Milan isn’t made just of glitzy fashion shops. On the contrary: its hidden beauty is revealed to you upon request. To a local, possibly.
And this, my friends, is the story about my personal Narnia.
On a surprisingly fresh(ish) day in midst of a heatwave week we’ve set our minds to a hunt for a book dating 1539: the bug had been planted by a friend who discovered it online. Yet book lovers can confirm, you don’t buy that sort of item blindly. You want to touch it, smell it, look at it and daydream about the times it was made, so many centuries far from our own reality.
There are several antique bookshops in the city as it’s sort of a pet peeve of local men, but only one is so distinctively and quintessentially Milanese: the Malavasi.
You can see it from the outside too: no modern lights, no modern windows, it’s like stepping into the ’40s and forgetting that just in front of it there’s a nightclub. It’s a family business (obviously) and ever since its first day it has been a home to scientists, professors, researchers – anyone with a passion for books, studies, mementos of the past.
It has been bombed, yet has survived, and they have proudly launched themselves into the digital area very very soon (in fact, much sooner than others) and manage today to have modernity and antiques in perfect harmony.
Yet the shop is a jump into the ’50s and ’60s. You enter and found yourself immersed in towering shelves full of antiques: the smell of the books inebriates you, the low lights and the neutral colours are soothing, the furniture is massive woodwork and everything is meant to put the books in the spotlight, nothing else. There is peace and quiet and no trace whatsoever of tourists, it is a place meant specifically for connaisseurs and people truly passionate of studying.
The owners are brothers, direct descendants of the founder, and they are knowledgeable and discreet: their attitude is very Milanese, not too warm and not too cold, welcoming but without overshadowing the library itself. What I appreciate most is the permission to look – and touch – freely, as they believe in touching and feeling more than anything. (it goes without saying that one should be careful with antiques, as they morally demand by their nature)
This trip to the past is precious in order to understand what it really means to be Milanese: a city that has always had a high degree of proper and ladylike for women, a place to go for men when they wanted to make it in life – always known as cold and unwelcoming when compared to other Italian cities, but in reality – anything but.
The old-school name-sign at this store reminds me of old photos of my husband’s grandfather, when men use to dress properly (honest-to-God suit, tie and well polished shoes at any given moment) and women were the example of femininity. There are no many botteghe storiche (historical shops) left but those who are there are guaranteed to make you smile and also to make you feel like a member of a secret society, known to locals.
So, when in Milan, do yourself a favour and dedicate an hour to this magical space: your mind and soul will thank me, and you’ll see something entirely different than what’s in your Lonely Planet guide.
The Malavasi bookshop can be found in Largo Schuster 1, Milan. Website here.