, readings, even concerts or events for children, ’cause you know it, children’s literature’s a cash cow.”

The number of Italian independent bookstores has been — not too slowly — decreasing over the past decade: from 1115 in 2010 it fell to 811 in 2016. The trend relative to chains and franchise stores, however, is opposite: from 786 in 2010 they grew to 1052 in 2016.

Many historic bookstores in Rome, Milan and other towns all around Italy have closed their doors, for the sadness of those who value the more personal service of which the trusted bookseller is the symbol. An independent bookshop, in fact, doesn’t simply sell books: it transmits culture through the figure of the bookseller, who is a cultural mediator safeguarding ‘bibliodiversity’ through their contact with the independent editors.

Unfortunately, not so many Italians are helping the book industry: according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istat) only 4 Italians out of 10 have read at least a book in 2018. There’s a gap relative to age (the majority of readers is young), gender (women read more than men), but also to geographical origin (the north reads more).

Finally, only 14,3% of Italians are keen readers — a term that indicates those who have read at least 12 books over the course of the year.

And where does the average reader go buy their books? If discounts are the magnet, then online distribution has it easy, while independent booksellers have to put a real effort into reducing the price of the books they sell, since their profit margin is already relatively low.

On February 5 the Senate of the Republic approved a law for the promotion and support of reading. The aim is to encourage the production, preservation, circulation, and fruition of books.

Among cultural measures — such as the idea of assigning an Italian town the title of Capitale italiana del libro, the Italian book capital — there are economic measures to regulate discounts on the list price of books. These will be limited to 5% (instead of 15%), with the possibility of marking down more consistently only at certain times of the year.

Although Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, considers these measures as an important step forward for the support of the publishing sector, some economists think they are not the solution to the current situation which sees independent bookshops struggling to face the competition.

For sure, the current coronavirus lockdown situation is making things worse and is putting a strain on retailers: now that purchases are, essentially, only possible online, how are the independent bookstores coping?

In this respect, a young publishing house has launched a nice initiative. During the month of March, they are going to adopt different independent bookstores: for every order placed through their online store, they will give the chosen bookstores the same percentage they would have been entitled to if they had sold the books themselves.

They have also published a list of independent bookstores that manage online orders. You can check it out if you want to support them.

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Italics Magazine was born less than two years ago in Rome, from the idea of two friends who believed that Italy was lacking a complete, in-depth, across-the-board source of information in English. While some publications do a great job, writing about the latest news or focusing on specific areas of interest, we do believe that other kinds of quality insights are just as needed to better understand the complexity of a country that, very often, is only known abroad for the headlines that our politicians make, or for the classic touristic cliches. This is why Italics Magazine is quickly becoming a reference for foreign readers, professionals, expats and press interested in covering Italian issues thoroughly, appealing to diverse schools of thought. However, we started from scratch, and we are self-financing the project through (not too intrusive) ads, promotions, and donations, as we have decided not to opt for any paywall. This means that, while the effort is bigger, we can surely boast our independent and free editorial line. This is especially possible thanks to our readers, who we hope to keep inspiring with our articles. That’s why we kindly ask you to consider giving us your important contribution, which will help us make this project grow — and in the right direction. Thank you.