A Life Among Books

Alberto Bertoni manages the historic bookshop in the heart of Venice with passion and expertise.
PAOLO PUPPA
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In the heart of the San Marco district, in a sudden widening of Calle della Mandola, on the itinerary that connects Santo Stefano to San Luca, or in the city center that couldn’t be more central, while all around you can already smell the scent of the Goldoni Theatre, you suddenly come across a long glass display case, glowing with books. The display seems to invite you to leave the buzz of fashion shops behind, to reject the seduction of expensive restaurants. They ask you, in effect, to take refuge in a sort of paper Church, which is located right next to them, an environment muffled by walls full of volumes, crammed everywhere in the large room, balanced on tables, stacked on the floor against columns. You have arrived at Libreria Bertoni, as indicated by the large sign at the top of the showcase itself. An orderly disorder reigns here, and you can immediately imagine the difficulty of the set designer-interior designer in creating paths in the midst of this well-contained chaos. A few people wander inside, through the minimum passages allowed, and it’s all about apologizing if you have to elbow your way out, in the frowning silence between accomplices of a shared vice. It’s an oddity in the third millennium, a deviation from the growing and threatening presence of AI, the bombardment of great narratives deployed on television series, the deafening chatter of gossipy and invasive social networks, the siege of infinite connection.

Here I open a parenthesis, sad and significant. A lawyer friend from Mestre, who recently passed away, explained to me that in the evening he used to watch the small screen for a long time, and when he felt sleep approaching and the remote control fell from his hands, he ran to bed and opened a book that had remained on the bedside table since previous night. Is this the fate of written paper? The role of a mere aid for psychotropic drugs? Instead, in a rejection of all this, here at Bertoni we actually have a bookshop, and a courageously antiquarian bookshop. At the entrance, you immediately notice a computer above which displays the overall image of the place via a careful system of cameras, perhaps for theft control, and scrolls through images of the shop, irradiated by a pale light due to the lack of a fluorescents. Which makes the reception even more impressive. But, as mentioned, outside in the street there is an appetizer of what awaits you inside, art books mostly, and Veneta pour cause, exhibition catalogues, exhibited with their front covers, flaming like Christmas gifts, or various precious minor arts, from glass to ceramics. A second, smaller showcase located in the opposite branch of the street, nestled between stones and bricks, houses first editions of fiction, while the shop window itself is crowded with monographs of actors and local histories.

My father, a doctor, was a fond customer of this bookshop over half a century ago. And we know that doctors are lovers of letters. I’ve been going there all my life too. The current manager and owner, Alberto Bertoni, 54 years old, who has been in the business since he was thirteen, is a gentle little man who whispers to you and smiles demurely. In his small physique and the gentleness of his gestures, as the days pass, he comes closer and closer to the mold of his father, Mario, a breathless and gentle creature, an authentic character in the area. Today I have a brief chat with my son on the phone. He converses with me while serving his greedy consumers.

First of all, the history of the bookshop. Great-grandfather Lorenzo kept three stalls on the sidewalk in front of the Lido seafront. The era was contemporary with the rise of CIGA, an acronym for Compagnia Italiana dei Grandi Alberghi, founded in 1905, before the inexorable explosion of the seaside industry and then of the film festival, in a Lido that was still pre-tourist in its own way. He also managed a bookshop in Calle dei Fuseri for a short period. His son Alberto, from whom his grandson inherited the name, opened the aforementioned showcases on the street in 1935, and in 1952, over seventy years ago, he named the current shop. A family genealogy, therefore, is behind a business that has been handed down in the wake of a tradition, of a family faithful in their choice of work. Now, Alberto junior has two children, his eldest daughter Elisa, who is studying interior design at IUAV and is inclined in turn to follow in her father’s footsteps, and Francesco, who fascinated by ships, to the point of dreaming of piloting one after completing his studies at the Nautical Institute.

