For independent bookstores, New York is a cemetery scattered with crosses: Gotham and Coliseum were gone in the first decade of this century, casualties of the big bookstore chains, which eventually succumbed themselves to the rise of Amazon. Rizzoli closed last year to make way for a luxury high-rise.
Therefore, the reopening of S.F. Vanni in Greenwich Village, the first Italian bookstore in America, founded in 1884 by the Sicilian Sante Fortunato Vanni, can be indeed called a “Miracle on 12th Street”.
The event is scheduled for late January: with an eye to the past and the other to the future, Vanni, in its old location at 30 West 12th Street, will reopen for a few months as a “pop up” book space and cultural center, under the auspices of the Centro Primo Levi New York.
“The goal – explains Alessandro Cassin, publishing director of the Center – and son of Eugenio Cassin, whose small London-based publishing house Orion Press published in 1959 the first English edition of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man – is to point the spotlight on the history of Italian Judaism in America, but also to bring back to life an emblematic locus of Italian culture in New York.”
Vanni arrives in New York in 1884, at the height of Italian immigration, and opens his bookstore and print shop at 548 West Broadway. The store sells Italian classics, manuals and dictionaries (including a Sicilian-Italian dictionary), but also postcards, magazines, technical manuals, calendars, greeting cards and religious items. In addition Vanni offers a scrivener service for illiterate immigrants, handling everything from private correspondence to commercial records.
In 1931 Andrea Ragusa enters the scene. A publishing consultant recently arrived from Italy, he buys the store on Bleeker Street and moves it to its present location on 12th Street. At the time Ragusa is the general manager for the Fratelli Treves publishing house: he has been sent to the States in charge of selling the Treccani Encyclopedia.
This is the time when these streets in the Village are the epicenter for printing presses. Ragusa publishes books on Italian topics in English and transforms the store into a cultural landmark. By 1974, when he is killed in a robbery in front of the shop, he has already printed 138 titles, including literary criticism and Italian books for schools. He has become the main supplier of Italian books for public libraries and universities in North America.
The bookstore is taken over by Ragusa’s daughters Isa and Olga until 2004, when the curtains close forever. Or so it seemed.
Where will Vanni’s second (or third) life lead? The landmark commercial building on 12th Street, only few steps from New York University’s Casa Italiana, is under siege: on one hand, the rich and famous who covet a piece of one of Manhattan’s most romantic and well-preserved neighborhoods, and on the other NYU that, year after year, is acquiring all real estate available in the area.
Centro Primo Levi’s initiative attempts to raise a barrier. But will there materialize a guardian angel to save Vanni?