Why the reopening of libraries is good (although it should have been done more judiciously)

From Tuesday, April 14, bookstores throughout Italy will reopen: because it was a positive move, but because it needed to be done more judiciously.

In order to deal in the most rational and shrewd way with the issue of reopening bookstores, it is possible, in the meantime, to remorselessly shred all the rhetoric made up of melancholy along the lines of “the bread of the soul book” and so on (the assumption is shareable, but whoever wants to can retort by stating that, if we stop at the mere action of reading, those who intend to do so already have so many possibilities), and having accomplished this, one could start from the statements of Paolo Ambrosini, president of the Italian Booksellers Association (Ali), who has intervened several times in the media in recent hours to make explicit the position of a good part of the category represented by Ali, and who considers the reopening positive. In an interview with Rai News 24, he let it be known that the association is already working “to allow all of our businesses to open in full compliance with health regulations to protect employees and customers,” that it will be a “service reopening, just as it is for pharmacists, newsagents tobacconists, food distribution operators, which will not be able to alleviate in the slightest all the damage that the forced closure has brought to our network,” and that amount to “25 million euros in lost earnings,” and for this reason Ali will ask the government for the establishment of a special fund with non-repayable contributions.

Thus, there are at least three aspects to be considered: compliance with medical and health prescriptions, the essentiality of the good, and the economic issue. To introduce the first aspect, a premise must be advanced: Italians are really much more disciplined than people think. And this is not just a perception dictated by the simplest of empirical evidence: go to any supermarket and see how all customers scrupulously comply with the prescriptions, respecting the interpersonal distance of one meter, handling fruits and vegetables with disposable gloves (which was good practice even before the restrictive measures), stopping only as long as necessary and so on. It is, if anything, a reality that emerges from the data released by the Viminale: from March 11 to April 4, police forces carried out nearly seven million checks (4,859,687 people and 2,127,419 businesses), raising 176,767 charges, including criminal complaints and administrative sanctions. It means that only 2.5 percent of those checked had no reason to leave home: a figure that in itself would be enough to dismantle the hypocritical narrative (infinitely more damaging than the rhetoric about the book’s usefulness) that attributes the spread of the contagion to the population’s misbehavior, opening the door to irresponsible blaming of citizens that contributes to the widespread climate of anxiety and distrust that most of us have probably experienced firsthand and to disincentivizing thoughtful reasoning about how the contagion is really spreading. This data can be a starting point to rule out the possibility of an uncontrolled assault on bookstores, which, with a few exceptions (I’m thinking of outlets at stations in large cities, or some flagship bookstores of large chains), are already poorly frequented places in themselves and are likely to have little difficulty enforcing health-care prescriptions. Not to mention that the community of bookstore patrons (because there are not only heavy readers: think also of occasional readers, those who go to bookstores to buy music, mothers and fathers who buy their children a book, those who buy a book or a gadget to give as a gift, outlets that also offer stationery service) is not large in size anyway, and is very disciplined.

Una libreria. Ph. Credit Associazione Librai Italiani
A bookstore. Ph. Credit Italian Booksellers Association

This point, however, could be objected to with several arguments. At least two come to mind: the first is the distinction between large group bookstores and small independent bookstores. The former typically have much larger spaces and will have fewer difficulties, but the same cannot be said of the latter, which are housed in cramped premises where it might be very difficult indeed to even enforce a safe distance. In other words, smaller bookstores may not be able to fit more than two or three people in at a time, and considering that so many readers typically spend a long time before choosing a book to buy (those who are used to reading will certainly know that it is difficult to linger in a bookstore for less than twenty minutes-sometimes one can spend an hour there almost without realizing it), queues at the entrance could become a problem. Online will then be of great help: independent booksellers may have to take advantage of social media (as many are already doing) to create small but strong communities of readers and to transfer, in part, to the network the skills, passion and even those aspects of friendly relationships that make the bookseller’s job irreplaceable. Then there is to imagine a co-presence of the in-office opening and the home delivery service that many small booksellers are experimenting with some success: it will not pay back the economic losses, but it is still a starting point for catching up. The second topic, however, is about moving people around. Many lovers of the paroxysmal scapegoat hunt who, until a few days ago, saw the lone runner as the main enemy of the people and accused him under ridiculous pretexts, are now preparing to attack bookstore customers with the cry of “now people just to get out will start reading.” Maybe, I say: if someone who has never read or someone who has never run comes up with the idea of making this enforced seclusion more bearable by going out to buy a book or taking a healthy jog on the way home, it will be all the better for it. The real argument, if anything, is whether law enforcement controls will admit gratia librorum displacement, since many do not have the bookstore behind their home and have to move a few miles to reach it.