I therefore ask him what has changed over the years in his forty years of experience. The city is emptying, he replies soberly. In the meantime, the presence of ‘foreigners’, outsiders, and travelers is increasing, but in some cases they tend to return, in love with the shop. This creates an esoteric solidarity, a supply chain similar to that obviously woven with fellow citizens. At this point, hoping not to descend into the pedanticism of a retired university professor, I give him some figures. Statistics remind us that our country reads less and less, and that a good percentage of the population does not have books at home or does not read one book a year. To be precise, in a survey that ended in 2022, the share of readers further decreased compared to the previous year, equal to 39.3 percent of the population, calculated from six years (it was 40.8 percent in 2021). Among them, 44.4 percent read up to three books a year, while ‘strong readers’ (twelve or more books read in a year) were 16.3 percent. But reading books is above all the prerogative of young people in the age group between 11 and 24 and of women. Well, older people are at home in his bookshop. And it also seems allusive to its current customer base: many teachers, in fact, at most a few students over twenty. More men than women, although there is no shortage of the latter, and in his opinion, they buy his books following a therapeutic impulse, to cure ailments and discomforts.

A historical photo of the exterior of Libreria Bertoni

It was once his family’s custom to purchase libraries. I then spoke to him about Roberto Roversi, who for half a century in Bologna also managed a publishing house along with his Palmaverde, a trade in the sale of ancient titles with the entire world, supplying in particular the libraries of North America. When I taught at Dams in Bologna, I went to visit him every now and then. He sent light, Roversi, and was moreover an intense playwright poet. On the subject of book poets, I cannot fail to mention Umberto Saba again with his Mayländer from Trieste, ancient and modern, a shining cave from which many of his verses gushed. Alberto seems flattered by these illustrious colleagues. But now he no longer deals with libraries for sale, which would not find a place due to lack of space. However, and his voice cracks a little wearily, he mentions his various warehouses between Venice and Alpago, near the mountains. Entire crates are crammed there. In short, the books move among themselves, from the warehouses to the Mandola bookshop in an incessant rotation, to take the air, so to speak, coming to the foreground and then being put back behind the scenes.

What do you tend to buy from private individuals anyway? He looks for titles, he patiently explains to me, that talk about the city. He is interested in specifics, which are in great demand among cultured travelers, tourists who want to find out more about the marvelous and mysterious city. He also takes titles about architecture and photography. He likes large formats with illustrations, while on the other hand he is reluctant to include fiction in his merchandise, which is left to the competition and expertise of ‘normal’ bookshops. Even though Venice, he believes, now only boasts few of them.

I ask myself with some embarrassment if his company is making money today, and if he makes money with that job. Yes, he answers me promptly. This is also because he works alone, he has no employees, and the shop is his property. These limited expenses allow for a more than decent income.

I insist on a personal curiosity of mine. It is known, and I say this from experience, that when a doctor returns home he does little to treat his family members. So, does the bookseller read, and what does he read? Alberto, a middle school graduate, studied with books of works, especially those on art, especially modern and Venetian art, a true passion, from De Luigi to Santomaso and Vedova, to name a few.

I leave him and thank him for his time, and he also spares no courtesy in seeing me off. I still have some curiosities that I didn’t dare talk to him about. For example, what does he feel when sitting alone in his nice shop, if no people come in? On long winter afternoons, in the dim light, protected by all that old, printed paper. And what are your feelings when you return home and see your parents? If you had a second life, would you do this job again, Alberto?

Finally, I wonder about some unanswered questions. Does reading make everyone who does it better? Of course, while you read you don’t harm anyone, and in fact perhaps you do some good for yourself. My old principal at Liceo Foscarini, the high school of my adolescence, comes to mind. Having become blind, he paid for a reader for himself so as not to give up books. And why not mention Borges, a giant of literature who also lost his sight but was nevertheless seized by books all his life, appointed director of the National Library of Argentina, a position held since 1955? And, while we’re at it, let’s mention another dazzling writer, Alberto Manguel, a multilingual Argentinian Jew who took his place for a handful of years after having worked as his private reader as a young man. Books ultimately ensure some lengthening of life. Not eternity, which is not of this world. Let’s not forget that we mostly read pages about deaths. Libraries are cemeteries that speak to us, move us and entertain us. The sadness of absence turns into energy. Our animal life is suspended when we hold a book in our hands. It is not for nothing that the eyes, Cicero noted, are placed in the upper part of the face, closer to the light of the sky.

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

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A Life Among Books ultima modifica: 2024-02-04T14:35:06+01:00 da PAOLO PUPPA
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