Literary Venice. Or, How to Attract Readers without Books

Bookstores don’t often make people’s heads snap around, but there’s a lot of competition along Venice’s engorged thoroughfare, Salizada del Fontego dei Tedeschi. Amid the temptations of gelato for breakfast and designer Italian clothes, anything less opulent than the window display at La Carta would go ignored.

Untitled1 The window was a triptych set back from the street and hooded from the Venice sun. Only an artificial light from inside, a flattering golden-brown bronze, illuminated it. The centerpiece was a replica yacht with white canvas sails, intricate rope rigging, and a hull as polished as a bowling alley lane. Surrounding the ship were the accoutrements of a belles lettres lifestyle ca. 1875. A box with iron tooling for personalized wax seals. A vase filled with pens you’d have to dip in ink and possibly sharpen with a knife. Ribbons. Letter openers capped with colored Murano glass. Leather-bound journals for gossip about duchesses. Magnifying glasses, and gyroscopes for paperweights in a pinch. It looked like an estate sale from some universe where Proust had become a ship’s captain.

As it did to others, La Carta’s window tugged me almost gravitationally, pulling my neck and torso it while my feet were still walking forward. Before setting out that morning I had pulled from my luggage a sheaf of papers, directions to half the bookstores in the city, and I made this my first stop. My mission was simple (if admittedly daft). I figured I’d absorb political, religious, and architectural Venice by osmosis, without really trying. I was looking for literary Venice. That sounds a bit precious, but even when I’m ignorant of the local language, I visit every bookstore I can on vacations: I simply grasp a foreign culture most easily through its books.

And I wanted to know what Venice would have been like for a bookish person now and in the past, what sorts of stores they visited and how they got their verbal fix. The knowledge seemed far from Doges’ palaces, secreted away on a bookshelf somewhere, and I wanted to pull the volume down and peek inside.

La Carta occupied about 200 sq. ft. and was not well lit inside—it would have been hard to actually read in there, which I later realized was appropriate. Near the “back,” the owner was helping two customers (a man and women, khaki shorts, hip packs, tennis shoes, T-shirts) look through boxes of blank invitations. He, the owner, had a skin tone like his front window and had dark, wavy hair and glasses and a white shirt unbuttoned a little. The invitations were printed on handmade paper and were decorated with original watercolors on the front. The owner would alternatively hold them and hand them to the couple, involving them in the sale.

Untitled2 Bookshelves filled the store wall-to-wall, but the general décor was in keeping with a nautical theme. Two old-fashioned divers’ helmets, both crusted with green copper, sat on the floor, as did a spoked ship wheel. Bottles of ink on the very top shelf looked like illicit liquor, perhaps absinthe. I loitered, and within a few moments, the owner clinched the sale with the couple. He seemed almost to congratulate them on their purchase, the sort of congenial deception that marks any born salesman. They were so glittered they pulled out money from the hip pouch and offered it to him right there in the middle of the store.

At this, the man dropped his eyes, and spread his arms theatrically. “To the boss, give to the boss!” he declared, and waved his open palm toward the corner of the room. There, unseen to anyone (or perhaps there had been a magician-to-assistant clue), his wife had emerged from a back room. She sat on a stool behind a cash register and smiled a little too big as she rang up the order.

I approached the owner and asked about the shelves of leather-bound books. Though all of them (the books) were blank, they looked like the sort of gilt-edged, feathery-papered volumes that populate the wet dreams of every bibliophile. “Do you make all these yourself?” I asked.

He answered that yes, yes, he did, of course. Over his glasses, his eyes scanned around at the volumes. Impulsively, I asked him if he also made chapbooks for people, actually set type and printed books. He said he never does that, he doesn’t have time. “I like to sleep at night,” he explained in mock seriousness.

Untitled3 But my question betrayed something, and he moved on to other customers. Looking back, I should have felt like a boob. Here I was in a stationery story, and I’d asked about words, potential stories. I’d been intoxicated at the hundreds of gorgeous volumes on the shelves and wanted to fill the unfulfilled books, but there wasn’t a single letter in any of them: A very lonely library. What to me seemed just prep work, the sewing and binding, was for La Carta the end. Business-wise, this made sense—people don’t buy real books quickly, they need to linger—and the rents along the Salizada must be competitive with Tokyo. But blank pages, I thought, couldn’t possibly help me absorb Venice.

