This young woman’s wonderful essay captures the role indie bookstores play in defining communities around the world – and make us very proud to be part of what makes Frenchtown Frenchtown.
Searching Among the Stacks and Finding Florence by Cathryn Piwinski
The conceptualization of Florence within American minds consists of two primary characteristics: packed with exceptional art and filled with delicious food. The American education system teaches its students that Italy, specifically Florence, was the creative hub of the European Renaissance, marking it as a city rich in towering architectural achievements, breath-taking statues, and meticulous frescos. Likewise, the love affair with appropriated Italian food – pasta, tomato sauce, pizza, olive oil, gelato – causes Americans to idealize Italy as the land of plenty, the land of delicious, delectable, and desirable food, the land whose menu all other nations should aspire to imitate. However, while these two aspects remain essential to Florentine culture, moving to Florence and witnessing firsthand how it operates daily has shown me that there are more intricacies within this city’s life than I had initially thought. The architectural accomplishment of the Duomo and the equally valued culinary accomplishment of a perfectly made cappuccino do indeed factor into daily life in Florence, but life is not limited to nearly that. After living in this city for nearly four weeks, I am still recognizing and learning to adapt to these other factors of Florence living through the use of a particular establishment that is in no short supply here: the bookstore.
Adjusting to a new city, especially after fully adapting to life in the ever-active New York City, proved to be quite the challenge for me. I arrived in Florence with the anticipation that I would see every piece of art and eat every piece of food that the city had to offer – after all, those were the main characteristics I was raised to expect from Florence. After about a week of living here, however, I learned that I had been anticipating Florence as a tourist, not as an inhabitant. Living in this city for three and a half months meant experiencing smaller day-to-day moments at local cafes, stores, and piazzas, and carving out some moments of my own, which proved to be a challenge. To meet this challenge, a friend of mine who studied abroad in Berlin a few semesters prior advised that I search for local places that would obviously be new to me, but nonetheless recognizable and therefore eventually comfortable. The English major that I am inevitably settled on bookstores and bookshop cafés, which seem to be in no short supply in Florence and even connect with the art and the food that is so often praised in Italy. I began feverishly searching for places that met my conditions, which provided me with the newfound bravery to duck into any building that boasted hard covers and paperbacks in its windows. In this search, I found treasures and places of sanctuary, such as the Feltrinelli in the Piazza della Reppublica, the Paperback Exchange, and Todo Modo; but I also discovered the perfect way to begin connecting with life in Florence. Sitting back in the quiet atmosphere of a bookstore or library with my book let me observe and listen to Florentine exchanges and conversations. Ironically, in these places, a language I do not yet understand, in both the spoken and printed form, surrounds me, but it still seems that I am nonetheless able to connect with the city. Through my experiences within these bookstores, through the moments I have witnessed of Florentine life, I am able to forge my own personal connection with the city and become more than just a tourist, more than just a temporary student, but a knowledgeable and comfortable resident. It is in these unfamiliar, yet familiar places – in my case, the bookstore – that one can begin to become a crucial member of the true Florence and not just a visitor of the Florence found within travel guides.
My first venture into the Florentine world of bookshop cafés was a failed attempt: it consisted of a visit to the distant Café Letterario, located in Piazza delle Murate and recommended to me by an online list of “havens” for book-loving espresso-drinkers. Upon first entering the piazza, I noticed a noisy crowd circled around a few dancers and immediately thought of Washington Square Park, back home in New York City. The strangely urban energy emanating from the spectators coupled with the artistic nature of the performers reminded me of the many dancers, musicians, artists, and writers that populate my park back home. It felt familiar and recognizable to me, but as I joined the crowd to watch the performers, I was met with odd, almost judgmental stares, which caused me to feel as if I was intruding upon some sort of exclusive group that I was no part of. Stealing myself away from the performance, I walked inside to the café, ordered a hot chocolate, and found a small table near the wall that was perfect for not only reading a bit of my book, but also observing the populated lounge area of the café. The energy inside matched the energy outside: it was “urban,” meaning that the dimly-lit room was buzzing with consistent noise and was filled with young Italians who were either studying in groups or socializing in some other way. My observations were disrupted, however, as the groups began to leave and the waitress placed “reserved” cards on the recently abandoned tables. While I was not chased out, I left soon after my initial arrival with a strange feeling. After sitting down later that day to sort through my experience, I settled on the conclusion that Café Letterario was, in fact, too familiar. The energy emanating from the patrons was too New York City-esque, too uncomfortably uncanny, that I therefore found myself yearning for the home that I had left behind rather than forming a connection with the city of Florence. It was with the new conclusion, however, that I was able to move forward in my search of places, specifically bookstore cafés, which were recognizable, but definitively new and certainly Florentine. Café Letterario did not provide me with the connection to the city I was seeking, but it did provide me with the criteria for future bookstores and solidified expectations of what I needed from these places. Though I expect that I will, inevitably, return one day for that extraordinary hot chocolate.
