I hear that Italy is beautiful in the spring. Hans Weyandt is about to find out.
Weyandt, manager of Milkweed Books in downtown Minneapolis, is one of 12 booksellers nationwide who have won scholarships to attend book fairs in Mexico and Europe. The idea is to expose American booksellers to international titles — and to encourage them to spread the word about U.S. titles.
The Bookselling Without Borders program was begun three years ago by Europa Editions, a publisher that specializes in international fiction. That year, they sent one bookseller to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.
“I’m not sure that the first year merits being called a program,” said Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa. “It was more an experiment.”
But a successful one. And so the next year the program was expanded to three booksellers. They all trekked off to Italy.
And this year, with Europa teaming up with six other publishers — including Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press — a full dozen booksellers will head abroad, to the Turin Book Fair this month, the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, and the Guadalajara International Book Fair in late November.
“This is important because booksellers are very much a part of the book ecosystem,” Reynolds said. “They are essential in the process of getting books into the hands of readers.”
For Weyandt, being chosen was a surprise — and it spurred a brief mild panic when he realized he had no idea where his passport was. Fortunately, he found it. And fortunately, he had no other plans for May 10-14, the dates of the Turin Book Fair. And fortunately his wife could take the week off to be with their kids.
“For me, literature has always been a way to travel to places both that I have been to, and places I never will visit,” Weyandt said. “It’s a way to understand the world better, in its simplest form. To see different things, understand different pieces of it.”
At Milkweed Books, he said, he sells quite a bit of translated literature already.
“I don’t know completely what to attribute that to,” he said. “You can only sell what you have, but there’s more of a willingness of readers to experiment. I find a lot more willingness for people to branch out than when I started in the business 20 years ago.”
Interest in translated books is growing across the country. In January, the National Book Foundation announced a new annual award that will honor a book — either fiction or nonfiction — that has been translated into English and published in the United States.
“It’s a very explicit acknowledgment that a national literature is composed of what is brought in from abroad,” Reynolds said. “National literature is never defined by formal geopolitical boundaries, and it seems to me that there is a greater understanding of that.”
So Weyandt will head to Turin along with booksellers from New York, Athens, Ga., and Washington, D.C. They will sit on panels, attend talks and browse the hundreds of vendors who have books on display.
The Turin Book Fair is Italy’s biggest fair, growing steadily for 32 years and attracting more than 300,000 people over five days.
“I think for the booksellers who go to this fair, their experience is going to be more focused on what is happening in Italy,” Reynolds said. “But Italy as a sort of stand-in for what is happening in European bookselling and literature.
“And plus the food is really good.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks