I have written before about the importance of small scale business to the quality of life in Italy, but I’ve concentrated more on the well-established neighborhood “Mom and Pop” enterprises than I have on those that might well be even smaller or itinerant. As a child growing up in the United States, I was delighted by the eery recorded calliope music of the approaching Ice Cream Truck during the sweltering heat of summer. And I remember my mother masterfully managing door-to-door vacuum cleaner and encyclopedia salesmen with their elaborate in-home demonstrations and displays. These people along with the human transaction they required, though perhaps irritating to my parents, were fascinating to me and added to the texture of my early years.
In Italy work on this scale is alive and well, or so it seems, in the form of negozi ambulanti or itinerant boutiques and services. Tiny three-wheeled trucks (api, or “bees”) ply their way through the city streets selling goods and services at your doorstep, calling their wares as they go. “Arrotino! Arrotino!” This is the cry of the knife-sharpener, who often also repairs umbrellas or supplies replacement parts for gas stoves. Another “pick-up” model of the same small truck sells house plants. I love seeing the tiny truck zip through town laden with palms like so much plumage on an exotic bird. In the summer, an ape comes by our street with crates of Pugliese strawberries. And there are fleets of others that buzz through the city, spending different days in different piazzas, selling everything from linen to cashmere to beach clothes.
But my favorites by far, and I can’t say exactly why, are the men (there may be women as well, but I’ve never seen any) who re-cane chair seats. They themselves are not always visible, as they seem to leave their posts often to take coffee- or grappa-breaks. But they leave the signs of themselves, their craft and their business in full view, though randomly, around the city sidewalks. I’m referring to the image you see above: the plastic chair with a strip of caning taped to it. Usually, there will be business cards distributed there as well. If you have chairs that need repairing—we always seem to—you pick up a card and call later to make arrangements. I, who also try to make a living by selling what I do, am in awe of the simplicity and efficiency of this arrangement. I’m sure annual earnings are low, but there is, somehow, great dignity and honesty in this lo-tech self-promotion. “This is what I do. If you’re interested, call. Basta.”