It was about 10:00 a.m., and by that point, the top store on my list had opened, and I decided to head over. I had to walk only two hundred yards to get there, but with the capricious geography of Venice and all the acoustically deadening stone walls and alleyways in between, it felt like I’d slipped miles away. I was looking for Liberia Marco Polo, which advertised itself as a “book exchange,” an Italianism I didn’t quite grasp. That didn’t stop me from dreaming up a Venetian bazaar in a public square with lots of haggling. Maybe even a fistfight over an old map or something. I’d circled it in blue ink on my list.

Instead of an open-air market, Marco Polo crouched beneath the Venice equivalent of a brownstone, its door facing into an alley. In contrast to La Carta, I walked by several times before finding it (this can’t be it), and its aroma was less perfume than musty paperback: It turns out “exchange” wasn’t idiomatic. It was a used bookstore where travelers actually swapped books in Italian, German, French, and English.

The clerk smiled but didn’t stop reading when I entered, which I actually preferred. The store was well lit and deceptively large, and its shelves were stacked haphazardly, with books of violently different sizes next to each other. I browsed the self-help sections in various languages, and picked up red and green “pocket” editions of Calvin & Hobbes in Italian. (As an aside, this was a weirdly mercenary find. In English, you can only find oversized, eleven-by-fourteen editions of Calvin and Hobbes, books that fit on no known shelf, because Bill Watterson had been insistent to the point of divadom that his cartoons needed a full-sized “canvas” to be realized. Holding a mass-market paperback of his work was uncanny—this was so Peanuts.)

Along the back wall of Marco Polo, tacked right to the drywall, was a promising spread for someone interested in the Venice shelf-life: a collage titled “Things I’ve Found in Your Books.” There were lots and lots of bookmarks, from Paris, Cape Cod, London, Amsterdam, but also playing cards, and a dollar bill, and laminated devotional cards with pastel pictures of Jesus. The collage had begun on one wall and was threatening to take over a second. I assumed the owners had collected these items over decades. At least since (as a small notice had it) the famed “Quilter’s Showcase ‘88” in Washburn, Wisconsin. If not reaching back to Byron and Ruskin, this was at least a start.

I approached the clerk. He had a blonde beard and spoke English with a German or Dutch accent. When I asked, he explained that no, actually, the shop hadn’t been open long. “The bookshop is about two years old. It was an antique shop for a long time.”

“That’s interesting,” I said, disappointed. Judging by the number of scraps collected in two years, travelers must be quite prone to forget mementos in their books.

“And, ja, before the bookstore it was a sex shop.” With toys and smut, he giggled.

Interesting as well. I admit I giggled, too, especially on my way out, when I rediscovered the church across the street—but, again, it was not exactly literary Venice. I suppose I didn’t really think a forgotten letter from an old Doge would fall out of a book I picked up, but there was at least a chance in some other places. I left Marco Polo charmed, but it could have been a bookstore anywhere in the world; nothing Venetian about it.

*

Untitled4 I spent a few hours each of the next few days popping in and out of the librerias on my list, rubbing the genie’s lamp of each one. Many were non-book bookstores like La Carta, with skeletons or a stuffed Puss-in-Boots in the windows. I got plenty lost between visits, crossing canals two or three times, finding colorful graffiti, dunking my head in a few public water fountains to beat the heat, wandering by all the churches and museums I knew I should have been visiting anyway. But in store after store I felt vaguely thwarted. I was still seeking some clue as to what Venice was like for a bookish person—a peek into its collective literary unconscious, maybe.

