Federico Orsi of Orsi Libri, Milan – Italy (ALAI Member)
What triggered your interest in rare books and becoming a rare bookseller?
I grew up surrounded by antiques of all sorts and old books have always enthralled me particularly. I had the opportunity to spend my youth in my grandparents' countryside house, an old Italian villa. My grandad was a successful antiques dealer and a great reader. He kept all his books in a wonderful library provided with tall C18th bookcases that came from an old Venetian palace. He was not a real bibliophile, but enjoyed books as objects and, above all, reading them in great silence. He passed away when I was about 11 year old and thus I never got to talk much with him. So, in order to know more about my grandad, I started to study his library. By opening the books and finding ex libris of old family members, I started to research his family history. I found out that some of my ancestors were first colporteurs, that is, travelling merchants of books, and then booksellers in C19th Genoa. This really fascinated me. But it was only when I moved to London in order to study and work that I had my first experience in the book trade... Only then I became aware that I was a natural born bookseller!! Don't get me wrong: it's not self-praise; I just mean that I could not do anything else with the same passion and pleasure with which I buy, study and sell books.
What do you deal in?
I'd say that I deal mainly in what I like, but at the moment, as a new starter, I am not in the position to trade only the things I like. Any business opportunity is welcomed. However, I focus on early printed books, first editions, popular prints and decorated papers. I have a sweet tooth for very rare and mysterious books. Occasionally, I trade objets d’art, scientific items, natural-historical specimens, and curios.
Do you specialise?
Yes, some years ago I fell in love with a Chilean lady whom I married and have had two children with, and, ever since we met, I started to explore Latin America through books. I have been actively buying books printed in the Americas in Spanish and Portuguese language and I am now also exploring other areas of the world through Luso-Hispanic colonial imprints. I am currently working on my next catalogue of Luso-Hispanic books, which should be ready by the end of January 2022. There will be plenty of incredible books listed on it!
Buying and selling rare books is more than just a job, it is often a passion and a lifestyle. What do you love most about your work?
As I mentioned at the end of the first question, I think that I was born a bookseller. It only took me a while in order to become fully aware of it. I think that some people, who sometimes are also booksellers, have a special sensibility for what this world was at a given time in history and, as mediums, connect with past stories and people through books. It's a gift and, in such a way, they reveal aspects/stories/details that were momentarily lost, or better, just dormant, and were waiting to be told through the bookseller's emotion as well as his/her/their academic skills. However, to answer you question, the aspect I love most about my work is not selling, but buying books; looking long for the really rare book, finding it, studying it quickly in order to decide whether it is worth buying it, and then waiting for it to come through the post (in time of covid I have been able to buy mainly online!) in order to start the thorough research on it, which I call the great trip. I love when I go hunting for rare books, especially Latin American ones, and I find a book which is both important, historically and culturally, and rare; so rare that it is practically not known or very, very, very little known. At that moment I feel something that cannot be put down in words, since I am aware that I may be the only one to own that book at that given time and to know the story behind it. That's magic and irreplaceable.
When the world opens up again, where will you go?
Fingers crossed! I should be joining the 54th California International Antiquarian Book Fair (Oakland, February 11-13, 2022) thanks to the opportunity offered by ILAB of a shared free booth for two young new members. I look forward to participating and meeting the other selected member Jason Rovito. I thank ILAB very much. This will be my first international fair outside of Italy and, hopefully, the first one of many other international appointments. I have just started to work as a bookseller and I wish to continue this profession for many years to come. Unfortunately, being based in Italy, it will be very difficult for me to arrange everything on time due to the anomaly of our dull bureaucracy and the long and complicated export procedures, but I will do everything I can in order to be as ready as I can for that moment.