“Countless times I walked past these windows with the curtains drawn,” Alessandro Cassin said. “It seemed so unlikely that there would be anything behind them anymore.” Cassin is the director of publishing for Centro Primo Levi, which promotes the historical study of Italian Jews. He is from Florence and moved to New York in 1979. He was standing outside a storefront at 30 West Twelfth Street. Gold letters on the window said “S. F. Vanni,” and behind them were pale-blue curtains. Between 1884 and 2004, S. F. Vanni was a bookstore that sold books in Italian. It was also a publisher of books on Italian subjects. “Everyone involved in Italian culture knew the place,” Cassin said.
The building and the store belong to Olga Ragusa, who is in her nineties and lives upstairs. From 1963 to 1992, Ragusa was a member of the Italian Department at Columbia. Her father, Andreas, bought the building from Sante Fortunato Vanni in 1931. When Centro Primo Levi began publishing books, in 2014, Cassin remembered the bookstore and wrote to her to see if she would consider lending the space. What he didn’t realize was that S. F. Vanni was intact behind the curtains. “She had kept it as a sanctuary,” Cassin said. “Until 2003, there were still some orders, and an old man was occasionally here. It was a very slow dying.” On the shelves were sixteen thousand books.
The other morning, Cassin opened the door on carpenters removing a plywood subfloor, and soon Natalia Indrimi, the executive director of Centro Primo Levi, arrived. “Let’s talk from the very beginning,” Cassin said. “Mr. Vanni is from a small town in Sicily. He has the ambition to sell books in America, and in 1884 he opens the store, on West Broadway. About two hundred thousand peasants are arriving from southern Italy, by and large illiterate, and having to convert from agricultural workers to factory and construction workers. They’re not the sort of people who want to buy books.”
“Vanni creates a book,” Indrimi said. “A Sicilian-Italian-English dictionary.”
“But his masterpiece is a construction manual for illiterate people,” Cassin said. “It’s a picture book that teaches peasants to build a straight wall or a roof, or hang a gutter.”
“There is no such thing, so he invents this idea,” Indrimi said.
“He wants to attract newly arrived immigrants,” Cassin continued. “They don’t read, so he also sells postcards, devotional images, calendars, almanacs. He becomes a scrivener, writing letters home for immigrants, insurance claims, legal agreements. So people trust him.”
“And, eventually, they buy his books,” Indrimi said.
“Then we skip to 1931,” Cassin said. “Andreas Ragusa is also Sicilian. He’s sent to America to sell a national Italian encyclopedia. Imagine trying to sell an encyclopedia in 1931—there are lines for soup. Very quickly, this man realized that this was not going to be a business. He bought the bookstore and a printing press and started to publish.”
For a while, Ragusa had a collaborator, Giuseppe Prezzolini, a journalist and teacher. “They created an Italian Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1941, though, when the U.S. entered the war, they had this problem: How are they going to get new books from Italy? The two of them had fought in the First World War. They had little faith in Mussolini or in the Italian Army. In general, Italians are not good at war. They’re going to lose. Americans are going to make prisoners. What do prisoners do? They make trouble. How do you keep them quiet? Give them books. They presented this argument to the Office of War Information, in Washington. They got money to publish books for prisoners. They contacted the booksellers in the liberated cities. The first books from Italy arrived in America from these forward-thinking men.”
“They were oblivious of the idea that the bookstore should end because of the war,” Indrimi said. “They thought, No, everything continues.”
Last December, a crew began taking each book from the shelves and wiping the dust from it. The front room was painted. Cassin’s arrangement with Ragusa gave the center a lease until May, since extended through July. In the meantime, the store would operate irregularly as a place for readings and book signings.
For the opening, Centro Primo Levi threw a party. Practically every conversation was in Italian. One table had books from Vanni’s store, and another had books published by the center. Cassin gave interviews to Italian reporters. Indrimi took flowers to Olga Ragusa, who was upstairs and not well enough to attend. When Indrimi returned, she said, “This is so strange, that we actually opened this place again. Six months ago, this was just a dream passing by.”