International Books & Roses Day: April 26

what: Literary crawl through Brooklyn’s DUMBO community in celebration of La Diada de Sant Jordi, also known as “International Books & Roses Day” and UNESCO’s “World Book Day.” The event, which will highlight literature in translation, will take place in partnership…...read more »

The Week in Translation

what: "Spring into Poetry" when: April 16-29 where: various locations in NYC more info: http://ow.ly/vdLpu what: Guatemalan Writers: Journeys Toward Daylight: New Narratives when: Tuesday, April 22, 7pm where: Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, New York, NY more info: http://ow.ly/vLYX7…...read more »

The Un-X-able Y-ness of Z-ing (Q): A List with Notes

the unbearable lightness of being the unbearable lite-ness of being the unbearable blightness of being the unbearable nice™ness of being the unbearable “like”ness of being Milan Kundera opposed using "the unbearable lightness of being" to title the English translation of his Nesnesitelná…...read more »
Image of Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Luciana Hidalgo

Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Luciana Hidalgo

It should come as no surprise that walking and yoga—one of which propels her outside, letting her feet and thoughts wander her current city, the other which forces her to slow down, turn inward, and put her “constant circulation of ideas” on hold—are of equal importance to Luciana…...read more »
Image of Notes on Writing and Translating in Korea Today

Notes on Writing and Translating in Korea Today

With Korea being this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, there was a multitude of events exploring the publishing potential around this country, revealing a whole universe of literature to be read, and of course, translated. The “Writing and Translating in Korea Today” seminar…...read more »
Image of Literary Translation Centre: The Makers of World Literature at the London Book Fair

Literary Translation Centre: The Makers of World Literature at the London Book Fair

With a full program of seminars over three days, each packed with dozens of extremely enthusiastic translators, to say that the buzz was palpable at Literary Translation Centre would be an understatement. From what I hear, this has been the biggest space allocated to the LTC yet, which has been growing…...read more »

The Week in Translation

what: An Evening with Amanda Michalopoulou and Karen Emmerich when: Friday, April 18, 6pm-7pm where: The Book Club of California, 312 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94108 more info: http://ow.ly/vvLx6 what: "Spring into Poetry" when: April 16-29 where: various locations in NYC more…...read more »
Image of The Women in Translation: Right Here

The Women in Translation: Right Here

The Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair was packed Tuesday for Where Are the Women in Translation? Readers will recognize the title from Alison Anderson's May 2013 piece about the gender disparity in translated literature. Alison found a huge majority of books published…...read more »

Poetry at the Periphery: the Slam Poetry Scene in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

On Sunday, March 23, I attended a sarau, somewhere between a salon and a poetry slam, hosted by Sarau da Onça and Grupo Ágape in Sussuarana. Sussuarana is a “peripheral neighborhood” (the literal translation of the Brazilian euphemism for ghetto) of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil’s…...read more »
Image of The City and the Writer: In Reykjavik with Mazen Maarouf

The City and the Writer: In Reykjavik with Mazen Maarouf

Special Series / Iceland 2014 If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities Can you describe the mood of Reykjavik as you…...read more »

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My Favorite Bookstore: Tommy Zurhellen on Paperback Exchange

Image of My Favorite Bookstore: Tommy Zurhellen on Paperback Exchange

Paperback Exchange, Via delle Oche 4R, Florence, Italy

Walking though Florence can feel like drowning. Just navigating the constant undertow of tourists that ebb and flow every day between the towering Duomo and Piazza della Repubblica can be exhausting. But next time, do this: halfway down Via Roma, just as the painted horses of the Repubblica’s carousel come into view, turn left onto a wire-thin alley named Via delle Oche (literally, Street of the Geese) and you will suddenly find yourself alone in a dim, narrow lane where the clamor of the crowds somehow fades behind you, like magic. (This should come as no surprise; if you believe in books, then you already believe in magic.) At the end of this quiet street sits my literary oasis in Florence, the Paperback Exchange. OK, it’s not the most romantic name for a shop, and perhaps all bookstores are oases, but when you see it tucked into the end of the street like a cave, you’ll smile. And trust me, you’ll fall in love. In this crowded city where you can lose yourself just by stepping out the door, having a place like Paperback Exchange is no less than vital.

The store itself is a love story: the owners Emily, a New Yorker, and Mauricio, a Florentine, met here in the 1970s and fell in love. I’m picturing their “meet cute”—hey, this is Italy, there had to be a “meet cute”—outside a café on the Via del Giglio: she is at a table nursing a caffè doppio, engrossed in her dog-eared copy of Forster’s A Room With A View; he passes by and notices this blonde American girl behind Jackie O sunglasses clutching his favorite book about Florence. Being Florentine, he immediately sits down across from her and strikes up a conversation. And the rest, as they say, is history: together, they started Paperback Exchange in 1979 and they’ve been running it ever since. These days their son Jacopo helps run things, but you can still find both Emily and Mauricio in the back, poring over computer screens to find a way to get a copy of some obscure novel published years ago in North Dakota from the States to Florence, just to satisfy a request from a walk-in customer.

And they always find a way. I know, because I was that walk-in customer.

There are plenty of bookstores in Italy—more than in the United States, anyway—but if you’re looking for English-language titles, usually you’re out of luck. I probably learned this lesson the third or fourth time I asked the nice folks behind the counter at the chain bookshops, Mi scusi, avete libri in inglese? and invariably they would lead me to a sad little shelf in the back, the length of my arm. You can already guess the choices available, and yes, they all end with either thriller or Fifty Shades of Grey. So last year, when I found myself teaching in Florence for two semesters, I knew I had to find my literary oasis, somewhere in this bustling city. It had to be here. How long would I be able to last without the feel and smell of new books to read? Long ago, I found myself in Alabama for five years, without a corner bookshop in sight. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

If you love books, you already know the feeling I’m talking about. But it’s more than just the books; Paperback Exchange has become the epicenter for all English-language literature and culture in Florence, and they host a number of readings and events here year-round. There’s even a children’s story hour performed by the fantastic Florence International Theatre Company (I recommend it, whether you are a child or not.) With so many American and British college students living in Florence now, PapEx has also become the unofficial campus bookstore for a lot of programs. For me, it’s a good feeling seeing a nineteen-year-old kid from Kansas browsing the stacks here, looking at covers, realizing the possibilities. Outside that door, he’s a tourist. But inside, he’s a reader, and that’s all that really counts. I don’t know the kid at all, he’s not my student, but I know he’s found a place he’ll come back to, even if it’s just to chat with the cool couple who keep darting in and out from the back, talking loudly about this book or that. He likes their passion about the written word. And the kid doesn’t know it yet, but being a true reader is a labor of love. Sometime soon, he’ll realize being a reader in Florence is a love story all its own, and he’s found the one place in this crazy city where he can keep coming back to check on that story, to find out what happens next.

For its customers as well as its owners, Paperback Exchange is a unique Italian love story, one we all hope will continue for a long time to come.


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