International Book Fair Scholarship: The Turin Experience

Last month, Camilla Orr, assistant manager at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix, Ariz., attended the International Book Fair in Turin, Italy, one of three winners of an International Book Fair Scholarship from Europa Editions the Other Press. Here she shares her impressions of that experience.

Camilla Orr

I got the call in early March, days after sending in my essay about the importance of international literature. When a coworker at Changing Hands Bookstore told me Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, was on the phone, I thought he was joking. He had to repeat it several times before I'd pick up the phone: yes, Michael Reynolds, from Europa. Yes, he's asking for you!

On the phone, I kept as silent as I could while Michael explained that I was one of three winners of the 2017 International Book Fair Scholarship from Europa and Other Press, and that I'd be attending the International Book Fair in Turin, Italy (il Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino). Books and travel, my two great loves, mashed together! It seemed too good to be true.

And it almost was. In only its second year, the International Book Fair Scholarship, or IBS, was such an incredible experience that it should, as fellow scholarship winner Jenn Witte of Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., exclaimed while tasting a dessert after an elaborate multi-course meal on our first night in Turin, "be illegal." It's not even the basics of the program: the free flight to Europe and the rooms in a very nice hotel (a big deal when living off a bookseller salary); being wined and dined with publishers from Europe, authors and important figures in the world of European publishing; speaking on panels about bookselling; and being interviewed by Italian newspapers and blogs. The big takeaways for me were the less tangible aspects, like seeing the book world from a completely different viewpoint and still feeling connected.

While at the book fair I was asked several times if the experience was what I had expected. I honestly had no expectations coming in and if I had, how could I have ever imagined Turin? The hugeness of the book fair alone, which takes place in the old Fiat factory, defied expectations. On our first day, while Jenn and I explored the multiple rooms packed with booths, I remarked that it was like being in that episode of the Twilight Zone where a man discovers he's the last human on Earth and is happy because all he wants to do is read. And then his glasses break. So many books! And almost all in Italian, a language I don't speak.

Each day of the fair we arrived before the doors opened to the public to get situated at the pop-up American Indie Bookstore created by Europa and Other Press. We'd spend the day checking out the rest of the fair, talking to patrons in our pop-up bookstore, speaking on panels or attending talks, and meeting with authors at twice daily "coffee breaks" that took place in our booth. American Indie was stocked with titles we had suggested and we expertly handsold our favorites to the public, and to each other.

After elaborate and delicious dinners that ended at midnight, at which publishers from Italian, German, French, and American presses seemed genuinely interested in our opinions about American publishing and bookselling, we'd be whisked away to parties put on for the fair. One night we attended a Twin Peaks-themed party with Italian booksellers at the Holden School of Storytelling and Performing Arts, which was so well done (there was a room full of coffee, cherry pie and donuts, as well as Laura Palmer shrines scattered about) that I didn't want to leave at 2 a.m., despite my exhaustion.

From the moment I got off the plane and was picked up by driver Francesco for the ride to the superb Hotel Roma, I was treated like an important guest. Francesco practiced his English while we discussed European history, philosophy and, of course, politics. I knew the current state of American politics was going to come up a lot in Europe. I feared the image of Americans had fallen even lower than before in the eyes of the rest of the world. Starting with Francesco, however, I was drawn into conversations about Trump respectfully, and with real interest. All the Italians were, perhaps unsurprisingly, sanguine about the whole situation.

"Don't worry," Francesco told me, "You have Trump for four years and then it gets better. Just relax. We had 20 years of this in Italy. You'll survive."

While this made me feel better about the current reception of Americans in Europe, I wondered what damage could, and would, be done to my country, and the world, in four short years.

Jenn Witte from Skylight Books in Los Angeles; Camilla Orr of Changing Hands in Phoenix, Ariz.; and David Sandberg of Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass.

Which is really what was at the heart of the IBS experience: the importance today of indie bookstores, publishing and international literature. As journalists are censored, silenced, physically assaulted, and their work labeled "fake news," the ordinary citizen's access to alternative viewpoints is severally limited. Without a free press, bookstores become an alternative venue where people can go to find different ideas, the next line of defense.

Each of the 2017 IBS winners was aware that politics would come up, given our roles as ambassadors for American bookselling, because La Repubblica, one of the largest daily newspapers in Italy, sent us interview questions before the fair. The first question was about our bookstore's involvement in resisting Trump. I was a bit taken aback when I received the questions, since I had not specifically discussed politics in my scholarship essay. It was funny to me then to read (or attempt to decipher, rather) the final article, which states in the first few lines that I was "among the most militant of the booksellers" interviewed. Europa staff member Sophia Franchi laughed at the look on my face upon first seeing that sentence and assured me that "in Italy, being militant is a good thing!”

And where does international literature come into all this? International literature is the best way to understand a different country or culture without living there. We can travel, but without speaking another language or getting off the beaten road, we'll never really understand foreign places and people. Now more than ever it's important for Americans to read about other lands, to understand that it's not "us" vs. "them," but that we're all the same. It was appropriate then that the motto of Turin's book fair this year was "Oltre il Confine"--"Beyond the Border."

The last "coffee break" was an International Bookseller Mixer featuring the three scholarship winners, where we had a lovely conversation with an Italian patron. She seemed surprised that the three of us worked in different stores all over the U.S. Is there no competition, she asked? Do you share all your secrets?

Other indies, other bookstores, are not our competition, we all replied in different words. We're in this together: one indie succeeding is success for us all.

While I did find the urge to compare myself to the other scholarship winners overwhelming at times (Why didn't I think to bring shelf talkers? Why do I not know this book/publisher/author?), we were all on this crazy new International Book Fair adventure together. In the end it was a learning experience for everyone: Europa and Other Press have even bigger ideas for future IBS programming, and I have a new list of books to read, publishers to seek out, contacts and friends. Plus, now I can say I won a scholarship to Italy to speak at a huge conference, and that my words were translated across the language barrier. That's not too shabby for a bookseller in Arizona.

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