A similar, but not altogether identical, experience happened to me in The Paperback Exchange, an English bookstore within the center of Florence. I have only ducked inside twice so far with the goal of purchasing textbooks for my courses, but seized the opportunity to browse the shelves and read a little in the comfortable armchairs that populate the sales floor. One of the employees, thinking that I wanted to pay for my books immediately, even told me to take as long as I would like reading. Said with a smile, this greeting was far more inviting than the crowd in front of Café Letterario, and I felt comfortable settling in and enjoying the store. Overall, I had a pleasant experience within the store, but after leaving both times I found myself plunged back into the foreign streets of Florence. Despite the comforting atmosphere of The Paperback Exchange, I once again found that it was a shelter for me, as I was surrounded by English books and English speakers – even the Italian employees spoke English flawlessly – and therefore found that I was no closer to connecting with Florentine life. While The Paperback Exchange did not cause me to earnestly wish for home in quite the same way that Café Letterario had, I found that this store instead acted as a means of completely isolating myself from the Italy just outside. Now that the Italian language had been completely stripped from the bindings of the books and the tongues of the people around me, I was able to go about my own business as if I was just another American in an American bookstore. It was an English haven, a place to go when I was missing my language and my books, but not the place to frequent when I desired to connect with Florentine life and Florentine people. I was beginning to learn that I needed to fully immerse myself within a strictly Italian bookstore, filled with strictly Italian people, in order to feel as though I was truly a part of this city. The search for my place – my beloved Florentine bookshop café – therefore persisted.
Another search on the Internet led me to the Feltrnelli bookstore on the a, a giant store boasting thousands of books and a sit down restaurant that requires reservations ahead of time. Clearly a popular spot for both Italians and foreigners, I decided to duck inside and explore the shelves. There were very few places to sit down and observe the store, so my stops were rather quick, but I was nonetheless able to capture a quick taste of life within Florence. What I learned was not particularly shocking – Florentines in bookstores tend to act just like Americans in bookstores: they browse, pick up a book and skim the back cover, perhaps flip through a few pages, and set in back down. One man intently read his newspaper as he profusely coughed and blew his nose. A woman excitedly explained the plotline – I assume – of the book in her hand to a friend standing next to her. This new discovery was not disappointing, however, but rather comforting. As I was in a foreign place for the first time in my life and possessed an incredible desire to connect with it, it was a relief to learn that no drastic changes to my own behavior were necessary in order to assimilate into Italian life. The people here were not aliens, not inaccessible, but rather, they were people. It was through this visit to the Feltrinelli bookstore that made me realize that, perhaps, I could simply be a person alongside them. This wish came true when I visited this store a second time, with a fellow book-loving NYU student in tow, and was able to show her each section and a few interesting books that I had discovered during my previous visit. We stopped in the children’s section, hoping to put our Italian skills to the test, but were amused to discover that even low-level reading was beyond our grasp at this point in our Italian studies. The second trip, nonetheless, felt satisfying, as I felt I knew about a place in Florence well enough to tour a friend around it. It felt as though I was finally beginning to connect with the city, finally beginning to figure out the layout and the lifestyle – even if it was only a bookstore. I nonetheless was at last beginning to feel that connection to Florentine life that I had desired.
