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TUSCANY BY THE BOOK

OUTSIDE, THE SEPTEMBER SUN beat down on Lucca’s postcard streets with the ferocity of a boxer who knows his best days could be behind him. But inside—just a few months before the world went sideways—it was dark and cool and smelled of ink. Matteo Valesi put on some Bob Dylan and brushed clear a space at a table overladen with books and papers. He motioned for me to sit, then peered at me closely. “You’ll need to answer carefully,” he said. “This is not to be entered into lightly. I’ll need to know your family history, your passions, who you are.”

I wasn’t at this shop for therapy. I was there, at the Antica Tipografia Biagini, for a bookplate.

It had been decades since my previous visit. I was in college the first time I traveled to Tuscany, and my memories of that trip are mostly the standard-issue stuff of any backpacking student: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the David, the sniffy waiters offended by dinner orders that consisted of a single plate of tortellini with a carafe of tap water, the hostels and gelato and trains and random Italian boys you make out with by the Ponte Vecchio. But there was one aspect of that trip that seemed a little more personal, something only a nerd like me could adore: the books. As the birthplace of the poet Dante and a key center for scholarship during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Tuscany has long been associated with literature and the pursuit of knowledge. But because of its reputation for craft, it also preserves a relatively high number of enterprises devoted to books as objects: dusty, genteel bookshops lit by chandeliers; old-fashioned printshops; binderies that fashion book covers from irresistibly supple leather; libraries with their long tables and coy little lamps; students who come from all over to study

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