‘I am typically sooner’: Milan’s bicycling bookseller takes on the web giants | Italy
L.uca Ambrogio Santini is considered a knight’s fault when he drives his red cargo bike through parts of Milan and delivers books to people’s homes, so much so that he is affectionately referred to as “Don Quixote the bookseller”.
“Quixote fought against the windmills,” said Santini of the protagonist in the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. “My windmills are the online retailers of these monster multinational corporations … which are indescribable to us as independent booksellers.”
The former bookseller sighs before uttering a name: “Of course, Amazon … I practically do what they do, and I am often faster than them.”
Santini has been fighting the online giants since 2015 when he became the first bookseller in Italy to start home delivery.
Santini is called LibriSottoCasa (books on the doorstep) and fits his goods in a two square meter box on the front of his bike before delivering them to customers in the southern districts of Milan. Until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, he took part in book fairs and other events. Now that these events have been canceled, he only survives on home deliveries. But the pandemic has proven to be a blessing as people who spend more time at home are rediscovering the joy of books.
“Some customers have counted the number of books they have read since March and the numbers are significant,” Santini said.
For 20 years, Santini owned a bookstore in Milan’s Largo Mahler opposite the auditorium, which houses the Giuseppe Verdi symphony orchestra, which made the shop particularly popular with music book specialists. But it had to close in 2013 after the business became financially unprofitable.
Luca Santini on his bike. Photo: Luca Santini
“It was a great experience and it did well,” said Santini. “However, with the advent of online competition, the general decline in book reading, and the financial crisis in 2008, things got tougher. I’ve tried and tried, and people in the neighborhood have organized initiatives to support the shop too, but we had to close. ”
When considering what to do next, Santini found that he could apply for a license to operate as a traveling salesman. And so he was the first to apply for one to sell books.
“I used to drive around town and decided to try it out,” he said.
People can order through Santini’s Facebook page or message him on WhatsApp. You can pay online or in cash.
He’s also among the roughly 2,000 other booksellers across Italy who recently joined forces on their goal of challenging Amazon by setting up their own online platform called Bookdealer.
The first of its kind in Italy, the company enables people to search for books and find the nearest bookstore, as well as take virtual tours of stores before shopping online for home delivery. The initiative is particularly useful for people in cities where bookstores are closed, as they can discover more distant stores. Customers can also seek advice from an independent bookseller.
They still have a long way to go before the battle can be declared won, but Santini believes it is this personal element that sets them apart from the giants.
Luca Santini at his mobile booth. Photo: Luca Santini
“Bookdealer started in late August and a lot of people are turning to this option,” Santini said. “You may not get a discount like Amazon does, but you do get well-curated service, professionalism and the chance to speak to a book expert.”
Use of the service is a positive sign, especially after data released earlier this year showed that 2,300 bookstores had closed over the past five years. At the time, Paolo Ambrosini, president of the Italian Booksellers Association, criticized the government for not doing enough to support the sector in the face of online competition.
Santini said the pandemic helped in the sense that people were more aware of the importance of independent local businesses.
“There is a specific solidarity that is shown,” he added.
“The situation is still not easy for many, but the personal connection has helped people feel united with us.”