My next discovery was based off the recommendation of a professor of mine: La Cite, found in the Oltrarno and conveniently located only about a block away from my apartment. After researching the space a little online, I learned that this particular bookshop café transforms into a rather active bar at night and was almost shut down a few years ago for noise violations. However, the locals that frequented the café fought against this potential threat to their beloved home and managed to keep La Cite open and operational. Drawn in by this fascinating backstory, I stopped by one afternoon for a cup of white hot chocolate, which was almost as delicious as the hot chocolate found at Café Letterario, and chance to read my own book. The atmosphere of the place, which made complete sense when I remembered that it becomes a popular bar at night, immediately struck me. Psychedelic paintings of religious figures and a impressively detailed portrait of Karl Marx decorated the already colorful walls. Each chair and couch was mixed and matched and looked as though they were purchased from an antiques fair. The books, though not as plentiful as those found at legitimate bookstores, were all used and individual members of a particularly eclectic collection. The atmosphere of the café, therefore, seemed distinctly similar to the atmosphere of the local New York City cafés that I had frequented, but did not make me yearn for home in the same way that Café Letterario had. Perhaps the building was more inviting, perhaps the armchairs were comfier, perhaps the Italian couple feverishly talking next me made the place seem a bit more Florentine than American. Whatever the exact reason, I felt connected. While reading my book in the comfortable armchair of La Cite, surrounded by Florence residents and their Italian books and words, I was convinced for a while that perhaps Florence could really come to be my new home.
The final place that I have had the opportunity to visit is the very place in which I am writing this essay: Todo Modo, just across the Arno and little south of the Santa Maria Novella station, it is close to my apartment and acts as a wonderful place to visit early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Unlike previous bookshop cafés, the shelves of this one are packed with books and even make up a pretty sizable English literature section. There are tables at which you can sit to read and sip a cappuccino, but there are also plastic yet deceptively comfortable chairs at the top of a flight of stairs that allow for a bit of distance from the noise of the café area. I have, quite simply, fallen in love with this place; the atmosphere is quiet and relaxed, the coffee is particularly delicious, and the books are plentiful. What made me truly feel at home here, however, are the interactions I have witnessed between the Florentines that frequent the café. From what I have gathered from my position at one of the tables, a family with one daughter and another child on the way run the café. During my first visit, the daughter parked herself in the children’s section, which is located at the top of the aforementioned stairs, along with her many coloring books. Her father showed up eventually, her jacket in hand, and tried to coax her down to join him – her response to him, however, was to pile her coloring books on top of his head. Her very pregnant mother joined them a few minutes later and succeeded in convincing her to leave her spot and then the store with her father. Moments later, another family – perhaps a grandmother, mother, and daughter – showed up and embarked on a laborious search for a particular book in the children’s section; the daughter’s guardians called up directions to her from the bottom of the stairs and eventually the endeavor was successful. Upon my second – and current – trip on a Saturday afternoon, I have noticed the great amount of Florentines here who have set up their laptops and papers to work at the café, many of whom have greeted one another as though they recognize each other as regulars. These interactions I have witnessed may seem small, but they are incredibly comforting; set up in my armchair, I am an unquestioned inhabitant of the bookstore, also here to browse the shelves and finish some work on my own laptop. Todo Modo, I can confidently assert, is my place, my little corner of Florence that has provided me with a strong connection to life within. When I step through the door of this bookshop café, I become more than just a tourist or a visiting student, I instead become another inhabitant of Florence interested in the books and espresso this little shop has to offer.
It may seem strange, to search for solace in places that immerse me within a written and spoken language that I do not yet understand. This disconnect in understanding, however, is not so isolating, for I truly believe that this unfamiliarity is essential in order to truly feel a part of the new city. My search for the perfect bookstore has taken me to many places that feel both too foreign and too familiar, but it is finding the perfect balance between the two feelings that allow a new resident to blend into a new cultural life, without losing or abandoning their old one. Bookstores and bookshop cafés allowed me to settle down in places that were both comfortable and familiar, yet new and foreign, which, in turn, let me observe Florentine life and helped me in the struggle to forge my own unique connection with the city. Coming to Florence, I expected to spend all of my time within museums and restaurants, viewing the famous artwork and sampling the delicious food. While I have done this, I have discovered that it what is left out of the Italian stereotypes, what is found beyond the expectation of beautiful art and fantastic food, is what truly connects me with the city. Bookstores and bookshop cafés, forgotten within the cracks of these aforementioned stereotypes, is the way that this American is able to transform her everyday life as a temporary student into a life that is undoubtedly and undeniably Florentine.