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My Favorite Bookstore: Tommy Zurhellen on Paperback Exchange

By Tommy Zurhellen

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.

Published Apr 23, 2014   Copyright 2014 Tommy Zurhellen

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