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Feb 04

We Must Never Lose Our Humanity

“I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man.” ― Primo Levi, If This Is a Man / The Truce

by Nicola Orichuia

I rarely tell the story of the very first time I landed in the United States, back in March 2008. I was going to spend three months on a tourist visa in Chicago, looking for a place to stay while also waiting for a response from the school I had applied to for a master’s program in journalism.

My wife and I (we weren’t yet married at the time) landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport, full of excitement and dreams. America! At 25, I was ready to conquer the world.

After waiting in line with hundreds of other non-U.S. citizens and non-green card holders, it was finally my turn to go through Border and Customs. Your fingerprints are taken. You stare into a camera and a picture is taken. Then the questions start.

I speak pretty good English, but at the time, I was a bit rusty and didn’t fully understand a couple of questions, and must have given answers that didn’t come out quite right. The Border Patrol agent was not happy. The exchange started getting out of control, and I sensed he was growingly frustrated, but I didn’t know what to do or say to make him happy. At one point, he looked at his screen and told me there was a flight back to Italy in an hour and he could make sure I’d be on that flight. My heart sank to the bottom of the earth.

My wife was waiting patiently (she had gone through without any issues at another control booth) and had a puzzled look on her face. I pointed the agent in her direction and he took my documents and went to her. “Do you know that man?” he asked her. After a few more questions, we were taken to “secondary,” a room that apparently every international airport has. This is where a second round of questioning takes place. Luckily, this time the agent was very nice and after just a couple of questions let us go. But by this time, I was shaken. Why had I been treated like a criminal? Why was I being so harshly punished for not being able to answer in fluent English?

It is a trauma that I still carry with me today and that likely will never go away, even now that I am a permanent resident of the United States. Every passage in my American life (obtaining a student visa, a work visa and then a green card) has had its difficulties, and every time my mind went back to that moment when the agent said I could be put on a plane going back to Italy.

It’s unfortunate to have one’s experience of the American Dream tainted by such experiences, because what the country has to offer is truly worth all the sacrifices of leaving behind everything. I am extremely grateful for everything the United States has given me, and I work hard every day to give back a little bit of what I’ve been given.

In the past, as a journalist, I have written this many times: It is not easy to leave your country. Nobody does it just because they feel like it. It is a huge leap of faith, a shot in the dark most of the time. Your friends, your family… who knows when – and if – you’ll see them again.

I have read such heartbreaking stories these past few days: People being turned away at airports, people being put on flights away from the United States, and tens of thousands losing their visas. This is not the country I know and not the country I want my American-born son to see. The United States is so much better than this. It has welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the world for as long as it has existed.

When we face darkness, when we face ignorance, we must always counter it with our humanity. We must never lose our humanity. Turning someone away solely on the grounds of their nationality or religious beliefs is inhumane.

Some might say all of this is temporary, and that in a few months everything will be back to normal and all this fuss is for nothing. But believe me, anyone who has been affected by the current travel ban will never forget the pain. And that hurts me, it hurts my soul as a human being.

Oct 29

Happy Birthday, I AM Books!

by Nicola Orichuia

It’s hard to believe that a year has already gone by since we opened our doors on Oct. 29, 2015.

There were no soft openings or test runs. To be honest with you, none of us really knew what the heck we were doing. But there was a feeling we were doing the right thing. The motto was — and still is — to be flexible, and learn as we went. And, boy, did we learn.

Keeping an open mind and staying flexible are at the core of any new small business, but especially so when we are talking about a new independent bookstore. There is a need to adapt to the flow of things, to the seasons, to the way people who walk into the store react to certain things. Ask anyone who works in the store, and they’ll tell you they need to constantly adapt to some change in the store’s layout. I’m constantly moving shelves or entire rows of books, all in pursuit of that perfect look. And since we know perfection is impossible to attain, I have a feeling I’ll be moving things forever (luckily, everyone working in the store is very patient).

Author Rob Chirico presenting “Not My Mother’s Kitchen”

But no matter how hard you try to piece the puzzle of a store together, ultimately its success boils down to people: Both those who walk into it and those who work in it and represent it every day.

That’s why I’d like to thank everyone who has supported us during our first year in business. Your presence and your kindness have encouraged us to move forward and improve.

