Bookshelves Ahoy! In this new Fairtales column, children’s literature expert Petra Paoli takes us around the world exploring independent bookstores for children and young adults.
Voyage in Children’s Bookshops Around the World: Portugal
Bologna Children’s Book Fair inaugurated the BOP – Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publishers of the Year in 2013 to mark the trade show’s 50th anniversary. Aimed to acknowledge publishers who had distinguished themselves for innovation and creativity in the previous year, the first prize for the European geographical area went to the Portuguese Planeta Tangerina. The previous year, Portugal had been the Guest of Honour Country, showing the world its refined visual culture and sophisticated book production capability.
Alongside publishers like Pato Lógico and Orfeu Negro, shining examples of publishing excellence, the recent decade has seen an increasing number of publications by Portuguese authors and illustrators entering the catalogues of Italian publishers like Topipittori and Donzelli. It's no surprise therefore that this vibrant scenario, with new names and extraordinary works, has also given rise to an increasing number of go-ahead quality environments dedicated to books where content - both narrative and images - are the centre of attention and activities. This at least was the case until 2020, when the exceptional difficulties stopped many initiatives in their tracks, in some cases forcing many to reconsider them.
While not lasting 80 days, we will nevertheless go around the world investigating independent bookstores for children and young adults, beginning here, in Portugal. We started with a virtual meeting with It’s a Book – Livraria Oficina, a bookstore in the heart of Lisbon, a lively new venue, which very quickly has become a much frequently hub.
When did your project get started? Can you tell us what the initial idea was and something about yourselves?
It’s a Book was started in 2016 by us: Joana Silva and António Alves. As lovers and collectors of books of all kinds, we came to realize that where we lived there was no real showcase for the incredible diversity and richness that is the world of quality children's books. And we suspected that there were many people like us who regardless of whether or not they have children, love books for children.
What are the individual professions that you have channelled into the project?
We both come from a background in fine arts. Joana had additional experience working in a specialist art/photography bookstore and I had experience in the technology sector. Our backgrounds came together in the vision for this project. From the beginning we were also supported by talented friends in other essential areas such as design, communication, and business, all of whom believed in the project and contributed to its success.
What are the specificities of your bookshop?
We are a bookstore in central Lisbon, in a small physical space but with a big heart.
We specialise in and stock only children's books. But our market is not limited to children. We believe that children's books can have incredible qualities that can be valued and cherished by anyone, regardless of age or cultural background. At the same time though, we don't play down the important role they play in a child's development. We view them as an essential element in any child's universe. In fact, this was the starting point for our love of children's books.
We also programme book-related events, exhibitions, and especially workshops. The aim is to create and foster relationships between books, their creators, and their readers, and generate a sense of family in our community of customers and fans.
How did you build your personal catalogue? What kind of selection criteria do you follow?
We sell books that we ourselves like. We assess each book individually and in detail. We first ask ourselves what the concept of the book is, whether it is good and worthwhile. Then how well it is executed. We believe that all the elements - the writing, illustration, layout and design, type of paper, and construction - are integral to the overall quality of the result. We stock books in Portuguese, Italian, English, French and Spanish from publishers around the world. Although our selection is curated, we have accumulated a vast stock. At the moment we have in stock somewhere around 1000 different titles.
How does your bookshop fit into its urban fabric?
The project was very warmly embraced by the community right from the start so that today it's an essential part of the neighbourhood. It's a place where friends and neighbours meet up and mix. The neighbourhood is densely populated, multicultural, and constantly evolving. It has a certain mood that comes from the colourful mix of people: many young families, mixed with the elderly who have been here for generations, and lots of immigrants, as well as many nationals from other European countries. The mix gives the neighbourhood a great energy where we fit in perfectly.
This year has created difficulties that were unimaginable before, forcing each of us to find new solutions. Would you like to tell us about the strategies you have adopted?
We never stopped working to ensure books reached our readers. The virtual relationship with customers became very important, of course, but it was also interesting to see the importance and impact that books had for families during lockdown. In a moment of social detachment, a certain intimacy and closeness to customers was generated. The bookstore's schedule of activities was the biggest loss. Accustomed to having a full house almost every weekend, it was necessary to rethink and find new solutions, which we might not have tried before; such as live on-line conversations with the artists in our "Making Of" shows (where we display original artwork from a chosen book), or our Portable Workshops, serial workshops where participants come to the shop once a week to pick up materials for their next assignment and leave part of the previous week's assignment in the shop for display.
To continue the tour of It’s a book, Livraria Oficina, and visit the bookshelves of other bookstores in Portugal, check out:
After 8 years working in a specialist bookstore, ceramist and children’s literature expert Petra Paoli founded Odeon Studio, a cultural space for art and illustration. A researcher, she is also involved in education and training and is a Board member of the Accademia Drosselmeier - School for Bookstore Managers and Literature Study Centre.
She also acts as secretary and board member of Alir, the Associaiton of Independent Children’s Bookstores.