The Interview: David Del Vecchio, Idlewild Books
The front window of Idlewild Books in New York City.
Idlewild Books is probably the best travel bookshop I've ever had the luck to visit. I say "probably," because there are other contenders, like Stanford's in London. But then Stanford's is a bit on the dry side, while Idlewild has the feel of a Village bookshop circa 1976. I don't know of any store in the world that so successfully melds travel literature and travel guides with non-fiction and fiction strongly rooted in countries near and far. Then add a collection of globes and series of literary readings in an uplifting parlor floor space here in the Flatiron District of Manhattan and you've got the makings of a long afternoon of browsing.
David Del Vecchio.
The owner is David Del Vecchio, who opened Idlewild in May 2008. His CV includes 10 years of working for the United Nations, most recently as a press officer for refugee programs in Africa and Latin America. He has lived in Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, and South Africa, and has traveled to more than 50 countries for work and pleasure. Now you can find him, as I did, on West 19th Street.
Opening an independent bookshop anywhere in the US these days seems courageous. But to do so in Manhattan, and to focus on travel books, would seem to be an enormous leap of faith. What led you to do this?
What really led me to do this was the desire to create a store that combined two of my passions: travel and international literature. I think the specialization and the mix are the keys to its success: there are plenty of places to buy guidebooks but we have the best selection and are able to advise customers on both travel books and literature, and people like being able to find novels and non-fiction about a particular place shelved together with the guides.
And except for the high rents, Manhattan seemed the perfect place for it — London has at least five travel bookstores — so the biggest challenge was to find something affordable. I was able to afford this space because it's on the mezzanine level, and it also met all my other criteria — big enough for events, high ceilings and lots of light, and centrally located.
Do you have a background in the book business?
No, my background was in working in humanitarian affairs at the United Nations. But I did spend over a year educating myself, talking to people in the industry, and working on a business plan, and I did short apprenticeships at two of my favorite bookstores — Three Lives & Co in New York, which is the gold standard for literary bookshops, and Get Lost Books in San Francisco, which is one of the country's best travel bookstores. The owners of the stores, Toby Cox and Lee Azus, were wonderfully open and generous with me, and I've learned a lot from other indie booksellers as well.
Your readings series — and book launches – are among the best in the country. Who are some of the authors you've had of late? And do you organize the events yourself?
Thanks. Yes, I organize the events, which mainly consist of book launches. For the most part, we eschew straight readings for things that are a little different. This week, we had an event for a memoir set in Buenos Aires, for example, which included live tango music and dancing, and wine from Argentina, as well as a brief reading from the book. We've hosted U.S. book launches for authors ranging from the Nigerian writer Chimanda Ngozi Adichie and the British actor and comedian Stephen Fry to the co-author of the Jane Austen mashup Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (with sea-green punch and calamari). We've also had several events related to humanitarian issues: Susan Sarandon interviewed the author of a book on sexual slavery in Cambodia; the actress Mia Kirschner launched a book about women in children in war zones; and we had a recent Haiti fundraiser that included a talk by the writer/geologist Simon Winchester and a UN humanitarian expert.
As a collector of globes, I admired your collection when I was in the shop. Are they all new or do you have any antique models for sale?
We have quite a few in the store but they're all new. I love antique globes though — I have a beautiful 1960s floor globe at home — and we'd love to carry a few in the store if we found a dealer to work with.
Who are you reading and enjoying at this moment?
I've been reading my way through the shortlist for this year's Best Translated Book Award. All the books are great but my two absolute favorites have been Ghosts, by the Argentinian writer Cesar Aira, and The Tanners, by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Both are very dreamy and unlike anything I've read before. We had a special party on March 10 to announce the winner, Gail Hareven's The Confessions of Noa Weber, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and published by Melville House Press.
What's popular among your customers at the moment?
On the travel side, this is the time of year people are planning their European travels, so we're seeing a lot of guides for Paris, London, and Italian cities in particular. In terms of lit, our bestsellers are usually foreign bestsellers translated into English. We try to highlight books that are different from the ones you see everywhere else.
Your shop was the first one where I came in contact with the New York Review of Book Classics series that has reprinted some of the great travel tomes. Do you have any favorites among them?
We and our customers do love NYRB, and we've hosted several book parties for them, including for their tenth anniversary last fall, and we have an NYRB Classics Book Club, which is popular. Of their travel-related books, my favorites are An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie and The Way of the World by Nicholas Bouvier, both of which are translated from French. Of their novels, I probably like Stoner best. Everything they publish is of such high quality, and we feel a special affinity with them because they too specialize in world literature and little-known, should-be classics.
Your site is up and running but still something of a work in progress. Do you anticipate having your entire stock on line for purchase?
Yes, we're hoping to have our entire inventory online, searchable by country, by May. In the meantime, people can find what they're looking for using the search box.
How about your own travels — have you spent a lot of time on the road? And can you get away at all now that you have the shop?
I spent my 20s living overseas — in Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic — and then my 30s working for the UN, which mainly involved travel to countries suffering from conflict or natural disaster — Africa mainly but also Colombia, Nepal and in the Caribbean. Beyond that, I've always been an avid traveler, including a couple of long bike trips through Indonesia and Cuba. But now I'm pretty wedded to the store so except for a quick trip to Morocco for a wedding, I haven't been out of the country since the store opened. I hope that changes soon but for the moment, I'm just traveling through books and hearing about our customers' trips!
What's next for Idlewild? Are there any areas you see yourself expanding into?
Yes, starting this spring we'll be offering language classes in French, Spanish and Italian, and we'll be expanding our foreign-language section for those languages by April 1 as well. We've also greatly expanded our children's selection, which will soon include foreign-language kids' books as well, and plan to offer writing courses, including travel writing, later this spring.
Idlewild Books, 12 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011