If you are a booklover, one of your first culture shocks on transferring to Milan from the UK, as I did more decades ago than I like to count, is discovering that the cosy second hand bookstore you used to find in any medium-sized British town does not exist here. Even in Great Britain, of course, the scene is changing. Not so easily, now, does your sleepy high street yield a friendly second hand bookstore, with its rickety tables of more-or-less rubbish outside and potential treasures within. Nowadays, the same sleepy high street will have three or four charity shops plus a “collectibles” – institutions likewise foreign to the Italian mindset. Just recently, a few second hand bookstores have appeared in Milan which seem, inside, almost to have been transported from Charing Cross Road – except that the titles are Italian. May they thrive!
In Milan, though (I cannot speak for the rest of Italy), the second hand book business is traditionally conducted through bancarelle, outdoor stalls placed strategically at nodal piazzas or in principal thoroughfares. They have become fewer over the years, they keep unpredictable hours and their principal fronts often repel with an array of paperback gialli (detective stories) too dilapidated for even a single reading. It took me some time to realize they are worth taking seriously. Yet with care, the odd treasure can be found. Nowadays, I rarely pass one without a look.
The operators of these bancarelle are a varied lot. Some are surly – you take your choice to them, ask with a smile how much you owe and get the reply – without a smile – “It’s written there, five euros”. One of them sits – or rather, reclines – oblivious to the world between a pair of headphones. It takes quite an effort to bring him to reality. You could walk off with his entire stock undetected. Or maybe not, for he has a large dog that might object. Others are overbearingly helpful – “We’ve got this and that, if there are any titles you want just ask …” The genuine book hunter craves time and silence. I find the way to hold the over-helpful bancarellista at bay is to ask if they have Armando La Rosa Parodi’s Solitudine, “published by E.S.D.A. in 1954”. The answer is always no, so that cramps their style. My favourite, though, is the lady who makes little comments on the titles as she adds up the package. She approved my choice of Pratolini’s La costanza della ragione – “molto bello” – but Giovanni Testori’s La Gilda del MacMahon drew from her an enigmatic smile. “A Milanese author”, she said, shaking her head slightly.
She was right enough about the Pratolini, but her cryptic reaction to Testori tugged at my mind. Did she divide authors in her head between proper ones and Milanese ones? What had the poor man done? I’ll come back to Testori in another article.
Christopher Howell, 2020
English Translator at Galactus Translations.