Let the Book Get Them


Francisco Antolin, with his mobile book van in Lisbon

by Oliver Farry

Francisco Antolin and Domingos Cruz, old schoolfriends in Lisbon, were having a drink once when a problem common to them came up in conversation. Namely, getting hold of copies of Portuguese novels in translation they had each recommended to foreign friends. Copies to actually hand to somebody or to bring as presents – true, there is Amazon and the online bookshops but sometimes you want things a little more promptly. What started off as bar-room grumbling ended up in a business plan, and a mobile bookshop, named Tell a Story, housed in a custom-fitted 1977 Renault Estafette van, which sells its wares at various locations around Lisbon. Cruz, a lawyer, got the idea for a van from book-hawkers he saw when on a business trip to China; not that they had much choice in any case – store-front premises were prohibitively expensive for a new business venture in recession-racked Portugal.

With the help of a third friend, João Correia Pereira, who devised a branded look, the van opened for business in June this year. Antolin, freshly returned to Lisbon after spending much of the past fifteen years abroad in various countries, takes care of the sales. An affable multilingual bear of a man with a keen knowledge of Portuguese literature, he is an able salesman and built for the constant chatter – with both locals and visitors – that is an occupational hazard.

The novelty of the undertaking is a talking point alone, as is the baby-blue and white Estafette which has quickly become an Instagram favourite. When I visited one day in Chiado, Lisbon’s main shopping area, there was a constant flow of curious passers-by and tourists enquiring about the concept. Some depart with purchases of books – be they canonical works by Eça de Queiroz or Fernando Pessoa or more recent ones by José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes – others with the goodies that Tell a Story gives away for publicity: tote bags, branded pencils, author postcards.

The van’s stock is obviously not exhaustive, with just a few titles from each author being carried, but it is slowly expanding, and the scope of languages is also being widened. Translations in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian are currently available, and there is even a Chinese translation of Pessoa’s Selected Poems kept in reserve on the off-chance it might find a taker. Antolin says the reaction has been positive so far, with sales healthy. He has sold books to people of 35 nationalities and he counts French and Germans as among the best customers, both in terms of how much they buy and how knowledgeable they are about Portuguese literature.

It is the serendipitous nature of discovering an unknown literature that is Tell a Story’s strength (though Portuguese customers have also bought a lot, to give as gifts, leading one to suspect that the quandary that gave birth to the business is a common one). Most of the customers stumble on the van by accident and leave with a book they had not known the existence of twenty minutes earlier.

It makes you wonder if such a thing could be reproduced in other countries. Tell a Story is certainly filling a gap – Lisbon’s bookshops, including Livraría Bertrand on rua Garrett, which opened in 1732 and is the world’s oldest continually-operating bookshop, have ample stocks of foreign-language books. Few of those however are translations from the Portuguese, which leaves the national literature underexposed in a city that enchants so many visitors.

Portuguese is an anomaly among languages – it is spoken as a native language by more than 240 million people, making it one of the most spoken in the world. However, it is not among the eighty or so vehicular languages (one that tends to be used internationally as a common one between speakers of two others). This is largely because of the isolation of Lusophone countries from one another – even in Africa, where there are five. 80% of native speakers are from Brazil, so that is not surprisingly the big market to break, and the Portuguese writers who do so are the lucky ones. Outside of the closed circuit of the Portuguese-speaking world though, it is a different story, with only José Saramago, thanks to his Nobel, ever becoming a big seller.

As Tim Parks remarked a couple of years ago, the Holy Grail for writers in most countries is to be published in English – this despite the fact that the English-speaking world is relatively unadventurous when it comes to accommodating works in translation. Only 3% of books published in the U.S. and the U.K. are translated (and for fiction it’s less than 1%) compared to 14% in France, where translations account for 40% of fiction sales. Writers want to be published in English not so much because they expect to ever make it big in the English-speaking world, but because it is a bridge to other markets. The status of English as a lingua franca means it is the language most likely to be read by non-native speakers. It also opens the possibility of translation to other languages underserved by competent translators – a Slovenian writer’s best chance of reaching a market like Japan might well be by way of a second-generation translation via English.