In truth, what I thought I wanted from Venice I wouldn’t even recognize until a few months later—when I visited another independent fiefdom, Savannah, Georgia. Along some stretches, Savannah packs in about as many shops and museums as Venice. And inevitably, in every one of them—shops for T-shirts, knickknacks, antiques, candles, even one George-Washington-Carveresque boutique of the innumerable goods you can make from peanuts—there was a devotional shrine to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Signed copies sat in stacks of five or ten, often supported by a replica pagan idol of the famous “Bird Girl” from the cemetery (St. Bonaventure’s) central to the book.

Untitled5 What electrified me is that I could tell immediately what the literary consciousness of Savannah was like—it meant having read and absorbed that book. (Perhaps like the Greeks read The Iliad and Odyssey, Savannah had its epic.) Venice had the same kingdom-by-the-sea feel (it’s no coincidence John Berendt, author of Midnight, set his next book there) and—though it’s asking a lot—that’s the sort of veneration I’d wanted in Venice, but which Venice was refusing me.

I finally ended my excursuses in Venice with a shop not in my pre-trip catalogue. Like a bad gambler who talks himself into any bet, I decided the “Biblioteca e Museo” on Calle de Paradiso would end my wandering.

It wasn’t quite the museum its sign promised, but it contained books only on Venice, its wars, its coins, its people. It had invested very little in decoration, and was suitably dusky. The silver-haired and leonine proprietor and I struggled with our English-Italian pidgin—another promising sign; this wasn’t someplace tourists went—but he finally grasped my point. He laid out his credentials as the epicenter of literary Venice, explaining, “This is the oldest bookstore in Venice. My father owned this shop, and his father owned this shop.”

Considering the city had been founded when people still counted years with three digits and had once been a printing capital of Europe, I waited for this lineage to reach back a tad farther. But apparently the literary history of Venice stopped with this guy’s nonno. He then pulled down a 60-euro book with six-point font, a history of the city-state in dictionary detail. I begged off with the lamest tourist excuse, that I had left my money back at the hotel, but that I’d surely return. Feeling guilty, I bought a few sepia postcards instead.

Untitled6 And then, what the hell. My last hope thwarted, I turned back and inquired about the one incongruent feature in this antiquarian shop—the detail I’d been trying not to notice—the pristine, 2008 Laurel & Hardy calendar hanging on the wall.

“Why?” I asked.

He shrugged and laughed. “I like!”

*

I decided not to prolong my own lowbrow comedy, and instead of spoiling my last day in Venice on a bookstore scavenger hunt, I set out with a few friends to take pictures. Still, I talked myself into—since they were on the way and since they were undeniably gorgeous—returning to a few non-book bookstores and snapping shots of the window displays.

Untitled7 I don’t know why it shouldn’t have been, but three days later the window at La Carta was just as impressive. It still mesmerized anyone who wandered within its field. It even grabbed a little blonde American boy (who frankly had been running around like a brat just moments before), and held him in his tractor beam. He let his McDonald’s cup sag between his legs and stared, only occasionally lifting it up to take a sip.

Fittingly for Italy, the shop was closed despite it being prime business hours. There was no explanation, no “Gone Fishin’ ” sign (or whatever the equivalent is) on the window. The store hours were the owners’ whims. And, human nature being human nature, as soon as I couldn’t get back inside, La Carta seemed a very desirous place to be.

Untitled8 In my imagination, in fact, its façade began to blend with all the window displays of masquerade masks and Venetian party costumes scattered in stores all over the islands. The two types of stores probably had very few common items in stock, but I guess my logic was emotional: The owner of La Carta, when he’d convinced those tourists to buy invitations on my first visit, hadn’t sold them on the pieces of colored paper; he’d sold them on the fetes and carnivals they might someday announce with the invitations. They’d been swept away—and, really, they were the ones who’d discovered literary Venice.

Non-book bookstores thrive in Venice exactly because they sell blank pages. People don’t want to read in Venice, they want to imagine, and fixed words would spoil things, would blow away the mirages that first drew them to Venice. I guess my imagined literary Venice exists only outside the city, when you’re dying to get there and search for it. Or when you’re being driven back to the airport, crossing the bridge to the mainland, and you look back at the Byzantine domes and towers of the Venice skyline and wonder why you spend so much time in foreign bookshops.

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