Pontremoli and its surrounding territory, la Lunigiana, which is located in the northern tip of Toscana, has always been a point of departure for emigration towards the north of Italy and abroad. Amongst these emigrants there is a particular “species”, unique to this area, called i librai della Lunigiana (the Lunigiana booksellers), who have been plying their trade since time immemorial. They were already well known in the Nineteenth Century, before the unification of Italy, when both il Granducato di Toscana and il Ducato di Parma were under Austrian dominion.
Every Spring whole families would leave their villages, the two most famous being Montereggio and Mulazzo, and meet together on the Passo della Cisa, the main pass between Pontremoli and Parma on the Appennino Tosco Emiliano. There they would divide up the various marketing territories amongst themselves in order not to create unfair competition, and share information about where to get hold of cheap books to sell. With the little money that they made from selling chestnuts and cheese (traditional to Lunigiana), they would get fondi di magazzino (end of line books) from the publishers, who even produced special ‘economical’ books for them, badly bound, and printed with worn-out characters on cheap paper. These forerunners of the cut price paperback were known as pontremolesi.
Once they had managed to fill up their gerle (baskets) with books and other saleable objects, i bancarellai lunigianesi (the bookstall owners from Lunigiana) would head down to the important towns where they would set up their bancarelle (stalls) under the porches, and sell prints, calendars, prayer books and copies of Italian and foreign classics to passers by. These librai lunigianesi were almost illiterate, but they had a sixth sense for choosing the right books. Year after year they would come back to the same place to sell their wares, and by the end of the Nineteenth Century many of them had become wealthy enough to open important bookshops in most of the towns in central northern Italy. Some even set up bookshop in countries such as Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, and France, where they had emigrated from Lunigiana.
In 1952 a meeting of the descendants of these old bancarellai was organised in Lunigiana. At the meeting, friends and relatives who had not seen each others for decades, met up again. And whilst sitting together and eating traditional local food and drinking local wine they came up with the idea of setting up the Premio Bancarella (Book Stall Prize). The first Premio Bancarella took place in Pontremoli the following year, 1953, where the prize was awarded to Ernest Hemingway for his famous novel “The old man and the sea”. Since then, every penultimate week-end of July without fail, for just a couple of precious days the sleepy old country town of Pontremoli is transformed into an important cultural centre, and host to illustrious literary guests.