Yet many writers who are translated into English languish in obscurity (well, OK, that is the case for most writers), divorced from a recognisable context. One of the few times a reader, even a more diligent one, might have reason to think of a Serbian, South African or Belgian writer is while actually being in the country. Therefore, isn’t tourism itself a shop window for literature? Certain cities and countries have the literary cachet readymade but others have to work on it. Unfashionable Nuneaton is attempting to siphon off some of the millions who visit nearby Stratford-upon-Avon for a fledgling George Eliot industry. Portuguese-speaking tourists might make a pilgrimage to the Casa Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon but most others are probably unaware of him when they take pictures with his statue on the terrace of Café A Brasileira on Largo do Chiado. Not that English ought to be the only focus – as Tell a Story testifies, French customers tend to be the most adventurous. There is also a huge appetite for literature in Latin America that can be tapped. It would be naive to think that a fleet of mobile bookstores is going to make a big dent in sales but it can capitalise on a rare opportunity to grab readers’ attention.

Some countries are already expert in selling their literary heritage, Ireland being a case in point (though even there, no effort is made to offer Joyce, Yeats or Synge in translation, which is surely an opportunity squandered). There are other countries, especially ones with languages that are less international than Portuguese, that could showcase their national literature by the simple act of leaving it lying around for visitors to find. Surely there are tourists who would be delighted to discover Péter Nádas or László Krasznahorkai while visiting Budapest, Sjöwall and Wahlöö or Selma Lagerlöf in Stockholm, or Adam Mickiewicz and Zbigniew Herbert in Warsaw? Getting people to read books in translation – in the English-speaking world at least – is well known to be an uphill battle. For those countries that already have tourists coming their way in large numbers, maybe it should be viewed as an opportunity to ensnare new readers while they are on your own patch. It is unlikely to be a money-spinner in the wider scheme of things but it might be a good way of selling the country’s writers in an international marketplace that is increasingly crowded, and, alas, increasingly homogenous.

It need not only be national literatures that are served by vans or pop-up shops. Rumours of the printed book and the traditional book shop’s demise may be somewhat exaggerated but there could be an outlet for more ephemeral points of sale. It is a business model that would be hard to scale, given the fact that it takes a lot of time on the ground for relatively little return – or initially at least – but it might appeal to younger people of an entrepreneurial bent. Of course, not every country in Europe is blessed with a climate like Lisbon, where the worst one has to deal with is scattered winter showers. Not everyone would be too keen on standing outside a van hawking books in Bratislava in the middle of February or even Gothenburg during midsummer drizzle. Even so it is not as if outdoor selling is unknown in such climates.

It might be said too that you need at least a minimum level of expertise and knowledge to sell books; many of those who do it in traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ shops are graduate students or aspiring writers who want to be around books and who (perhaps mistakenly) imagine that it will afford them ample time to write. And those booksellers rarely have to sell a book – just field queries, cash out sales and keep the shop orderly. Publishing publicity departments, university reading lists, the media and word of mouth bring the customer. Finding a person knowledgeable enough to chat with casual customers and canny enough to get them to part with money for a book they never before knew about is not straightforward. But sales people generally thrive in environments that most others would balk at. Someone hungry enough would do the job, someone with enough time on their hands (teenagers or students) would be able to acquaint themselves with the material they are selling. Not that having a familiarity with one’s product has ever been an absolute prerequisite to convincing people to buy it – there is even a perverse Borgesian humour in imagining a biblio-huckster who sells books by Harry Mulisch by persuading people they are like David Nichols or Mark Lévy, or convincing people that Elfriede Jelinek really is an Austrian Hilary Mantel. Such a ruse would no doubt be rumbled fairly quickly by Yelp or Trip Advisor but horizons might be broadened in the meantime.

Photographs courtesy of the author. Cover image by Mayer 8

About the Author:

Oliver Farry was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1975. He lives in Paris, where he works as a journalist, writer, translator and editor.