IT and US: Coming up with a New Idea

Oct 20, 2018 246

Picture this: a small, independent bookstore focusing on Italian and Italian American literature launching an Italian-inspired festival of books, authors and culture. As strange as that may sound, it’s what I AM Books is doing on Nov. 2-3, 2018, when it will launch the first annual IDEA Boston festival at the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center in Cambridge, Mass. The two-day event will feature 18 panel presentations, three workshops, a theater play in Italian, a Naples-based silent film screening from 1915, and a final party with food and live music. In other words: there will be a lot going on those days. 

At the heart of the festival is I AM Books, the bookstore I co-founded alongside Jim Pinzino in Oct. 2015. Every day, at I AM Books, we strive to bring as much of Italy as possible to the people who walk through our doors on North Street, in Boston’s North End neighborhood. We can definitely be described as a niche bookstore, with a very particular focus. It is, in my opinion, also one of the reasons at the root of our success. To survive in today’s business environment, in which online shopping is an ever-growing threat to small brick-and-mortar stores like ours, a bookstore must necessarily have an identity, a vision. Our customers appreciate this vision and have embraced it. 

It is a vision that I have been working on ever since setting foot in the United States, in 2008. In ten years, I have written for many Italian American publications, creating one myself in 2012, named Bostoniano. That experience led to the idea at the basis of the bookstore three years later and now — another three years gone by — the IDEA Boston festival. 

The background to all of these ventures is my personal experience as an Italian immigrant in the United States, but it is also the overarching Italian American story that I have discovered and have been following in this country. You see, when I was back in Italy, there was never much talk about what happens to those who leave the country to seek better fortune. I’m not sure if it’s a mix of embarrassment for not being able to retain some of Italy’s best talents and envy for the courage demonstrated by those who leave. So when I came to Chicago (2008) and then moved to Boston (2010), I was blown away by the sheer number of immigrants and — more in general — of Americans of Italians descent. 

While in Chicago, I had the fortune of working at Fra Noi, the city’s Italian American magazine. I discovered many different voices in the community, and realized early on that there are an incredible number of people doing their part to contribute to the Italian American narrative. As a journalist, my mission was to tell these stories and make them accessible.

But as time went by, I felt something was still missing. These stories, these experiences were being told through print magazines and websites, but there was no physical space where they were gathered, where they could be shared by the storytellers. That’s when it hit me: We needed a bookstore that could also function as a cultural center. Having events at the bookstore would be crucial to its success, but it would ultimately define the bookstore’s mission. Since opening I AM Books in 2015, we have continually held readings, signings, concerts, film screenings and even a theater play! 

The bookstore has become a laboratory of sorts — a place where words, both spoken and in print, can find new avenues and a new audience. But, like most laboratories, it is rather small and can only do one or two events at a time. I started feeling we needed a large, one-time event that could concentrate in a few days what we do on a daily basis; a celebration of Italian and Italian American culture on a larger scale that could highlight the wonderful work and individuals that have come through I AM Books over the years. In other words, we needed a festival. 

IDEA Boston is that festival. Its mission is to spark a conversation, light up ideas and thoughts, get the ball rolling on collaborative projects. We live in a world that is hyper-connected, yet it seems there are less spaces and occasions to get together and share experiences and ideas. Hopefully the festival can provide this space, even if just for two days, and provide a lasting contribution to the community. 

On Nov. 2 and 3, we will hold panels and presentations on a wide range of topics, all dealing with some aspect of Italian or Italian American culture. Identity and immigration are central themes throughout the festival, but we also have talks on dual language education, the importance of Italy’s literary classics, Pirandello, Commedia dell’arte, and the Elena Ferrante phenomenon. There will be panels on autism, innovation, and the brain, all led by Italian authors and scholars. But we don’t limit ourselves to presentations and panels; there are also a theater play (Edoardo De Filippo’s Questi Fantasmi) and a silent film screening with live musical accompaniment (Assunta Spina). Some big names coming to visit us include beloved children’s books’ author Tomie dePaola, Ciao Italia host Mary Ann Esposito, and actress Marianne Leone. The festival will end with a big party and celebration on Nov. 3, with food from Eataly Boston and live music. 

I hope this inaugural IDEA Boston can be the beginning of something we can all look forward to, year after year. If you are in our area or are planning a visit, I look forward to seeing you there. A presto!

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