Americans bought more than 750 million physical books in 2020, most of which, due to the pandemic, likely shipped direct to buyers. Hundreds of millions of e-books and audiobooks were also bought or borrowed and delivered instantly. And online preservation efforts mean millions more titles are already on the internet. While the publishing industry faces undeniable challenges, it's never been easier for book lovers to acquire books. But 'twas not ever thus.

For centuries, book buying was a monthslong process beginning with procuring parchment, made from the skin of sheep, goats or, in a pinch, donkeys. But you didn't simply take your package of parchment to a friend who knew how to write and order Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics." A codex or reliable manuscript had to be located so it could be copied. Then there was illustrating, binding. Shepherding such a lengthy project from start to finish required someone with tenacity, with connections.

One such person was Vespasiano da Bisticci, the titular character in Ross King's engrossing and meticulously researched new history "The Bookseller of Florence." In 1433, Vespasiano got his first job at a cartolaio selling stationery and books about halfway between the apse of the Duomo and the banks of the Arno, on what was then Via dei Librai. He was 11 years old.

In 1480, when he retired from that same shop, he had likely been personally responsible for the creation of at least 1,000 manuscripts, making him possibly "the king of the world's booksellers."

Because Vespasiano lived in Florence, "so long tempest-tossed," as Dante memorably characterized the city, Ross' story includes endless factionalism and infighting, between the Medici and Pazzi; between the Greek and Latin parts of the church; between Italy's different regions; between Italy and foreign adversaries; even between fans of Plato, Socrates and other big brains.

Vespasiano was touched by all these conflicts at some point, acquiring manuscripts for a pope or other personality seeking to bolster their legacy or library, or simply negotiating between artisans and archrivals he'd befriended philosophizing in front of his bookshop or around the city.

And as this is a book about books, Ross wrangles myriad details about their creation, including producing parchment, inks, illuminations, bindings, movable type and paper (sometimes from the wardrobes of Black Death victims!), as well as innovations in typography and layout. And for bibliophiles who are also word nerds, there's lots of juicy etymology.

Though Florence resisted the siren song of the printing press longer than any major Italian city, the machine's arrival in 1471 spelled the slow death of men like Vespasiano who simply couldn't compete with technology that made more copies faster and sold them for less. And since churning out large print runs required money up front, the model of publishing changed forever, turning "a reclusive scholarly activity [into] a business like any other."

Books, and therefore knowledge, may have flowed more freely, but booksellers suffered. And that, sadly, is a chapter that has continued long after Vespasiano's story ended.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

The Bookseller of Florence
By: Ross King.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 496 pages, $30.