Therefore, the reopening had to be done more judiciously. We are still in time, however: that is, we know that from Tuesday the bookstores will reopen. But we do not know how they will reopen: we have not been told what requirements they will have to comply with (although they are likely to be the same as supermarkets, tobacconists’ shops, and newsstands), we do not know how readers will have to behave (for example, how they will have to touch and leaf through books: will they need disposable gloves like those for fruits and vegetables? Or, more intelligently and ecologically, will bookstores be equipped with sanitizing gel dispensers, as is already the case in so many stores? And if so, who will be responsible for equipping the bookstores with the appropriate presî?). And then perhaps it will be the case that, between now and April 14, someone will produce guidelines to indicate the behaviors that will necessarily have to be followed to ensure the serenity of workers and customers. Just as it would perhaps have been more sensible, at least for the time being, to avoid a reopening throughout Italy, but to proceed first with areas where the Covid-19 contagion is less widespread: it is one thing to open a bookstore in areas where there are no cases, it is quite another to open it where the situation is still critical. So perhaps it would have been more useful to go step by step, also to accustom the population in a gradual way to getting out of the house (because sooner or later we will have to do it, but by that time perhaps it will be better to be ready, test for certain areas and avoid the mistakes of closure).

Then there is the issue of the necessity of the good. Here the problem is mainly cultural: the book, as Paolo Ambrosini pointed out, has basically been equated with food, with drugs, with newspapers. And I think here we can agree with the Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini, who pointed out that this is not a “symbolic gesture,” but a “recognition that the book is also an essential good.” And it is more than fair to get across the notion that culture has the same importance as food: the reopening of bookstores is a truly eloquent measure that affirms this concept strongly, perhaps as never before. However, one could extend the argument: if the book is a necessary good, it would also be right to reopen libraries (as the writer believes), if only for lending and thus keeping reading rooms closed, at least for the time being. But it is not so much the book that is a necessary good: it is culture as a tool for growth, sharing and developing critical thinking that is a necessary good, and the same reasoning could therefore be applied to museums, exhibitions, concerts, cinemas, theaters. However, we also need to come to terms with reality: at the moment, perhaps the necessary security conditions are not in place to reopen places where people stay in groups and for long periods of time. However, bookstores can be the starting point to begin thinking about how to revive the sector. So the minister is right: this is not a symbolic gesture, it is simply a beginning to get Italians back in touch with culture. And bookstores were the most suitable candidates to try this. We hope that the conditions will soon be put in place to reopen the rest as well: think of so many museums, which are frequented by a few dozen people a day (and often less), and which would have no difficulty in enforcing all the appropriate security measures.

Finally, the economic issue. Many, as mentioned above, fear that the reopening will encourage so many to violate containment measures and flock to the streets to hunt for books. Realistically, this will not be the case, unfortunately: the fear of contracting coronavirus disease is still very strong (just read the comments on social media), just as understandable is the fear of receiving penalties because one went out to buy a volume. And therefore it is realistic to believe that the flow of customers will certainly not be that of a normal situation, with the result that perhaps, again, the losers will be the smaller booksellers, who already work with little margin and a lot of expenses, and a drastic reduction in the customer base when the bookstore is open could add problems on top of problems (although it should not be forgotten that in any case the final word on opening is up to the booksellers, who will be able to decide independently whether to raise the shutters or continue to keep them closed in case reopening will not be economically viable). Measures will then have to be devised that can accompany the narrow-gauge reopening toward normalcy. Measures that the trade associations are already calling for, but which sooner or later will have to be paid for: so perhaps it is better to start thinking gradually and progressively about how to restart the sector (and the broader economy) with all the necessary aid, rather than continuing to postpone a problem that sooner or later we will be forced to pose to ourselves anyway, since it is unthinkable and unsustainable to think of keeping everything closed until the disease is eradicated. We will therefore have to imagine a phase in which there will be, from the medical point of view, rather strict prescriptions that we will have to adhere to, and from the economic point of view, a kind of collaboration between the state and private individuals to make sure that the “convalescence” from the forced closure will be as painless as possible, with a view to a recovery that will not come suddenly, but with increasing measures that take into account, on the one hand, the needs of the affected sectors, and on the other hand, the citizens who will probably have to face the costs of the crisis tomorrow. Never more than now do we need reasonableness.

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