Whoever Finds a Book Finds a Treasure

The used-book sale in the historical Palazzo della Gherardesca, organized by the GS (Student Youth) group of the Florence Students Association. A reality that drew applause from politicians and city administrators, and even was given a convention with the city of Florence


“You see, Councilor, here are the computers. They aren’t brand new, but we have connected them to a network; we use them to check the availability of a book, its condition, and its price.” Claudio, a young Florentine high school student, confidently guides City Councilor for Public Instruction Daniela Lastri through the rooms of the Meeting Point, the “flea market” that the GS students of the Florence Students Association have built up in three years, right in the heart of Florence.
Claudio is proud–as are his peers Edoardo and Erica, “co-leaders” of this initiative–when he can tell the Councilor that, last year, “we added 1,900 new members.” Thousands of middle school students have crossed the threshold of the former school on Borgo Pinti where the municipal administration has granted them space. These are young people who, as the local newspaper La Nazione
wrote, “come in to look for a book and find something that lasts them their entire lives.”
It was a warm spring morning, and the ancient street which the fifteenth century Palazzo della Gherardesca faces was enlivened by the to-and-fro movement of youth from the association and their friends, parents, teachers, and everyone invited to this “open house” that was the prelude to a busy end of the school year, which included “retreats” for those facing graduation exams and a new season for the secondhand book sale.
Wandering through the Meeting Points rooms, which were dressed up for the occasion, were not only the Councilor for Public Instruction. At the same time, other young people were accompanying Councilor for Culture, Rosa Maria Di Giorgi, while still others were touring with Tea Albini, responsible for the city’s property, who, because of her position, was the “landlady” of sorts. Together in a group were Regional Councilor Paolo Bartolozzi, City Council Vice-President Graziano Grazzini, and his colleagues Mattei, Tondi, Bugliani, and Toccafondi (who, as a former GS member, helped run a secondhand book market in years that are not so very distant).

Discovering the classics
Politicians and administrators from different points on the political spectrum joined together to recognize and praise this Florentine reality. This is a sign that the work and commitment poured into what goes on in these rooms have a civic value appreciated by those who have the responsibility of governing public life. For this reason, the city of Florence has decided to grant a convention with the association, recognizing the monetary value of all its activities. These activities begin with providing assistance to students. “We meet in groups to review the more difficult subjects,” Edoardo explains. “Often our university friends help us, and sometimes we organize review and tutorial sessions with teachers.” Is this a “technical” matter? “Oh, no,” he replied, “rather, it’s a way to get excited about our work, which is for us studying, and above all it is a chance to discover a connection between what we are studying and what we like, what excites us. This makes studying more enjoyable.” Edoardo is in the classical high school, and these friendships have led him to rediscover the classics–or better, to read them in a different and more profound way. This gave him the idea of putting on a play with his friends, with the help of Franco Palmieri, a director at the Teatro dell’Arca.

Theatrical expression
This, too, happens at the Meeting Point. “The desire to do theater was born from the discovery of the extraordinary beauty and profundity with which the great Greek tragedians and later Shakespeare viewed man,” he relates. “This became a focus of work and friendship with friends from all the different schools (classical, scientific, vocational) on how we could communicate this discovery to others.” This is an activity that Vincenzo Bugliani, City Councilor from the Green Party, a high school teacher and a long-time friend of the secondhand book sale, has been able to observe closely. “In school, many teachers make Greek theater live,” he commented, “but in this case there was something very different. The experience was born out of the need of the students themselves. They discovered texts that are read in school (and often with difficulty), hearing in them living voices that still speak to us from books of long ago.” “And today in school,” Bugliani went on, here clearly talking as a teacher, “even The Betrothed
is felt to be difficult and distant from the students’ world. Instead, Edoardo and his friends have found passages from the Greeks and the Bard of Avon that highlight the roots of the existential laceration and the possibility for hope which these texts suggest. This in an experience of students who are not extraneous to the world, but are fully integrated in the world, seeing everything with their own eyes.”
The encounters at the Meeting Point involve every area of life, among students from all the different schools and also some persons with disabilities–many of them young–from the cooperative with headquarters in the same building, who mix with the students, becoming a familiar daily presence.
Claudio, who sits on the middle students council and moved about from one city councilor to the other during the open house, is one who was “snared” by this experience. “I was struck and amazed by the way things were done,” he recalls. “This is an enterprise, an experience of work; we learn to go about it seriously, and this inevitably changes the way we approach school. What struck me was the capacity these kids my age had to conceive of themselves not individually, but as a unit. Their unity is visible in every small detail,” whether they are studying or having fun. Yes, these teenagers do crack the books, but they also laugh and sing and do volunteer work, just like many others. “We are totally committed, in every direction. But every moment is one in which to grow, to learn something. Even our fun times: we watch movies together, we make music, discover traditional Florentine songs, take trips to art centers. But this kind of fun does not distract us, does not divert our attention….” And doing the AVSI (Association for Volunteers in International Service) booths –as well as benefit dinners with soccer players, theater, exhibitions–is not only, as Erica recalls, “being useful, helping those who suffer, but above all it means taking our lives seriously.”

Students at work
Councilor Lastri and Councilman-Professor Bugliani, invited by the young people to a debate on the theme, “Students at Work,” listened, satisfied. “The city believes in this; for this reason it granted a convention,” the Councilor explained. “I will be back for the secondhand book sale because I am intrigued by something that creates friendship and solidarity. It is an important relationship for this phase in the life of young people and a significant experience for our city. For this reason I hope that the Mayor will come with me in June. We have to make sure this project goes forward, maybe even with some shared initiatives, networking with other experiences.”
But what can this free association of young people, in an educational experience open to all, say to the world of politics? “When there is passion, energy, coming together to travel the path of solidarity, politics can only see this as an asset to society, even if the initiative is taken by private citizens (and in this case by young citizens),” Daniela Lastri answered. Bugliani continued, “The liveliness of this initiative is indispensable for renewing politics, a kind of politics that is saved only by learning to recognize what is done well, more than doing itself.”
Fifteen years ago, when Florence Students was born, the first secondhand book market was set up using pieces of construction scaffolding, in a public square. Marco remembers this well, as he was there. “We took turns to keep the books from being stolen,” he told the audience at the open house. There wasn’t even a headquarters then. But there was the same passion for what is human that passion has generated all this that the city (and its administrators) can see (and recognize) today.