Tell a Story, a bookstore in a van: interview

When I first read about Tell a Story, I didn’t quite know what to think. A bookstore in a van? How would that work, I wondered. But the more I read about this unique store, the more I loved the idea — Tell a Story takes it’s love of books and Portuguese literature to the streets, to the people and the tourists who probably never thought about the literature the country offers, or where to find it for that matter. They were kind enough to do an interview with me.

As you sit down to answer these questions, where are you headed to tomorrow in the van? Why are you going there?

Right now the weather in Portugal is at its coldest. January and February are the worst months because the van does not go out when it is raining. But, if there’s a chance the sun will show up, the van will go to a garden. Either the garden of Principe Real or São Pedro de Alcântara. This bookshop really likes to be in gardens, because people tend to have time and space to stop and browse. 

tell a story 2How did this wonderful travelling library idea come to life? Why did you decide to go with a van and not a conventional store?

It is a long story. I’ve always wished to have a bookshop, and every time I go abroad  I have the habit of always going to a local bookshop and find local authors. If I know the language I buy it in the original version, if not I try to find a translation – the issue is that when we try to get a translation it is difficult. Furthermore every time I receive a foreign friend I try to get him a book by a local author, but it was always a difficult task. That was the moment I started thinking “I wonder if…”. But I soon realized that opening a bookshop with Portuguese authors translated to foreign languages in the centre of Lisbon would be very expensive and highly unlikely to be sustainable. Then, a couple of months after, when I was in Shanghai I saw a guy selling cheap American novels in a fruit cart. That was the moment I realized that this business had to be mobile.  I should be going to my clients, and not expect my clients to come to me. And that is when it all began.   

What was the most unexpected thing you realised about working in a mobile store like this after the store began?

There are several things I was not expecting, namely the pride and support I have received from the people living in Lisbon. In principle this was not a bookshop for them. Notwithstanding there is a sense of pride of seeing “their” literature in other languages and covers that they have never seen.

How long have has it been in operation? How have things changed since it began?

The operation started in July 2013. Much has changed. We started doing literary walking tours on one hand, and on the other we started our publishing business. We are now publishing our own Tell a Story books. 

The van brings translated Portuguese authors’ works to a wider audience/tourists – what has the Tell a story 1response been from tourists?

The response has been overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms of sales, but definitely in terms of exchange of ideas, discussion about books. Those who like books always stop and chat. Some buy, others don’t but all are very encouraging.

Has anything surprised you in the requests for authors from people?

Many requests are impossible to satisfy because are such niche authors that either the translation does not exist, or it is long lost. But it is surprising the knowledge many foreigners have on Portuguese literature and poetry.

Can you tell us about the publishing company you’ve started and the plans you have for it?

We have published 3 books now, and this year we are preparing another 3. We have a collection of authors whose authorship rights are in the public domain, such as Fernando Pessoa. We published a collection of his writings about Lisbon, called “Lisbon Disquiet”, and a book of poetry written originally in English.  And we also want to translate authors that do not have a English translations so far. Last year we have translated and published a book by Afonso Cruz called “Jesus Christ Drank Beer”.

This year we are going to publish other authors, and we are really looking forward to,

Interested in more on Tell a Story? Check out their site.

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