A Bookstore with Identity: Cultivating the Cultural Hub of I AM Books and IDEA Boston

By Jessica A. Kent
Oct. 29, 2018

The North End is one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s where the Old North Church sits, where Paul Revere once lived, and where Ben Franklin once apprenticed, yet even with the Freedom Trail winding through its narrow sidewalks, it is now considered the city’s destination for all things Italian. Over 150 restaurants are packed into this neighborhood, weekend festivals fill the streets, the smell of anise cookies and freshly baked bread fill the air, and Italian is still spoken in the shops. It was into the midst of this vibrant culture that I AM Books opened its doors in October 2015. Located across the street from the Paul Revere House and just steps from beautiful North Square, I AM Books may have a small footprint, but it has a substantial offering. Inside its doors customers find a long exposed-brick space filled with books by Italian-American writers (don’t fear; except for the shelves with the Italian language books, most selections are in English), cookbooks, Italian history and travel books, staff recommendations, a kids section, gifts, and more. It can also be converted into an event space. Since its opening, I AM Books has become more than just a bookstore; as the only Italian-American bookstore in the country, it has become a cultural hub for the community, and is launching the inaugural IDEA Boston festival this weekend, on November 2 and 3.

Creating and Cultivating Boston’s Newest Bookstore

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The opening of I AM Books (an abbreviation for Italian-AMerican) happened with fortune and speed. Nicola Orichuia, the co-owner of I AM Books, moved to America from Italy ten years ago, and after first living in Chicago, moved to Boston in 2010, where he started an online and print magazine, Bostoniano. “That enterprise put me in touch with all these diverse circles within the Italian and Italian-American communities around here, and so I had the chance to get to know people," he explained. And then a fortuitous space opened up in the North End. A friend was closing a business, and alerted Orichuia, who saw an opportunity and said that the idea of opening a bookstore in that space just came naturally. Despite the fact that neither Orichuia, nor his business partner Jim Pinzino, had bookstore or retail experience, they embarked upon the endeavor. The space became available in June 2015, and the bookstore opened on October 29, a mere four months later. “As long as you’ve got the enthusiasm and you want to do something, why not give it a try?” Orichuia commented cheerfully.

You’ll find more than just author events at I AM Books. The space often expands its offerings to include Italian language storytimes and programming, musical events, relevant talks, and more. In speaking with Orichuia, one can tell that the cultivation of the bookstore as a cultural hub is a deliberate choice. “[An identity] is something I strongly believe every bookstore nowadays needs to have to survive and to be vibrant, and also successful from a business point of view. All bookstores that I know of that are doing well all have a very strong identity. They have their points of view, and they have a strong community around them.” For I AM Books, it’s important to be a reference point for their community: the neighborhood, the community of Italians and Italian-Americans, the community of Italophiles, and the community interested in translated literature. He added, “That’s why, if a bookstore has a strong identity, you almost immediately perceive that, and it’s harder to get ‘lost' inside, even if it’s a big bookstore.”

Beyond cultivating a unique identity, Orichuia believes that bookstores have a social responsibility as well. While a bookstore is still a business that needs to pay rent and bills, "I think it’s also very important to always keep in mind what your social mission is, because you want to make sure that you’re contributing something to society. A bookstore can do that, in a very specific way and in a very important way. That’s why I like to define I AM Books as a cultural hub, because I think that’s what we strive to do.”

Greater Boston Literary Community

Opened in 2015, I AM Books is the youngest bookstore in the greater Boston area. As previously mentioned, bookstores need to have their own, strong identity to flourish, and Orichuia believes that the Boston bookstores do. “Everyone has their neighborhood, everyone has their own community, and everyone has their own identity,” Orichuia stated, so he sees competition as non-existent. Being the new kid on the block, I AM Books focused on getting through its first year before exploring how it fit into the greater Boston bookstore community - for example, contributing to the Boston Book Festival, as they did a few weeks ago. This past Spring, I AM Books participated for the first time in Independent Bookstore Day, the last Saturday in April, when bookstores around the country hosted events, offered discounts, and celebrated independent booksellers as a community. As a subset of the nationwide Independent Bookstore Day, two local booksellers created a more concentrated Metro Boston Bookstore Day, and I AM Books was one of 13 stores involved. "It was an amazing day. We had a lot of activities and we had a lot of fun.” Activities included author events, children’s activities, face painting, on-demand poetry, snacks, blind date with a book, and more.

