Anyone who spent much time in the West Village in the last decade probably walked by the storefront at 30 West 12th Street, and wondered at its display of sun-faded books with Italian titles gathering dust against a backdrop of drawn curtains. In the fast-morphing landscape of downtown Manhattan, the window marked “S.F. VANNI” in delicate gold lettering has remained strangely static since 2004, a mysterious, time-stopped monument to a vanished New York. Even those in the know — who remembered the bookstore and sometime publishing house that spent almost 120 years as a locus of Italian literature for New York City and beyond — marveled at the persistence of the disused storefront on one of the most expensive blocks in the city.
Now, however, the dust is gone, and those curtains are open once more. Centro Primo Levi (CPL), a 15-year-old organization based at the Center for Jewish History four blocks uptown, fosters programs and events related to the Italian-Jewish experience; it has chosen the storefront as the site for public events related to its latest publishing venture, “CPL Editions.” Partly a venue for authors talks and multimedia events, partly an informal museum dedicated to the bookstore’s history, the space was inaugurated in late February and is now being opened to the public every few weeks — the next event, an evening devoted to the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli, on Saturday, May 2.
“You know, it’s amazing, the first time I opened the curtains and started doing construction, how many passersby would stop in and tell me stories that they remembered from coming in and how nice it was,” said Alessandro Cassin, CPL deputy director and director of publishing, sitting on a folding chair in the book-lined back office. This space, complete with the original desk where books were once handcrafted, has remained more or less intact, and is now a kind of museum room where visitors are encouraged to pick and page through the artifacts. The browning recovered volumes, now crammed two rows deep on each ceiling-high shelving unit, run an impressive, even scattershot gamut, from annotated copies of Dante and Virgil to slim English-language publications on ballet. The front room, meanwhile, has been transformed into a sleeker, more modern space for CPL’s events.
“I came to New York in the late ’80s, and one of the first things I encountered was the Italian bookstore, this mysterious place that didn’t really function as a commercial bookstore — sometimes open, sometimes closed, on and off,” recounted Natalia Indrimi, the director of CPL. Especially in the pre-Amazon era, Vanni cultivated a reputation as a primary mail-order supplier of Italian books to U.S. universities and libraries — but the store was also more than a mere retailer, even in its earliest incarnation.
Sante Fortunato Vanni first opened his shop at 548 West Broadway in 1884 — “at the height of Italian immigration, when people who were coming here needed everything, but not books,” Cassin said. In order to turn a profit, Vanni printed and sold wordless, diagram-filled construction manuals for his often illiterate immigrant customers, while also offering postcards, religious paraphernalia, almanacs, dictionaries, and his own services as a scrivener. Then in 1931, publishing consultant Andrea Ragusa came to the U.S. and bought the store — which had relocated to Bleecker Street — moving it again, to its present location. There, he also began to publish small numbers of books on Italian topics in English — around 130 titles over the next four decades. In 1974, Ragusa was killed in a robbery outside the store, and his two daughters, Isa and Olga — a medieval studies scholar at Princeton and and an Italian professor at Columbia, respectively — took over the business until 2004, shortly after Isa died, and it was left to sit as a quiet testament to their father’s legacy.
“Today, anybody can buy books online — we’re not here to sell books,” Cassin said, noting that the CPL sells both physical copies and e-books of their publications through an app. “But we want people to have personal eye contact with authors and with the physical books.” He stresses the intimate, tactile nature of book-reading — even the familiar musty smell that permeates the back room — as central to the experience: “You can rediscover the love for books that we feel deeply and I think that a lot of people have, but you’re just baffled when you go to a store that’s not a bookstore, it’s a supermarket with books instead of detergents.”
“We’re very, very small, but I think that this, many times, is an advantage,” he added. On the one hand, there’s the concentrated scope of CPL’s publishing endeavor, which at somewhere between five to 15 books per year will allow them to lend generous focus to individual authors. But this intimacy is also echoed in the relatively compact physical space of the store, and even in the scope of the new venture’s intentions.
“You can’t expect 500 people to be interested in the discovery of a small police archive from the 1930s in an island in the middle of the Mediterranean,” Indrimi said, referencing the subject of a recent CPL event. “At the same time, these are pieces of a history that have a lot connection to the present and even to this country. So, how can we ensure that these hyper-specialized realities are transmitted in a sustainable way? I think that a small place is conducive to that, where the purpose comes before everything else.”
“If you take this idea that the book, as we really do believe, is still the principle vehicle of exchanging knowledge in the 21st century, you also have to invent new ways of being, physically, humans around the book,” Cassin added. “Let’s say you want to talk about a book at Casa Italiana,” the NYU organization with which CPL often organizes events, a quick jaunt down the street from Vanni. “You’re in an auditorium in a very clear spatial division; the people in the audience become passive just by the architecture of the place. If you put 10 people around a table or on couches, it’s a completely different way of talking.”
And that’s just what they plan to do, installing these tables and couches to host guests from Paola Mieli and her Lacanian analysis of a sci-fi play by Primo Levi to Valerio Ciriaci and Isaak Liptzin’s documentary “If Only, I Were That Warrior,” about the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, which CPL helped produce. (In fact, according to Cassin, the filmmakers were inspired to pursue the topic by a similar CPL event.)
While Cassin and Indrimi hope perhaps to retain the space more permanently, its future is currently uncertain, due in part to construction in the building; for now, it’s designated as an on-and-off event space. “What we do is not going to depend on real estate logic,” Indrimi explained. “In New York, when you open any space, people are going to say, ‘Okay, if we don’t have this amount of people and are going to sell this amount of things, it’s not possible to do that event.’ And that’s what we want to bypass. We want to say, ‘Yes, if you want to sit around the table and read Dante, we can do it.’”