Thank you also to all the wonderful authors, musicians, actors and many other talented individuals who came to present their work at one of our events. You have transformed I AM Books into a lively cultural center, where ideas flow freely and creativity has no bounds.

Last, but certainly not least, I’d like to thank everyone who has joined me during this first year’s voyage, working at I AM Books and dedicating their passion and time to making I AM Books the bookstore so many have fallen in love with. Thank you to Jim, Lisa C., Lisa R., Pascal, Alessandra, Sheska, Giacomo, Sara, Daniel, Kendall, Rachel, Zack, Stefano, Lorenza, Adele, Gaia, Monica, Liz, Elise.

I AM Books is you.

Here’s to another hundred years, or as we say in Italy: “Cent’anni!”

The team with Tomie dePaola, Dec. 6, 2015.

Aug 04

The magic that comes with reading Harry Potter

by Nicola Orichuia I’ve never waited in line to get a new book. But Harry Potter books are the closest I’ve ever gotten to doing that.

The new book in the series — “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — was recently released in the United States, and I found myself in the funny position of buying the book from myself as soon as it was delivered to the bookstore.

I remember the excitement revolving around a new Harry Potter book release. I had just begun going to university in Rome, and my girlfriend (now my wife) picked up reading Harry Potter in English. She recommended I give them a try. In no time, I had gone through all four books available at the time. The fifth book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” came out shortly after, and I patiently waited her to finish her copy before reading it myself.

By the time the sixth book came out — “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” — I could not resist the urge of reading it right away. So Alessandra and I pre-ordered two copies at the Felitrinelli bookstore in Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica, our go-to bookshop for English language titles.

Reading the book in English came with several advantages. First of all, you read the original text, which I believe is always the best choice when possible. The other pretty cool thing was that we got to read and know how the story unfolded before most of our friends, who had to wait a few more months for the Italian translation to be available.

That changed with the seventh and final (until recently) book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” By this time, the series had become such a worldwide phenomenon that translations in dozens of languages would be available the same day the English title would hit the bookshelves.

As with the previous book, I went into the bookshop at Piazza della Repubblica and pre-ordered two copies. The day it came out, I went to pick them up in the morning. I must have read through the book in two or three days, I can’t remember.

What I do remember, though, is the excitement of waiting for a new chapter in a saga that I felt invested in. Over time, I had taken sides, come to love certain characters and despise others. Harry’s world was a magical world I had stepped into thanks to the wonderful writing of J.K. Rowling.

When I finished the seventh book, I felt a sense of closure. The fact that the author herself had put the word “end” to the saga put my mind at ease. Harry Potter would go on with his life, and so would I.

But like a friend you haven’t heard from in ages, Harry is now knocking on the door of my curiosity, beckoning me to follow him on another adventure, which takes place many years after where we had last left off. So many years have gone by since I last read about you. But here’s the book, sitting next to me on the bedside table. It’s time to dive in, my good old friend.

Jul 30

I AM Books on Termini TV

by Nicola Orichuia

The best part of working at a bookstore such as I AM Books is meeting new people from all over the country and the world. I recently had the honor of meeting Pietro Costanza (from Sicily) and Rachel Moland (an American living in Italy), as they toured parts of the United States. They happened upon the store just by chance. And this is what came out of that fortuitous meeting.

Thank you Pietro and Rachel.

Jun 22

An Italian book Renaissance abroad

by Nicola Orichuia

When I started thinking about I AM Books, I really had no clue of what I was about to get myself into.

You see, in the normal world — where people do things cautiously and only after years of experience behind them — I’d have waited and done market research, looked into what running a bookstore entailed and put together a bulky business plan.

Instead, I went into this business with only my gut feeling and a lot of intuition. The intuition was this: There is a longing for Italian and Italian-related books. Whether it’s books on art, fiction, cookbooks or children’s books, I felt there was enough out there to justify an actual brick-and-mortar business in Boston’s North End. This belief also stemmed from my Italian upbringing. I was well aware of the massive amount of quality books produced every year in Italy, although I was surprised that so few had made it across the Atlantic Ocean.

Apparently, that trend is now changing.

