How Italy is reopening after the coronavirus shutdown : Planet Money Italy was one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, and was one of the first to shut down its economy. Now it's reopening. But not everyone's happy about it.
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Italy Reopens: A Tale of Two Bookstores

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Italy Reopens: A Tale of Two Bookstores

Italy Reopens: A Tale of Two Bookstores

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: Italy has started to reopen its economy this week after a lockdown of roughly two months. Not all businesses can reopen, but many factories are starting back up; so are construction sites. And some stores can open now, too, including clothing stores and bookshops.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Italy has been slammed by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 29,000 people have died so far. And the country's lockdown has also been exceptionally aggressive. In many parts of Italy, people would get fined hundreds of dollars if they were caught outside without an urgent reason.

VANEK SMITH: And now that that lockdown is lifting, nobody really knows what to expect.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show - a tale of two bookstores. We speak with two different business owners in two different parts of Italy, each of whom has very different feelings about emerging from the lockdown.

VANEK SMITH: One is relieved to be able to earn money again. The other one worries that reopening could actually destroy his business.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: Diego Bressan owns Ubik Bookshop (ph) in Gorizia. It's a little town in northeastern Italy right on the border with Slovenia, has about 35,000 people.

DIEGO BRESSAN: The people of Gorizia read a lot. Reading is a primary need, almost like food and medicines for us.

GARCIA: Diego says the bookshop has been a good, steady business through the years. He would often sell more than $1,000 worth of books in a day, and he loves his job. He loves books, and he loves chatting with customers. He has lots of regular customers, so shutting the shop down was really tough for him. He says he probably could have gone maybe another eight weeks with no income, but that was about it.

VANEK SMITH: Diego really needed to open and start selling books again. But he also had to make some new rules, change things at the bookshop to help keep customers safe.

BRESSAN: They must wear a mask. They must clean their hands. A maximum of three people is allowed in the shop at the same time.

GARCIA: Diego says he was not really sure what to expect from the reopening. But you know what? Dozens of people showed up that first day. They even had to stand in line outside the shop.

BRESSAN: We had quite a few customers, almost like nothing happened. And they are so happy we are open. The first day was like a silent party for us (laughter).

GARCIA: Diego says sales are not quite what they were before the lockdown. He's making a few hundred dollars less each day. But he says that's solid, and he's not really worried about his business surviving anymore.

VANEK SMITH: Still, Diego is quick to point out that Gorizia was not so hard-hit by coronavirus. People there are not as frightened or traumatized as they are in other parts of the country.

BRESSAN: Here, the virus has not been so bad. We are lucky. We are far from the red zone.

GARCIA: The red zone - those are the parts of Italy that have been hardest-hit. There, things are different.

MATTIA GARAVAGLIA: It's really, really a difficult situation.

VANEK SMITH: This is Mattia Garavaglia. He owns a bookstore in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. It's one of the areas in the red zone.

GARAVAGLIA: I own a small, small, small, small shop in Turin. We are really near to Lombardia, OK? And Lombardia is the (speaking Italian), the epicenter.

GARCIA: Mattia is 30, and he started Golem Bookshop (ph) about three years ago. He put all of his money into the shop and took out everything he could in loans to get it started.

GARAVAGLIA: When I opened my bookshop, I slept on the ground in the bookshop for six months because I couldn't afford a home.

GARCIA: So when Mattia got the shutdown order in March, he had to find a way to keep selling books.

GARAVAGLIA: I don't want to close my life because my bookshop is my life. So it's not time to say, oh, my God. I'm closing. I'm closing. I'm closing. But it's time to - we say (speaking Italian). What is called the part of the shirt that covers your arms?

VANEK SMITH: The sleeves - to roll up your shirt sleeves.

GARAVAGLIA: Like this.

VANEK SMITH: Mattia took a photo of himself and his bicycle in front of the bookshop. He posted the photo on social media and said, Golem Bookshop will deliver books to your door for free. The local press picked up on it, and business went crazy.

GARAVAGLIA: And I start to work, like, seven days a week, even 14 hours a day, something like this.

GARCIA: Mattia has been making about 40 deliveries a day in his car or on his bike, riding through the empty streets of his city.

GARAVAGLIA: It was very strange because there was nobody - nobody, nobody, nobody at all.

VANEK SMITH: Just you.

GARAVAGLIA: And I have to say just me - my bike and nobody else. To me, it's like the paradise. I could sing. I know I sound like somebody who doesn't care what is happening, but I try to find something to appeal on the positive side.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I understand. Yeah. What would you sing?

GARAVAGLIA: I - well, I listen to death metal.

VANEK SMITH: Singing death metal in the streets of Turin - I love it (laughter).

GARCIA: We've got to find some source of light in these dark times. I love it, too.

VANEK SMITH: And if it's death metal, all the better.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: So as Mattia was riding through the streets of Turin loaded down with books, singing death metal at the top of his lungs, he started to develop more and more ideas about how to keep customers engaged with his bookstore and how to keep them ordering books. He started offering curated selections of books - themes like revolution, obscure authors you'll love, indie books. People loved his selections, and he started shipping orders all over Italy.

GARAVAGLIA: This month is, like, the biggest boom month of my life.

GARCIA: Mattia normally sells about $7,000 worth of books per month. But in April, he sold almost $20,000 worth of books. It was actually his best month ever.

VANEK SMITH: The economic shutdown was great for Mattia's business, but he worries the economic reopening could actually be the end of it.

GARAVAGLIA: There will be, in my opinion, a spiral of unemployment.

GARCIA: Mattia says that spiral of unemployment will likely push a lot of businesses into bankruptcy because people just won't have money to spend in shops, and tourism will be gutted.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. He says in the last couple of months, people have been hunkered down, kind of like the eye of the storm. And they might have even had a little extra money from government aid and from not going out to spend on things like books. But in the post-reopening world, he worries things could get really ugly. And in that world, people might not have extra money for anything, especially books.

GARCIA: Mattia points out that Italy's economy was already extremely weak, even before the pandemic hit. It had high unemployment, an aging population, not many work opportunities.

VANEK SMITH: But his real worry right now is debt. Mattia owes about $11,000 a month in rent and is more than $100,000 in debt. He says if he has to close his bookshop, he'll probably have to declare bankruptcy. And in Italy, he says, declaring bankruptcy kind of brands you for life.

GARAVAGLIA: To say bankruptcy in Italy, it means your life is ruined totally, totally. You will not - never be able to, like, have a loan from a bank. You will never be able to - it's really, really hard. So if we fail here, we fail forever.

GARCIA: Mattia says he would never be able to open a bookstore or any other kind of store ever again. He says that is true for small business owners all across Italy. If their businesses fail, there is no second chance for their businesses or for them.

VANEK SMITH: Mattia just reopened Golem Bookshop. The hours are shorter. He closes at 2 p.m. so he can still keep making deliveries in the afternoons. He says all he can do now is just keep working as hard as he can and hope that his work and innovation over these last couple months will sustain him in this new reopening world.

GARAVAGLIA: Nobody understands what will be the life after this. But you can only hope.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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