There was once a time when you’d see a handful of booksellers along the Passo della Cisa with their pack basket filled with books, and looking out at the sea of mountains that spread out from up above, you could understand how Italy was divided. These were the roving booksellers of Montereggio, Parana and Catizzola, and to avoid creating competition with each other, they would divide up the areas by squares and cities, all the while discussing the books that were currently fashionable and the publishers worth stocking up on. Their annual journey would begin with that gathering every spring.
This is a heroic story: to begin getting a feel for it, you can simply read the words written in 1940 by the historian Pietro Ferrari:
"Remember the story of Anatole France about the secondhand booksellers working along the Seine? Well, we also have our very own “bunchinisti” and they’re all lunigianesi from Montereggio […] and their tradition is perhaps even more noble than that of their Parisian colleagues. They make up entire small fractions that, in spring, would make like a shamans’ tribe and disperse throughout Italy, selling, at low prices, the most beautiful flower and the most sustaining fruit: that of intelligence. […]
Naturally, even booksellers from the Lunigiana followed along with the times: apart from the “rovers” and the “buchinisti” by choice, there are publishers and booksellers, with much prestigious work to show off. And it’s not just in Italy that we find them: they’re also abroad, in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, where the Maucci have been, for very many years, the uncontested monopolizers of these book markets."
In 1952, out of their adventure came the founding of the Bancarella Prize, which uses the Italian name for “market stall” in their honor; even today, its victor is established by booksellers’ votes. But the history of the book market began long before, during the first half of the 19th century, when books served as a job substitute for stones that needed to be chipped away, which the itinerant workers would bring from the Brescia area. In 1858 between Montereggio and Parana there were 850 residents, and 71 of them were roving booksellers.
One Saturday morning my mother bought 10 volumes from Casa Editrice Barion. We arrived in Vigevano and there was no space to set up shop, just those who arrived first would make it work. There was a “neighbor” who had the whole wall of the Duomo packed with paintings—he removed one of them, then gave us two trestles and we stuck in our small square meter of books. When we reached the end of sales time, we had sold half of our books, took the money and it had multiplied by half. We continued, Mamma and I, for a little while, then my father joined; Saturdays ended in Milan and he would go with my mother because I had to go to school—I was still little. Too make a long story short: we eventually arrived at 20 meters of bank. In the markets, everything happened; people would even get into fistfights over the spaces. Now there are cops, but then, the first to arrive was the one who got the best spot. But we would help each other too. In Padua the other vendors helped me take my stall away and helped me by giving me other books. They didn’t have much money either. And even the publishing houses would send stuff without much money…