A lengthy article published by Italian newspaper La Repubblica underscores an increased interest for Italian titles and authors. “Love with America is finally requited,” reads the headline. Referencing the number of book rights sold to U.S. publishers, the article states that between 2014 and 2015, demand for Italian titles has jumped from 4.4 percent to 6.4 percent of the total Italian title rights sold abroad.

The article mentions the recent success of Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels, but there is an interesting little back-story to this success.

Years ago, Ferrante’s publisher in Italy, E/O, was having a hard time selling its titles in the United States. “We even had trouble selling ‘The Days of Abandonment’,” said Sandro Ferri referring to Ferrante’s first book. Ferri founded the Italian publishing company alongside his wife Sandra Ozzola and believed in the project so much that he decided to open an American company to publish E/O’s titles in the United States. In 2005, Europa Editions opened its offices in New York. Eleven years later, the publisher has reached the upper echelons of U.S. book sales, thanks to Ferrante but also to many other titles. “We never gave up,” said Ferri.

I’ve said this before: I don’t know what the future will bring. But I have a feeling it will be good, and the results we’ve obtained at I AM Books over the course of our first eight months in business have been outstanding. And as the number of Italian titles and authors increases in the United States, we’ll be there to make sure you don’t miss any of it!

May 07

Illustrious illustrator Valeria Petrone

Parents scouring their local bookstore for the latest great volume for little children will be happy to know of the May 17 release of “Blue Boat,” the third and final entry in the primary-colored series written by Kersten Hamilton and illustrated by Valeria Petrone. The anticipation surrounding the book, which follows “Red Truck” and “Yellow Copter,” warrants the stature that Petrone has come to enjoy among illustrators around the world, although she’ll tell you herself that it wasn’t always that way.

“I wasn’t really welcomed with open arms when I returned to Italy in the late 1980s,” she says. After a period spent studying and working in the United Kingdom, Petrone decided to go back to her native Italy in 1988. “Back then, illustration in Italy was predominantly used in advertising. Book illustrations weren’t really considered a priority.” It was also a world dominated by few old men, more interested in importing books than investing on young Italian talent.

At the same time, it was a period full of promise for up-and-coming artists like Petrone, who liked to challenge herself by applying new technologies to her craft. “When the computer came along, I started using it right away,” she says. “I have a special virtual brush that I modified back in the day, and it gives my illustrations a unique touch that no one else has.” She carries the pen wherever she goes.

A native of Cesena, Petrone grew up in Milan, surrounded by art and culture. After attending an artistic high school there, she was convinced by her parents to go to London to study and refine her drawing technique. Requests for her designs started coming in shortly after. “There was a lot of demand for illustrations in England and in the United States,” says Petrone. “I was lucky to find an agent who found a lot of work for me.”

Most of the work came in the form of illustrations for children’s books. In 1986, her first book, “Boo,” was published. At the same time, Petrone was taken under the wing of an illustrator for Walt Disney, who taught her the craft of cartoon design. As demand for her work increased, Petrone made the decision to return home, sensing she had a chance to continue on her successful path. But it turned out to be much harder than she expected.

“There were a few magazines here and there that would publish some of my work, but mostly I kept sending my work abroad.” In 1995, she found an agent in the United States to help her enter the American market, which was much more open to illustrations. At the time, scanners and smartphones hadn’t been invented, so Petrone had to fax her ideas and projects across the ocean. “Wow, I spent a lot of money doing that,” she recalls. “Sometimes, if I needed to get my work to the commissioner quickly, I drove across the border to Switzerland. They had priority mail there!”

Those days are long gone, though, with Petrone being able to work on and easily transmit big projects, including a marketing campaign for United Airlines and bringing to life the dream sequence in the long-form animation film “Iqbal: Children without fear.”

Recently she was featured in a solo exhibit in downtown Rome — where she has been living for many years — and has also worked on a pair of smartphone apps for children called “Dada” that feature a cast of sweet and colorful characters. The first of the two apps, “Buonanotte Dadà,” won a special mention in the Digital Award category at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

But children’s books remain Petrone’s main claim-to-fame. Her bestsellers include “Red Truck,” “Big Girl Panties,” “Potty Animals and “Two at the Zoo.” In all of them, her characteristic soft but precise touch opens the door of our imagination, turning us into kids once again, as we read to our children and grandchildren.

