On Sunday, April 20, Idlewild Books will open near Union Square in New York City with an inventory of 6,000 titles, all of them arranged according to country. "I've always been a big traveler and reader so the idea of a bookstore organized by country -- with literature, guide books, books about politics and culture, and so on, all shelved together by place -- always appealed to me," said owner David Del Vecchio.
Before becoming a bookseller, Del Vecchio was the media officer for refugee affairs at the United Nations, where he worked to raise public awareness of reproductive health issues during large-scale humanitarian crises. The job involved a lot of travel, mostly to Africa but also to Colombia, Nepal, and other places affected by conflict. Del Vecchio has lived in Rome, Barcelona, Prague, and Johannesburg, and has traveled to more than 50 countries.
A second career in bookselling held appeal, Del Vecchio said, because it "seemed like the best way to bring together all the things I care about -- literature, travel, humanitarian issues, and so on -- and to create a space where other people who care about these things can meet." To learn the business, he attended a Paz & Associates Workshop in October 2006 and worked part-time at New York's Three Lives & Co.
The bookstore's name harks back to Idlewild Airport, which was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport after the assassination of the president in 1963. "It has associations with the early innocent days of travel," Del Vecchio said. "I also like that the words 'idle' and 'wild' have these seemingly opposite meanings but can both be associated with travel."
The 1,000-square-foot store, which will have its grand opening in June, is in a "beautiful space with high ceilings and original moldings in the mezzanine of a 120-year-old building, with a big wall of windows overlooking 19th Street, just off 5th Avenue," said Del Vecchio. "There's a giant globe on a stage in the front, and a beautiful room with French doors and a restored archway in the back. The store is divided into distinct regional sections -- Asia, Africa, the back room is Europe and so on -- each of which are decorated with objects and artwork from those parts of the world." Each section will also have maps and language-learning books, as well as travel accessories.
Only about 40 percent of the books in a section will be travel guides. The rest will be literature set in each country represented in the store, along with literature in translation, and nonfiction, including books about politics, culture, and history, and graphic novels. "The idea is that a novel or a book about a country's history, for example, can be at least as valuable to understanding that place as any guide book," Del Vecchio said. "And, of course, it's not just a store for travelers. The last three novels I read were set in places I've never been."
Del Vecchio is also giving the store a strong humanitarian emphasis. "I'll invite my old U.N. colleagues to give talks, and a portion of the proceeds from guidebook sales will go to refugee programs. We had a pre-inaugural book event about Guantanamo a couple weeks ago -- with a moderator from Human Rights Watch and a reception sponsored by the German Book Office -- and we're co-organizing an event with [another New York City bookstore] Revolution Books on April 21 with two political cartoonists, Ted Rall of the Village Voice and a great cartoonist named Stephanie McMillan, who has a new graphic novel about the environment."
New York City is, of course, fertile ground for a bookstore specializing in travel and world literature. As Del Vecchio told BTW, "You have people living here from every country in the world, thousands of international arrivals and departures from the city every hour, more than 40 million visitors a year ... just walking around the city itself is like a little trip around the world, so I wanted to create a bookstore that had that same feeling of discovery and immersion in other places." --Karen Schechner