Bookseller Nicola Orichuia

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A journalist on an incredible journey, Nicola Orichuia parlayed his passion for reading and knowledge into the first bricks-and-mortar Italian bookstore in the United States.

There are two things you need to know about Nicola Orichuia. Though he was born in Italy to Italian parents, his dad’s globetrotting career gave him an international perspective. Still, he is thoroughly Italian, transmitting the love of his native land to his new home in America. Also, he loves to read and share knowledge.

OK, that’s four things, but from those characteristics flow many of his achievements, from a journalism career in Rome, to his coming to Chicago and writing for Fra Noi, to the Italian-American magazine he launched in Boston, which resulted in the first brick-and-mortar Italian bookstore in the United States. Dubbed I AM Books, it quickly evolved into a cultural hub.

Orichuia now lives in a Boston suburb with his wife, Alessandra, and their three children. A surgeon at Lahey Clinic, Alessandra pursued a medical degree from Tor Vergata University in Rome and followed that with a two-year research position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She completed her surgical residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and Orichuia was with her every step of the way.

Those joint decisions — and no small amount of fate — have played significant roles in a remarkable journey that includes a two-decade-plus tenure as Fra Noi’s Italian editor. He’s covered a lot of ground in his 40 years. Let’s start from the beginning.

FRA NOI: Let’s talk about your roots in Italy. You’re from Roma?

ORICHUIA: I moved to Rome when I was 13. Before that, we globetrotted. My father worked for Eni, the oil company. We lived in Germany, Malaysia, China, Russia. My mom eventually said to my dad, “We have to give these kids some roots.” So we went to Rome.

When I was 17, I did my senior year of high school here in the United States, in St. Louis. After that, it was mostly Rome. I was studying communications, and two years into it, I was working for a small political newspaper right in the heart of Rome. I just fell in love with the world of journalism.

I graduated a month after Alessandra (then his girlfriend), even though my program was half the length, because I spent so much time working at that newspaper. She said, “I’m going to [do my medical] residency in the U.S. Hurry up and get your degree.”

We actually met as foreign exchange students. She went to Detroit, but we met on our way back to Italy. We married in Chicago in 2010 before moving to Boston.

FRA NOI: Tell me how your stay in Chicago unfolded.

ORICHUIA: I moved from Italy to Chicago in 2008 and did my master’s in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. I had reached out to a number of publications [seeking journalistic opportunities], and Paul Basile of Fra Noi responded. So I met with Paul, and we hit it off immediately.

FRA NOI: How did that seed grow into your bookstore?

ORICHUIA: In 2010, my wife and I moved to Boston, but I kept working with Paul and noticed the lack of an Italian-American journalistic presence in Boston.

I launched a website called Bostoniano, people were starting to go on it, and I said to Paul, “Let’s have Fra Noi here.” In December 2012, we launched Bostoniano in a paper format.

Then, one day in early 2015, I [was having] coffee with a friend who had a business in the North End, and he said he was closing and didn’t have rent money for the nine months left on his lease. I said, “Let me think about taking it over.”

My original thought was to have cultural events, but we had to make money to pay the rent. I thought, why not a bookstore? So I went with it.

It was a hole in the wall, and even though we were across from the Paul Revere house, a major tourist attraction, we were on the dead side of the neighborhood. But we were just excited to have space.

When we opened, we had to learn how to do everything — order books from publishers, set up a point of sale. But people bought into the idea of what we were trying to do.

FRA NOI: It’s amazing that it all fell into place. How did you make the business successful?

ORICHUIA: What helped us was starting to put together events in the store. I think we had been open 10 days, and I get an email from Tomie dePaola’s assistant. The year before, I had pushed Tomie to Paul Basile. We managed to get Tomie on the cover of Fra Noi. So two years go by, and I didn’t think of reaching out to Tomie, but he reached out to me and said, “We’d like to do a signing at your store.” The first time he came, 350 people showed up. He came the second and the third year, and we’d have 700 or 800 people stand in line for hours. Tomie is one of the reasons we survived the first few years. Seeing how attached people were to [Tomie’s] work, it made me understand how people are attached to certain books and authors. I was heartbroken when I heard of his passing.

FRA NOI: What is the bookstore’s mission, and what happened to Bostoniano?

ORICHUIA: I closed Bostoniano a year after opening the bookstore. The last issue was in fall 2016. For the bookstore, I AM Books is a play on words. It stands for Italian-American books, but we promote Italy, Italian culture and everything in between. Let’s create a space where if you have some connection to Italy or the immigrant experience, you’ll find something. Or at least you’ll feel at home, and there’s a space for you.

FRA NOI: Tell us how you survived the pandemic.

ORICHUIA: The bookstore opened in October 2015, and we were there until October 2020. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we closed the store and did curbside pickup. Our business kind of died out. Our lease was coming up, and our landlord wouldn’t cut us a break, so we closed. That forced me to invest my time in the website and the e-commerce side of things. I had never paid much attention to it.

With e-commerce, we went basically from 0 to 100. Suddenly, everyone’s ordering from us online. I started sending newsletters, being more active on social media. People in other places discovered us. We had customers before in New York and Connecticut, but then we started getting orders from Illinois, California, even places like Idaho.

I had to lay off the bookstore employees, but I put all the inventory in my basement and set up a shipping center. I’d have dozens of orders every day. It really supported the business.

So I was working from home, and someone from the neighborhood reaches out and says, “We should get the bookstore back up.” I was seeing what was available and found the 124 Salem St. address.

The ground floor space had sat empty since the building was built around 2016. The rent was high but reasonable, so I said, “Let’s give it a try.” From when I signed the lease in the spring [of 2021], I had to get construction done. We opened one week before Christmas 2021.

When I signed the lease last summer, it looked like the pandemic was basically over. Then, all of a sudden there’s delta, there’s omicron. But people still came. People were so excited to have us.

FRA NOI: Tell us about the events at the bookstore.

ORICHUIA: I have an events coordinator, Chiara Durazzini, who’s originally from Florence. We launched two online series. One is called “Libriamo;” it focuses on Italian authors who have been translated into English. The second series, “Our Voyage,” focuses on Italian-American themes and authors.

The inspiration for these events is a festival that we launched in 2018, Idea Boston. We hosted two days of 20 presentations, theater performances, photo exhibits. We repeated it in 2019. We were thinking about how we’d do it in 2020, but then the pandemic hit. I haven’t abandoned the idea of doing it in the future.

To join Orichuia on this remarkable journey, visit iambooksboston.com.

The above appears in the April 2022 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

 

About Pam DeFiglio

A lifelong writer. Pam DeFiglio works as an editor at the Chicago Tribune Media Group/Pioneer Press. She has won two Chicago Headline Club awards for previous work as an editorial writer and features writer at the Daily Herald. She also won National Federation of Press Women awards for Chicago Tribune news features on immigrants, and has worked in public relations at a university. She loves Italy and all things Italian, thanks to Nanna and a magnificent college year in Rome. She's grateful for all the people working to celebrate Italian culture in Chicago. Contact her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamdefiglio/

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