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The power of the piazza

I AM Books

I AM Books

I had a hunch before opening I AM Books, the country’s first Italian American bookstore. Based on the feedback I received from readers of Bostoniano, I felt there would be a need for a common place where people could start a dialogue about their shared heritage and their roots. Soon after opening the bookstore last year, I realized this was only one of the many elements that people appreciate about the bookstore.

I think what really excites people is the physicality of it. As human beings, we need places we can anchor ourselves to. These are places we rely on to give ourselves a place in the world. For example, most Italians still can identify with their city’s or town’s piazza. Meeting at the square for a coffee, a chat or even just to quickly deliver something is the most natural of things. But at heart, I think, the piazza is a common ground to return to and feel at home. Something that has always struck me about American towns is that there is no piazza! Well, there is in some cases, although it rarely functions as an Italian piazza would. Just a few steps away from I AM Books is North Square, probably one of the most well known squares in the United States. Although there are a few benches here and there, their placement isn’t really conducive to making the square a lively place where people meet and stay for some time. There is a lot of talk about changing North Square to make it look a little more piazza-like, but I’m not sure these plans will ever get approved.

FirstPerson0316AAnyways, since I definitely don’t have the means to start building piazze, I thought I AM Books could be the closest thing to a meeting place. And it’s working! So far, we have held dozens of great events that attract people from all over Massachusetts. We’ve had author events (children’s book author Tomie dePaola attracted a big crowd!), musical performances and art exhibits. Twice a month we hold reading groups for children, and we recently kicked off Italian American and Italian book clubs, as well as conversation groups in Italian for all those interested in learning or improving their Italian. In a place like I AM Books, anyone with an inner Italian (as our motto goes!) can feel comfortable talking about their “Italianness.”

This need to find an “anchor” for our roots is evident in the search for our ancestors’ homes. Anyone who has ever shown the slightest interest in their family tree, or in the town where their grandparents came from, knows about this feeling. It’s a need to place ourselves, our stories, at specific points on the map in the course of history’s timeline. It’s not as easy to navigate the world without proper knowledge of these roots. PBS even launched a great series a few years ago called “Genealogy Roadshow,” during which Gloucester-native Mary Tedesco tours the country and the world to help people unearth origins that might have seemed forgotten.

The trend is clear: We need physical spaces to reconnect, where we can share stories and find ourselves and our history. I’ve said this before, but I think we’re slowly rediscovering our need to reconnect with one another. It used to be that Italian families lived very close together — as was the case in the North End — so there were many ways to interact. But as the United States grew more and more suburban after World War II, distances increased to a point where it became hard to stay in touch. Hopefully I AM Books can be another dot on people’s maps, representing a sort of magnet, a go-to place to attend an event or even just to stop by to have a coffee. (Yes… we serve espresso!). It’s not a piazza, but it’s probably the next best thing.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.