November 2008

Gili Warsett


An Interview with David Del Vecchio of Idlewild Books

My preferred way of learning about any subject is through reading literature. Before spending a summer in Zimbabwe about ten years ago, I read three very different books about the country: Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Zenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire, and Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. Now, there is a bookstore in lower Manhattan organized by geography. Make no mistake: Idlewild Books isn't Rand McNally. Along with the three books I read before my trip, Idlewild carries many other works of fiction and memoirs about Zimbabwe, shelved alongside travel guides.

Recently, a friend of mine and I spent a weekend trip to Lake George in upstate New York. First, we stopped by Idlewild to pick up a travel guide and to browse through fiction about the Adirondacks. We were taken in by the tall shelves, organized by geographical sections and subsections, the large windows overlooking pedestrian and taxi traffic, and the tables neatly piled with new international works of literature. At Idlewild, "International Literature" is not hidden away, but is featured and celebrated. To uncover a particular niche that is missing in the independent bookselling business is rare and exciting. To successfully open a bookstore in today's economy is heroic. Idlewild's owner, David Del Vecchio answered questions about his store.

What is the history of Idlewild Books?

My wish for a store like Idlewild predated the thought that I might create it myself. I spent my 20s living abroad and most of my 30s working for the United Nations, which involved a lot of travel to places like Liberia and Sudan and Nepal and Colombia that I knew little about before visiting. At some point a couple of years ago, my desires for a bookstore organized by place and to create something that brought together the things I really care about -- literature, travel and humanitarian issues -- came together in my head and I began to research bookselling as an industry and started writing a business plan and working on country-specific reading lists and looking at retail spaces. I left my job at the UN in March and we opened at the end of May.

Idlewild Books fulfills a very specific niche, but it seems to do more than that. Do you see your store as creating a (gentle) commentary on a generally ethnocentric choice of what we read in the United States?

No. It's a curated store but that's simply based on the concept and on what we consider to be an interesting mix and what our customers like. More than half of what we sell is literature and nonfiction from and about other parts of the world, so there is obviously an audience for it or we wouldn't be in business for long.

Coinciding with a write-up of your bookstore in this weekend's New York Times, there is also an article by Charles McGrath about the Nobel selection process, which quotes Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, who comments, "Europe is still the center of the literary world… The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. The ignorance is restraining." What do you make of his statement?

My first reaction is that it tells us more about the politics of the Nobel selection process than it does about the U.S. or the comparative quality of our literature. It's hard to dispute the argument that, relative to other countries, we are more insular culturally but in terms of literature, I have to defend the reader and suggest that it's largely a question of what's on offer. More than 95 per cent of what's published here is American so that's what people buy, and even the foreign lit that does get translated and published doesn't get a lot of attention. As a new bookstore owner trying to make his way in the world of chains and Amazon, I see that vacuum as an opportunity. The great indie stores, in my opinion, are not homier versions of chain stores but rather places with great stuff on the tables that you don't see anywhere else. Even though there should be more of it, there is so much great literature in translation available here that you almost never hear about -- and more all the time thanks to small presses like Archipelago, NYRB, New Directions, Dalkey and Europa. It needs to be brought to people's attention and promoted but that's what independent stores do best.

Are you saying that if an American reader had more choice, there's a substantial audience that is excited to read literature in translation?

I know there is: we just launched a new World Lit First Thursdays series with Words Without Borders earlier this month and more than 100 people turned up for the kickoff party. But for the most part, I think customers are just looking for a good read and that we have to promote translated works the same way we promote anything else we really love. For the first round of this new series, we were very careful to choose books we thought were accessible as well as books that people are buzzing about in international literary circles. I think people are turned on by the series not because the books have been translated but because they're fresh and exciting and come from places like Italy and Japan and the Middle East that they're curious about. And it's the same with what we put on our tables: we have Per Petterson right next to Denis Johnson and Edmund White and I don't think people approach them, or necessarily should approach them, that differently. If we overemphasized the fact that the first is a work in translation, I suspect we might scare some people away or, worse, make reading the books seem like an act of responsible global citizenship rather than a pleasure.

Why did you choose New York?

I created the store here because my life was here. Conveniently, it's also a city where a store like this might have one of the best chances of success, but it never occurred to me to move and open a bookstore store anywhere else.

Do you have a favorite book about New York?

My favorite books about New York tend to be set in earlier and very distinct periods. I love Bartleby the Scrivener and Washington Square, which are both set in the 19th century of course, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, a Simonen book from the 1940s that has a very Hopperesque feel to it. Enemies, A Love Story is another great book, also set in the '40s. All of them are very funny but also very sad on some level.

The deadest horse I have known -- and loved -- may be E.B. White's quote "There are roughly three New Yorks… Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion." Would you say the settlers have given New York its sense of place in literary fiction?

I'm not sure which of White's groups have contributed most to the city's literary scene or the sense of place in its literature but looking over my own favorites, perhaps the main thing these books have in common is a sense of loneliness or dislocation or longing, not only among the settlers, like the Holocaust survivors in Singer's book, but among the natives as well. You get this even in some of the city's best-loved stories, like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Catcher in the Rye: this yearning for something elusive, this tremendous irony that one can feel so alone and alienated in such a lively and densely populated place.

Is there a book that all first-time world travelers should read?

My main advice to a first-time traveler would be to read something from, or at least set in, the place they're going. But in addition to that there are some great books about young peripatetics -- books like The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch, a very sensual novel from the 1930s that perfectly captures the exhilaration and randomness of solo travel, or The Razor's Edge, a somewhat cheesy book but one that really resonated with me when I was thinking of quitting a job I hated right after college to move abroad. Graham Greene has a wry and detached perspective that's fun to let seep into you when you're in a strange place, even if it's not very correct by today's standards. But again, someone who goes abroad and takes only books from his or her own culture is going to miss a lot, I think. I usually have several books going at the same time when I'm traveling.

Are there books that don't fit into your store's theme, but that you have decided you must carry because they are favorites? Or would you say that most -- all? -- books have at least some sense of place?

Except for some reference books, everything we carry has a strong sense of place. In some cases, that has meant excluding some favorites. In others, it's simply required us to stock multiple copies and shelve them in different parts of the store at once. The books that are most compelling to me have always been books that transport me to another place or time so there haven't been too many sacrifices on my part. The store's buyer is a big fan of science fiction but most of that has a strong sense of place as well, even if it's set in the future!

Are there areas of the store that you would like to see strengthened?

I'd love to carry more literature in original language -- we've just added a few shelves of books in French, Spanish and Italian, and we'd happily add more if people want it. We're very responsive in general to what our customers like and request. We learn about great, country-specific backlist titles from them all the time. Even though it was a lot of fun working on the store's initial list before we opened, one of the best things of all about running a small independent store is shaping it together with your customers.

What is your vision for Idlewild Books?

To create a resource, meeting place and event venue for people who are interested in other parts of the world -- whether as travelers, readers, people interested in humanitarian issues, or some combination of the three. Even though we're only four months old, we're getting good word of mouth among customers and publishers and have had the privilege of hosting several book launch parties for travelogues, newly translated international lit, and books related to sexual trafficking, war-affected women and children, and other humanitarian issues. I want to continue to mix these topics and people in a unique and organic way, together with authors, publishers, cultural and humanitarian organizations, and, most importantly, our customers.