As an advertising executive, Michele Bonelli was a mover and shaker with cash to splash. He was an archetype of the so-called Milano da bere (“Milan to drink”), a heady era of big parties and big spending in the 80s epitomised by the rise of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Today, living in remote Alpine beauty as the proprietor of an isolated bookshop in the mountains, the 68-year-old’s existence could not be more different.
Bonelli’s Milanese dream came to a crashing halt when he left advertising, then saw his marriage to the mother of his two children break down. A voracious reader, he found he had nowhere to keep his many books, so he began selling them online.
And that led, eventually, to his new start 150km away in Val D’Ossola, a grassy plain hemmed in by the Alps in Italy’s Piedmont region, near the Swiss border. This year he opened Tomi di Carta (Tomes of Paper), which, at 1,310m, is now the highest independent bookshop anywhere in Italy.
Located in a converted stone farmhouse near Trasquera, a village with fewer than 200 residents, the shop boasts 12,000 used volumes, and doubles up as a library where visitors can borrow books or read while sitting in comfy chairs and enjoying a glass of wine.
Visitors enjoy views over an alpine pasture that is covered with snow in the winter and lush vegetation in the summer. “It’s an incredible setting, if a little isolated,” Bonelli tells i. “I am much calmer up here. I dare say, even happy.”
Bonelli has lived on the lower floor of the farmhouse with half a dozen hens and two cats since 2022. He opened the shop on the upper floor at the start of this year, and it is already breathing new life into the village, with curious teachers taking children there on school trips. It will, Bonelli hopes, eventually become a refuge for holiday walkers or cross-country skiers.
Even so, he still sells 90 per cent of his books on the web, with an online catalogue of 50,000 volumes filled with rare titles by independent publishers and out-of-print editions. “I send books to Italians all over the world, from the US to Argentina, Japan and even New Zealand.”
While big booksellers do sell at high altitude – the Italian chain Feltrinelli has a small shop on Mont Blanc, at 3,466m, – their mountain stores are smaller operations than Tomi di Carta. Distributing around the world from a remote village is easier than it sounds, says Bonelli, who transports packs of books 500m down the road to a “large postbox”, where a courier picks them up.
It is the simplicity of life in Trasquera that appeals. “Up here, costs are lower, and you have more relaxed social relationships,” he says of the village, which has a bar, restaurant and corner shop. “I have friendly neighbours and I can head out for a spritz when I want.”
Another favourite pastime, he says, is putting on his snow boots to go on long walks with a friend.
It is a world away from Milan in the 80s, when Bonelli worked in television advertising. He grew tired of his wealthy clients’ “absurd requests”, suffered what he calls “a personal crisis” and quit his job.
He stayed afloat with a variety of roles – working in a call centre, as a water-sampling technician and as a manager of a local private TV station – but was forced to sell his house. After his marriage broke down, Bonelli lived for some time in temporary housing offering refuge to the down and out. As he no longer had anywhere to keep his books, he started selling them on eBay. They shifted quickly, and Bonelli spotted a business opportunity.
Bonelli set up Tomi di Carta online five years ago, initially working out of a warehouse on the outskirts of Milan. He realised a year ago it was time to make his next big step. “The kids had grown up, I’d sold the house and my desire to be in the mountains, which I’d always loved, had become overwhelming.”
He bought the farmstead, moved in and has been relocating his books there ever since, moving the bulk in a removals van and shifting the rest in up to 30 boxes he straps to the top of his car.
He has made friends with local factory workers, frontalieri (workers who travel over the border to Switzerland for higher wages), pensioners and the odd shepherd.
And the locals are increasingly joined by newcomers arriving from large cities, he says. “A young couple working for the Red Cross recently arrived. The local community has not been this vital for a long time.”
And the bookseller plans to be in the thick of it. “I did not want to have a sad retirement, I wanted to be active,” he says. “I wanted a new life.”