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Tabacchi sign“Don’t forget to pick up some matches,” I reminded the Captain when he was headed out to market for dinner the other day.

“It’s on the list,” he answered.  But this was no guarantee that the matches would come home with the groceries, because it takes a special stop at a special shop to get matches; you cannot buy them in a grocery store or supermarket.  Or at a gas station or a restaurant.  In fact, the only place you can buy matches (fiammiferi – fee-ah-me’-fair-ee) is at the shop of the tabachaio (tah-bah-kaay’-oh), the tobacconist.

The tabacchaio sells more than just tobacco and matches.  As you can see from the sign above he also sells Lotto tickets, salt (sale) and Valori Bollati (literally stamps with value).  Salt?  You can buy salt in the grocery store now; I’ve never actually tried to buy any from a tabacchaio,  it might be fun to try.

But WHY??  Why can we buy matches only at the Tabacchi?  Ha.  It’s because the State still has a monopoly on the sale of matches (as well as tobacco).  Look under the Right cross piece of the T in the photo – it says Riv No. 14.  That stands for Rivendita – a resale point – and this is tobacco shop #14 in Rapallo.  Our friend Sandro told us that the number of such shops is limited in each town; which is to say that if you or I wanted to open up a new cigarette store we’d be out of luck.  One must take special exams to sell tobacco, matches, etc., and it is difficult and complicated.  No surprise there.

Sandro said, furthermore, that once you have your tobacco store you serve at the pleasure of the State; you must be open at certain times, according to a state-determined schedule. As in any monopoly, prices are set by the monopoly-holder.  The box of matches that eventually found its way to our kitchen carried a tax stamp,tax stamp on match box like the ones that come on liquor bottles in the U.S.  No doubt the State gets a nice profit from the whole enterprise; they get to set the price and to tack on a tax. One kitchen-sized box of matches cost E1.

Valori Bollati are tax stamps.  A document frequently needs a tax stamp before it can be presented.  For instance, when we applied for our permessi di soggiorno we had to attach a tax stamp for E 14.62 (I know, but that’s what it was!) to each application. Most applications carry a tax charge, and you get the stamp, the bollato, from the tabacchaio.  This is the same thing as the ‘application fees’ that US residents know so well.  The only difference is that there’s an added layer of inconvenience: you have to go to the Tabacchi to get the stamp, instead of just paying at the office where you’re filing your paper.

And the salt?  Turns out the State used to have a monopoly on salt, but gave it up in 1976, at the behest of the European Economic Commission.  Why the signs have not been changed in the intervening 30+ years is a mystery.  (Lotto has been around in Italy at least since the 1880’s, as this New York Times article explains).

It’s seems odd to an American, this business of a monopoly.  We have laws forbidding such things in the States, but here in Italy it is part of the government’s business.  The only monopoly I can think of in the US is the postal service, and even that has competition from FedEx and UPS. Other than taxes I can’t think of another government monopoly – can you?

You won’t find The Little Match Girl in Italy.  In fact, unless you go to the Tabacchi, you won’t find any matches at all.