by Rachael Perez
A common characteristic that is shared among social organizations is to have a hand in several different affairs; as creating and promoting change within a community is a job that can certainly be described as multi-faceted. When I sat down with Signora Milly Mazzei from Libreria delle Donne though, I could not have foreseen just how many hats this association wears. At face value one may only see a bookstore. As I learned this is much on the contrary, as the extent of their work goes beyond the small shop on Via Fiesolana; to serve not only as a business, but as a cultural and social venue as well.
Opened on March 8th, 1980, the Libreria delle Donne still holds true to its feminist roots as a self-proclaimed bookshop for women. It may come as no surprise that it was the Cooperative of Women who opened its doors and who, despite formally transitioning from a single cooperative into two separate associations, continues to oversee it today. Signora Milly explains how at the time of its foundation in 1979, she was its youngest member and a student furthering her cause for a collective center… a library where women could come together. As the feminist movement of the 1970’s was alive and well throughout Italy, these 37 women of all different ages, occupations, and socio-economic levels, decided to open a bookshop dedicated to selling only women’s literature. The city of Florence granted them the space, which had been abandoned for 60 years; “we had a lot of work to do, but we did it. Just us women, we renovated the whole thing ourselves” says Milly. Their efforts were rewarded as its opening was met with popular demand, calling for a staff of at least three women per shift to keep up with the public’s interest. Now, 33 years later, it opens its doors to more than just customers off the street.
To uphold its mission, which Milly describes as, “helping the Florentine community as a whole in any way they can, with special attention and focus on women”, the Libreria has partnered with several Italian entities to lend a helping hand; the first of these being with local prisons for women. The female prisoners make items such as t-shirts and bags, which the bookstore then sells. In a similar fashion, the shop has also partnered with a specific women’s prison group known as Pantagruel. What is unique about this particular group is that instead of bags and t-shirts, the convicts make dolls and stuffed animals following the guidelines of psychiatrist, Steiner. It was his theory that providing individuals with this hands-on framework was parallel to techniques used to educate young people. The Libreria has received several letters from the women, expressing their gratitude and explaining how what they earned from the sales, allowed them to send money back home to their families.
It is not only female convicts that this association works with, but also a group of male juveniles as well. The bookshop first came into contact with these young men when the prison bought several book titles from the Libreria to supply their library. Through this supply of literature the prisoners began to read a book about a young girl coming from Iran to Italy. The story unfolds to explain how she struggles to gain citizenship and recognition from the Italian government, despite her having lived in Italy during the early years of her life. “What was interesting to see…” says Milly, “is how the male convicts identified with her story, which at its core was a tale of multiple identities and the struggle that came with that”. The Iranian girl who wrote the story heard about how the convicts and the personal intrigue it had sparked among them, and went to visit. Since that time, the bookshop has worked closely with the juveniles to raise public awareness and support for them.
It may seem unconventional for a bookshop to be partnering with populations that society typically deems as unwanted and unreachable, but the goal of their work is to give the public different insights to violence. Whether it is the violence that comes with bureaucracy, as the Iranian girl faced, or the violence of criminals’ pasts, as they attempt to move forward and rehabilitate themselves; the Libreria wants to help the community see that violence does not always have to perpetuate more violence. Good can come from evil. Another goal of this work is to help these groups (and their projects) be financially self-sustaining. All the profits made go directly back to the prisons; the bookshop does not take any money from the sale. These groups are not receiving monetary support from the Italian government, so the only way to continue their work is to support themselves.
If this community outreach is not enough, the Libreria also serves as a sort of social service agency, where individuals (particularly women) can drop in with their questions or concerns if they are faced with personal struggle, may it be physical, emotional, or psychological. After talking with the individual to assess their situation, the staff can then make the appropriate recommendation to a local social service agency, where they can seek professional and/or medical help. It is this part of their work that according to Milly makes their association unique. “We are open right out on the street, six days a week”, says Milly, so if a woman should need help she can seek refuge at a known establishment, or rather within the comfort of a familiar place.
After discovering that the bookshop’s influence extends far beyond its doors, one may wonder the impact it has within its four walls, so to speak. This is where I introduce the archive. As a champion of feminism, both past and present, the archive works to preserve the history of the feminine mystique. Within this collection of literature devoted to the feminist movement lies journals, magazines, and articles that can no longer be found. The Libreria has held subscriptions to social science and feminist review magazines from U.S., Germany, France, and Spain going back to 1980. Milly also gained access to archives from a former activist group in Florence, whose work cannot be accessed anywhere else but at the shop. Holding even more recognition, specifically on the feminist movement in Italy, are the bookstore’s original copies of the magazine Effe. During the 1970’s this publication was considered a bible for Italian women. Unfortunately, the Libreria is the only place where one can find copies of every issue it published and because of this it is conserving the political memories of this social movement, and keeping the feminist memory alive.
In fact, many of the 4,900 books, articles, and magazines that are stored at the Libreria have either gone missing, or have a limited amount of copies left in existence. Therefore the shop’s utilization of a digital inter-library loan system, established by the public libraries within Italy 13 years ago, serves as the point of access for those looking to read the literature of the time. The process for uploading their material is one that is ongoing, with the delay being an issue of “no time and no money” says Milly. However, if one is looking to access the information first hand, they are more than welcome to come into the shop and read to their hearts content; but cannot take any archive material out of the shop.
In addition to the archive the Libreria also holds a special reading group, with the texts selected focusing solely on feminist issues. Started eight years ago with the participation of other local social organizations, this reading group is today comprised of twenty women, and in its most recent form this group has developed into a literature and writing group. The bookstore also holds lectures every Sunday, which are open to the public. The topic although ever-changing, from female roles in the theater to famous English Florentine community members, is always feminist in nature. Finally, there are the books that the shop writes and publishes to raise awareness about the great female artists, both past and present who are unknown. In a city where art is at every corner and is visited by crowds who have come to see the masters, this association is doing its part to showcase these talented women and their work.
Although Milly acknowledges that there are other social organizations working to help women and highlight the history of feminism, there are not many others (if any at all) that are as eclectic as Libreria delle Donne. For they are a bookshop, library, historical archive, social service agency, advocacy center, and the list can go on; so I take my hat off to the association that proudly wears so many for the city of Florence.