Alessandra and Serena, “rebel” sisters in the heart of Calabria

In an article in the Repubblica, they were defined as the “rebel” booksellers.  Rebels to the rhetoric of leaving because “there is nothing here,” which often becomes the alibi for not getting started on something.  Rebels because they have the courage to make choices that go against the current grain. Rebels to statistics, which certainly do not return a comforting picture of desire for literature in Calabria. Yet, when everyone tried to persuade them that opening a children’s bookstore in Soveria Mannelli (a city  of only two thousand in Catanzaro) was a mad idea. When market research and the logic of numbers seemed to remove any feasibility of the project, “They wanted it and that was enough.”

Let’s chat a moment with Alessandra, 37, an architect and mother of two children, attended a course for booksellers in Spain and her sister Serena, 28, with a degree in Law and a recently discovered passion for painting and a dream that’s been closed in a drawer for years now finally opened, which is called L’Isola di Arturo. Like the eponymous novel by Elsa Morante, from which it takes its name, it reads: “Hope, however, had now nestled inside me like a parasite, which does not leave its nest willingly”. The hope of staying, without giving up growth.

According to the report of the VIII Atlante dell’infanzia a rischio Lettera alla scuola di Save the Children published by Treccani at the end of November 2017, Calabria is the region with the highest percentage of minors in relative poverty (47.1% ) and with the highest number of young people (almost 8 out of 10) who do not perform various cultural activities, such as reading at least one book, going to the cinema or theater, visiting a museum, accessing the internet. Moreover, 15.7% of young Calabrian children have left school early. What does it mean to open a bookstore for children in Soveria Mannelli, a small town in the heart of Presila Catanzaro, in the light of these statistics?

Serena: “For us  it means to believe in this territory and to believe that there is some beauty to be taken and given. Soveria seemed from the beginning a fertile place ready to welcome our idea: a town that has always been committed to the promotion of culture, so much so as to be awarded the title of “City that reads” by the Ministry’s Center for Book and Reading of Cultural Heritage in collaboration with the National Association of Italian Municipalities, a prestigious award assigned to municipal administrations that in particular promote reading. Our goal, however, is to be a point of reference and a meeting place for the whole neighborhood.”

What does the L’Isola di Arturo represent for you?

Alessandra: “For us it is a challenge, to create something beautiful and stimulating, a sort of nursery where everyone can bring something to grow together. This is what we hope to find every morning, raising the gate: a place to feel at home, new stories to discover and new games to let the imagination run wild. We would like it to be the same for the children who come to visit us.”

A discovery also for you, and so…

Serena: “Yes, of course, continuous discoveries: regarding the practical aspects, first of all, because there are always new situations and new things to learn in the daily management of a bookstore and many of these things were unexpected. But above all on the human side: because when someone comes in to ask you for a book or a simple advice, they show you a little bit of their life. Then every time a box full of books or other items arrives, it’s still a bit like receiving a present, we open it with the same expectation and the same feeling of surprise.”

This year were the first Christmas and the first Epiphany. How did it go?

Alessandra: “It was a very intense period, starting in November with the definition of orders, we spent a lot of time in bookshops and we have always been focused on what we need to do to better meet the requests and expectations of our customers.

What has been the response so far of children and parents to this beautiful novelty?

Alessandra: “There was great enthusiasm and participation: since the first reading workshop we had a good response, many children aged 3 and above (often even younger!) listened to stories in the arms of or alongside their parents, very attentive and curious. This is what we enjoy most, being accomplices in these moments in which we see the children, their families and stories as protagonists. We are happy because it seems to us that with each day the kids are more passionate, and the adults have started to see the library as a familiar environment as a family friendly place, a space in which to browse, observe and be amazed by a book or a game, in which to move independently, like at home.”

The book that changed your life?

Serena and Ale: “L’Isola di Arturo, of course!”

What do you really need to start a business in Southern Italy?

Serena: “Based on our experience we can say that you need determination, and above all optimism. When the Island was for us only a vague thought, it seemed a crazy idea. But we wanted it, very much, and that was enough!”

Any future projects?

Serena: “We intend to undertake projects with schools, organize numerous gatherings for children, young people and adults, such as groups, book presentations and much more.”