A Vintage Van Delivers Vintage (and New) Literature
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Retail on wheels is perfect for impulse buying. It can satisfy hunger for good reading, not just hunger for food.
By Laura Secorun Palet
You’re probably well-acquainted with the idea of the food van. The more sartorially minded may have even visited a fashion truck. Now, it’s translated into literature aimed at tourists.
In June 2013, three entrepreneurial literature lovers from Portugal’s capital created a nomadic bookstore that moves around the city all year long, bringing Portuguese literature to international visitors.
Tell a Story — that’s the van’s name — offers a collection of more than a dozen Portuguese classics that have been translated into English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. There’s something for everyone, from the evasive and sad verses of Fernando Pessoa — “To be understood is to prostitute oneself” — to Antonio Lobo Antunes’ dense and moving accounts of the country’s post-colonial legacy.
The vehicle, a gorgeous 1975 Renault Estafette, has character, but the soul of this literary omnibus is its driver, Francisco Antolin. He’s a 36-year-old Lisboner who loves books and talking about them with whoever stops by.
“We wanted to help people discover Portugal through our literature, because stories are a great way to understand a culture,” he says.
The idea came to him and two friends, Domingos Cruz and Joao Correia Pereira, when they realized how difficult it was to find translated editions of Portuguese literature to give to their non-Portuguese friends.
At first they thought about opening a conventional bookstore, but they ditched the idea after Cruz visited China and saw vans selling stationery and school supplies to children. They chose to put the whole thing on wheels. Twelve months and countless emails seeking permission to Lisbon’s City Council later, Tell a Story was born.
…stories are a great way to understand a culture.
— Francisco Antolin
It was a bold move in a time of economic crisis. Would foreigners be interested? Would locals embrace a store that sold only foreign-language books? Would the vendor permits hold? The answers have been yes.
All year long — rainy days aside — the van is surrounded by curious passers-by, from tourist groups and Portuguese couples to the occasional literature teacher.
Without madness what is man
But a wholesome beast,
Postponed corpse that begets?
— Fernando Pessoa
“I learn so much from them,” says Antolin. “Sometimes they come back and share books with me or even teach me something I didn’t know about an author.”
Already, Tell a Story has been swamped by partnership offers, but the trio has remained true to the original aim. “Once you start selling T-shirts and mugs, you can end up being just another touristy junk shop. We don’t want that,” says Antolin.
Instead, they’ve launched an editorial company with the same name. So far, the company has published an edition of Pessoa’s No Matter What We Dream, a Pessoa compilation titled Disquiet Lisbon as well as Jesus Christ Drank Beer by a young contemporary Portuguese author, Afonso Cruz.
The plan now is to get their hands on a second van — perhaps a more reliable model than the dear Estafette, which often breaks down — and start traveling beyond Portugal and throughout Europe. They also plan to continue publishing up-and-coming Portuguese authors and selling the books abroad.
In need of a quick literary fix? To find these transient booksellers, the safest bet is to wander around Lisbon’s São Jorge Castle neighborhood in the mornings or the Jardim do Principe Real in the afternoons. There’s no strict schedule, so it’s best to check the Facebook page, where they update their location.
And who knows, the Tell a Story van, or others like it, could be coming to a city near you. As Antolin says, “Culture has no borders.”