Last Friday over 100 influential writers gathered in Venice to discuss the crisis facing the city's bookshops. The meeting took place, appropriately, in the Sansovino Library at San Marco, symbol of Venice's centuries-old literary culture. The agenda was simple enough. Of the city's 35 bookshops, 14 have been forced to close because of astronomic rents - the premises will ultimately become home to yet more shops selling cheap souvenirs. Either that, or we'll see yet more expensive bars and restaurants. Of the 21 bookshops that remain, 2 are in danger of immediate closure and for the others, the writing will be on the wall soon enough.
Various solutions have been proposed, none of them straightforward. There is the possibility of instituting rent control and applying for government subsidy - difficult to create and sustain in a country already riddled with bureaucracy. There have also been suggestions of a quick fix that would enable book dealers to set up temporary stands in public spaces such as the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale.
But how about a permanent solution, one that would be commmercially viable and appeal both to private sponsors - such as Prada or Benetton - to the Comune and to central government?
Back in Britain, in the Sixties, the British entrepreneur Bennie Gray invented the concept of the indoor antique market. Over the last fifty years he has converted several large buildings in the city into retail space for hundreds of dealers. Each dealer pays a reasonable weekly license fee for a retail unit in the building. Units range in size from 6 to 60 square meters. The weekly license fee is a quarter - or less - of what dealers would have to pay if they were to rent a conventional shop. The antique markets, housing a rich variety of dealers, have become iconic destinations in London. The idea has been much replicated by successive generations of entrepreneurs - with great success - in other cities throughout Britain.
Why not apply the same principle here in Venice, and convert a large space in the Arsenale - or a similar location - into a home for booksellers, antiquarian book dealers, bookbinders and printers, not only from Venice but from all over Italy? In addition to the retail units there might be exhibition spaces, a small museum - and a number of bars and restaurants run by Venetian operators serving good Venetian food and wine. The project could be owned and managed by the Comune in partnership with a consortium of private and corporate backers. It would be completely in harmony with the spirit that has informed the Biennale since the end of the 19th century. The book centre would be, in effect, an additional pavilion (padiglione) - and also serve as a lasting, contemporary celebration of Venice's literary heritage. Finally, if properly managed, it could turn out to be that rare thing - a social enterprise that makes money for its private backers and swiftly repays any government grants.
If you wish to help take this idea further, please email me at email@example.com.
Robin Saikia is a British author living in Venice. His books include The Venice Lido (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Literary Companion London (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Italy Food Companion (Blue Guides), Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye (Blue Guides), The Red Book - the Membership List of the Right Club, 1939 (Foxley Books). He is currently completing his latest book, Venice 1912 - 1947; Impressions of a City in Peace and War.