IDEA Boston

The IDEA Boston festival comes as an extension of the bookstore’s platform and mission. IDEA Boston is a two-day "Italian-inspired cultural festival, celebrating literature, history, art and many other aspects of Italian and Italian-American culture,” happening on November 2 and 3, 2018 at the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts in Cambridge. “Sensing the positive response we get for our events in the bookstore, I thought maybe if we did this on a larger scale, on a more concentrated level, and in a space that can hold many more people … if it works then maybe we’re on to something,” said Orichuia. The festival was inspired by another festival on Italian-related subjects and literature that takes place in London. In fact, Italian-inspired festivals are popping up around the globe, including one in Paris, and two starting next year in Munich and Bordeaux. IDEA Boston will be the first in the U.S.

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The goal of the festival is ideas (thus IDEA Boston) and the mission is dialogue. "My desire is to foster conversations, because I don’t see the world as a static place. Society and the world are changing every day,” Orichuia articulated. "So as a bookstore, and now as a festival, our ultimate goal is to foster conversations and really spread ideas. Because that’s the whole point. I think that often what is lacking is the ability to have a frank conversation, and even if there is disagreement, there might be some way to find common ground or come up with new solutions.” That’s why IDEA Boston doesn’t just include literary sessions, although there are sessions on Italian Classics, memoir writing, poetry, and more; you’ll also find panels on understanding autism, innovation in business, the brain and cognitive science, immigration, opera, and more. All sessions, except for the stage play Questi Fantasmi, are in English, in order to make the festival as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. “What we really need more than ever are opportunities to meet and get together and have these conversations,” Orichuia confirmed.

The festival kicks off on Friday at 1:30, with sessions running Friday and Saturday afternoon. Friday evening caps off with a production of the play Questi Fantasmi, and Saturday evening caps off with a grande finale party, with live music and food catered by Eataly. All sessions required tickets, and day passes are available.

Understanding and Appreciating Italian-American Literature

When asked about the state of Italian-American literature today, Orichuia pointed to threads of immigration and identity that often find their way into works. There are the academic or semi-academic texts that address issues of identity - for instance, female identity within the Italian experience - or the immigrant experience. For authors who write fiction, "the experience of being an Italian-American shines through their work”; Orichuia cited local author Christopher Castellani as an example. In children’s books, Orichuia pointed to Tomie dePaola (who will be at IDEA Boston) and his picture books with the character Strega Nona, based on his grandmother.

Orichuia also mentioned the IDEA Boston panel “Italian Parents, American Children,” which centers on four women, first generation Americans, who have written books about losing parents who were from Italy. “Their books deal with this conflict [of growing up in America] and love at the same time for a world that never really belonged to them, but at the same time belonged to them because it was their parents’ or their grandparents’. There’s this really strange dynamic of being torn between two identities.”

Since the bookstore and the festival’s intention is to help people understand the Italian-American experience, Orichuia provided recommends for those who would like an introduction to Italian-American literature:

  • Ask the Dust: A Novel, by John Fante (the book that Orichuia fell in love with as a teenager)

  • The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women, edited by Helen Barolini

  • "Really any book by Fred Gardaphé, who is at the Calandra Institute in New York. [The Calandra Institute is] solely dedicated to the study of Italian-American culture and identity. So anything by Fred Gardaphé is definitely worth diving into to try to understand better the Italian-American experience.”

The next time you head to dinner in the North End, or the next time you take a walk along the Freedom Trail and find yourself at the Paul Revere House, step across the street to I AM Books to say hello, explore their shelves, pick up one of the books mentioned above, and discover the space they’ve created in the city.

IDEA Boston takes place November 2 and 3, 2018 at Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, 41 Hampshire Street, Cambridge. Tickets are available per session, or per day; more information and ticket purchases can be found on the IDEA Boston website.

I AM Books is located at 189 North Street in Boston’s North End, and is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00am - 6:00pm, Sunday 10:00am - 5:00pm.