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A sad farewell in a city where books still matter

It was more than the rotten-egg smell that alerted us to the problem.

Most of the shops in the heart of Florence reeked of drains last week, after days of torrential rain in the wake of a spectacular storm that turned the city into a dramatic stage, lit by lightening and accompanied by the thunderous roll of kettle drums. As medieval waste pipes struggled to cope, even its upmarket boutiques and stores were a little unsavoury, so the odour sullying Edison's, one of the city's most popular bookshops, was nothing new. It was the shelves of cut-price books and empty stands that told their own story, as did the air of subdued crisis as staff sold the remnants of a once fine shop.

When we asked what had happened, a bookseller shrugged. "It's over," he said. "I am full of rage and sadness, but mostly rage."

Owned by the large Italian publisher Feltrinelli, the store, which has been a landmark in the Piazza della Repubblica for almost 20 years, had been axed to make way for an Apple shop. Younger Florentines are apparently delighted, but the bookshop's loyal customers are upset, though not surprised. In recent years, they have seen several bookshops in prime city-centre locations fade from the scene.

The bookseller politely invited us to a farewell celebration, but it seemed too melancholy an event to be marked with chinking glasses. Two days later, when the doors had been locked, the windows were blazoned with spray-painted sheets railing against the fact that such an act could be allowed to happen in the city of Dante.

The death of this shop was unsettling. While Florence still has far more, and better, bookshops than Glasgow or Edinburgh, it was a reminder that the philistinism so long evident in Britain when it comes to books is spreading. Even so, one can't imagine the closure of an Edinburgh bookshop leading to cries of "how could this happen in the city of Robert Louis Stevenson?" As I recall, the demise of Borders in Glasgow led to no public or professional protests, recriminations or soul-searching, let alone any furious invocation of the city's finest writers.

Yet while a chill has run down the spine of Florence's literati, the Italians still treat writers and reading with a level of respect we have long since lost. There are bookshops everywhere – even in small and remote hill towns – and there's no sense that chains are dominating the field. The books themselves are beautifully produced on good paper, with stylish covers. Compared with UK prices they are relatively expensive, and I've yet to see a three-for-two offer.

Before reaching Florence we'd spent a few days in Barcelona, which, being the bibliophile equivalent of a health spa, is a tonic for jaded bookish spirits. There are bookshops everywhere: glossy, mansion-like stores where the lino is so shiny you could skate through them, and tiny jewellery-boxes where, from behind a mahogany counter, the owner can almost reach every title. The range on offer is eye-watering: from airport bestsellers to literary classics and contemporary works in translation, each handsomely produced.

One sumptuous shop was devoted entirely to travel books. It was the size of a miniature multi-storey car park but with the atmosphere of a well-loved coffee-shop, except, like many of its peers, it didn't offer coffee. There was kick enough in browsing its shelves. I now understand why so many in the British trade flock to Frankfurt's annual Book Fair. As thousands of publishers from Europe and beyond touch down for a few days, like migrating geese in search of food, it's not the networking and selling they go for; not the parties or the auctions or the gossip. It's the nostalgic sense that in some parts of the world, books still matter.

As the sell-off of Edison shows, one can't be dewy-eyed about the future of the book, even in this more enlightened part of the planet. But when there, it's surely acceptable for a visitor to indulge briefly in that most bitter and underrated of sentiments: sheer, unadulterated envy.

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