Apr 11

Linguistic tug of war

by Nicola Orichuia

I recently read a fascinating book by American author Jhumpa Lahiri. It is about her relationship with language — more specifically, with the Italian language.

Lahiri grew up in the United States, but her Indian parents spoke Bengali at home, and she grew up with mixed feelings about both languages, not to mention a certain ambiguity toward both cultures. At home, she spoke Bengali with her parents, who weren’t very enthusiastic about their new country’s ways and language, but at school and with friends she spoke English. It’s in English that Lahiri expresses herself as a writer, and she’s a very good. (She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel “Interpreter of Maladies”).

At one point, though, Lahiri started to fall in love with the Italian language. She started taking private lessons and reading as much as she could while living and working in New York City. But as much as she tried, she soon realized that the only way for her to fully grasp the language would be to live in Italy.

I won’t go much more into how Lahiri’s experience unfolds, although it is a fascinating tug of war between her three languages. Going from one language to another is like jumping into a different costume each time. The language used influences the way one is perceived and the way one perceives oneself. “In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile,” Lahiri wrote in the New Yorker. “When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement.”

I must admit that the book resonated so much with me. Here I am, an Italian writing in English and speaking English wherever I go, because this is the language spoken in the United States. But the more time I spend on this side of the Atlantic, the more interested I am in Italian, not just as a way to communicate between individuals, but also as a form of identity. I often meet third- or fourth-generation Italian Americans who want to learn Italian. I used to wonder why they would go through so much to learn a language they would rarely use. But now I think I understand. It might be a way to feel closer to those ancestors who migrated to the United States, who sometimes owned almost nothing. What they did bring with them was their language, which in many cases wasn’t even Italian, but a regional dialect.

If we think about it, no one can take away our language, as long as we cultivate it and make sure we don’t waste it. It is a treasure we start building up as children. My son, now little over 2, pays extremely close attention to all the words I say, and I do my best to speak to him always in Italian. But how will he feel about the Italian language once he starts going to school with other children who don’t speak Italian, where everyone speaks English? Will he feel that Italian is a strange tongue spoken only at home? Will he reject it, only to re-embrace it in his 30s, 40s or even 50s?

I don’t know what the future holds for my son. All I can do is work as hard as I can to read to him in Italian, speak to him in Italian and make sure he understands how valuable it is to know another language other than English. By knowing Italian, he will be able to better relate to me and his mother, as well as to his grandparents.

As for me, I will keep going down a bilingual path, where English is necessary and vital, while Italian is precious and endearing. In the United States, I cannot live or work without English, which has become an integral part of me. At the same time, I cannot exist or feel complete without Italian.

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is available in a bilingual version (Italian and English). You can purchase it online or in store.

Nov 17

Why open a bookstore?

Some people have asked me why I’m opening a bookstore in 2015. My answer is, why not? Bookstores are actually going through a sort of resurgence since 2009. In six years, the number of bookstores in the United States has increased by 27 percent. On the contrary, ebook sales have flattened out over the past three years, and it seems the Kindle and ebook readers of this world are not going to put physical books out of business just yet.

The other thing to consider is the purpose of an Italian American bookstore. Be honest, how many things do you learn from reading a magazine like Bostoniano every month? I know I learn a lot from our various freelancers, who always present their features and articles in an informative and accessible way. That is how I envision I AM Books to be: a place where you might go in knowing a few things about Italy or your ancestral home, but by the time you walk out you have gained a whole new understanding of what it means to be Italian American.

I don’t know about you, but I find that the excess of information online can be a bit overwhelming at times. Sure, we can access almost any type of information in the world with just a few clicks, but often it is hard to know what exactly it is that we want. That’s why we pick up a magazine like Bostoniano, for example. The magazine is our little gateway to Italy. Now imagine if that gateway were a bit bigger and had an actual, physical presence in Boston’s North End, one of the country’s best preserved Italian neighborhoods. We’ll strive to do this inside I AM Books, where we’ll also hold classes, workshops, presentations, concerts and so much more.

We look forward to seeing you in the store!