Goodbye to a Dear Friend: Tomie dePaola

By Nicola Orichuia

I often tell people that the reason our bookstore is still around today is because of Tomie dePaola. Let me share a little story with you…

Tomie dePaola and Nicola Orichuia at I AM Books in Boston

We opened our doors on Oct. 29, 2015, and some might have argued that calling ourselves a bookstore was a bit of a stretch back then. We had just a few bookshelves, very little inventory, and a potpourri of other items and gadgets that filled up the space. In other words: we were a serious work-in-progress.

But we had promoted the bookstore across a lot of media and, through a series of connections, Tomie found out about I AM Books. I’ll never forget receiving an email from his assistant Bob on Nov. 10, wondering if we wanted to organize a signing with Tomie in early December. The next day we had settled on Dec. 6 as the day for the signing, giving us little over three weeks to get books and promote the event.

To be honest, my partner Jim Pinzino and I focused more on getting books in those days leading up to the event, and left the promotion to the few online outlets we used back then: Facebook, newsletter, website. Somehow, word got out quickly that Tomie dePaola was going to sign books in Boston. And just like that, thousands of people were liking and sharing the event with family and friends.

When the day of the signing came around, Pascal went to pick up Tomie and Bob at South Station (Tomie came by bus!) and dropped them off at the bookstore. We hugged, as if we had always known each other. The energy that emanated from him was incredible.

More than 350 people showed up that cold December morning, and we sold several hundred books. We had never done a signing with anyone before. Every person, adult and child, left with a big smile. Some even cried, having finally met the creator of so many of their favorite characters and stories. The signing was in the back, in what is now our children’s section, and you could hear the laughter from outside. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

It became a little tradition to have Tomie come in late fall to the bookstore, and we did signings in 2016, 2017, and 2018 (at IDEA Boston). Every time, several hundred people showed up, patiently braving the cold, just to have a few minutes with Tomie. It was almost overwhelming to see so much love concentrated in the few square feet of our bookstore.

NIAF Staff Member Julia and her fiancé Sean meet Tomie dePaola at his signing at I Am Books during 2018 IDEA Boston.

Every year that Tomie would come by, he would see the bookstore grow, with more and more books filling up the space. By 2017, we could proudly call ourselves a bookstore. And that was in large part thanks to him and the many books of his we were able to sell.

Most importantly, though, I think Tomie dePaola showed all of us the power a good book holds. And how many hearts that book can touch. A well-crafted story will accompany you for the rest of your life. And so will the memory of Tomie. It will be here, in my heart, for eternity.

Nicola Orichuia is a former journalist originally from Rome. He opened I AM Books, the first Italian American bookstore in the United States, in Boston in 2015, and launched the Italian American-centric festival IDEA Boston in 2018. 

The bookstore is currently running a GoFundMe campaign to help cover immediate and unforeseen costs during the coronavirus pandemic: https://www.gofundme.com/f/i-am-books-emergency-fund

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Tomie dePaola (September 15, 1934 – March 30, 2020) had written and/or illustrated more than 270 books, including Strega Nona, Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose, Oliver Button Is a Sissy, and 26 Fairmount Avenue. Nearly 25 million copies of his books have been sold. Tomie dePaola and his work have been recognized with the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, and the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Lifetime Achievement Award. The American Library Association honored him with the Caldecott Honor and Newbery Honor awards, and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award (called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award until June, 2018) for “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”

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