THE writing is on the wall. Star Publisher Rick Wayne poignantly calls it “the curse of Derek Walcott”. To the growing list of things in Saint Lucia that will be extinct in our children’s world, we can now add bookstores. Does it surprise us? No. After all, reading seems to be an alien culture to us. Should we care? Yes. It’s hard to imagine a nation, let alone a city without bookshops.
One more retail clothing store, bank, fast food outlet, or lawyer’s office in an area awash with them tends to flatten the “tone” of a community; few elements enliven a public space like a good bookstore. They do more than sell books. They define the character of a street, neighbourhood, town, or city. They play an integral part in our ecosystem of the written word and a city’s culture. Neil Gaiman, believing bookstores to be an important fabric of a community, proclaimed in his award-winning novel, American Gods: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
As Sunshine Bookstore and the like will attest, the times are not encouraging to be a bookseller, despite the fact that books remain the most essential tool for the transfer of learning. In the last three years or so, we have observed a trend where bookstores are slowly disappearing and those that are still around are carrying less and less stock. The culprits behind the recent closures are many: high rents, VAT, the decline in reading, the rise of e-books and the buying and selling of used books online. Perhaps money is a critical factor: books are expensive in a world where information on the web is largely free. As a large US publisher disheartenedly points out, “There are many reasons for the decline of bookstores. Blame the business model of superstores, blame Amazon, blame the shrinking of leisure time, blame a digital age that offers so many bright, quick things, which have crippled our ability for sustained concentration. You can even blame writers, if you want, because you think they no longer produce anything vital to the culture or worth reading. Whatever the case, it is an historical fact that the decline of the bookstore and the rise of the Internet happened simultaneously; one model of the order and presentation of knowledge was toppled and superseded by another. For bookstores, e-books are only the nail in the coffin.”
Of course, to see so many bookstores in the island slowly and steadily shutter their doors because they can’t adjust to new economic realities is heartbreaking, but it is also bad for the publishing business as a whole. Alas, local authors who depend on independent brick-and-mortar bookstores to promote and sell their works will not function effectively without such retail and distribution outlets.
The more discerning among us will doubtless lament the steady disappearance of a last great place for meandering. An oasis of calm in a hectic city and in sub-urban malls, where we go to kill time, expose ourselves to new stuff, look for a gift without something specific in mind, and maybe pick up something on impulse while we’re there. A good friend of mine who is an established author frantically warned that if enough people stop taking their business to the remaining bookstores, “a beautiful cultural reality will transmogrify into a social fiction. And that, in turn, will threaten a set of values that has been with us for as long as we have had books.”
For as long as I can remember, Saint Lucians have had an ambivalent relationship towards reading. It’s not uncommon to hear adults bemoan the fact that they haven’t read “a good book” since they left school. Generally, parents today hardly encourage their kids to read voraciously as the internet has become the main resource for research and recreation. Is it any wonder that many of our kids cannot think critically and are not intellectually curious? Even the adults themselves do not read for facts and have become poor listeners, yet everyone seems to have an expert opinion on everything (a phenomenon I refer to as the ACE syndrome –advisors, consultants and experts). The isle is so full of noises these days. Apparently the ubiquitous radio and TV call-in programmes have turned most of them into experts. But will a nation that stops reading or refuses to read eventually stop thinking?
For a small chest-beating island that boast of producing a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, it’s kind of hard to believe that local authors are not given the kind of recognition and national attention that they deserve. Why aren’t the works of local writers featured more prominently in cultural events and school activities around the island? Haven’t we recognized the importance of fully utilizing our intellectual and cultural capital in fostering nation-building?
Saint Lucia has great literary talent in the person of Rick Wayne, John Robert Lee, McDonald Dixon, Kendel Hippolyte, Anderson Reynolds, Dawn French, to name a few. We need to get these writers, poets and playwrights to our schools periodically to present their works to our kids. Only then can our kids be truly inspired to read avidly and write experimentally, and appreciate our local arts and artistic heroes. I will never understand why our small nation hasn’t seen the need to make greater cultural and educational use of our distinguished Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, in our primary and secondary schools.
Libraries and bookstores are the keepers of community now in addition to being centres for knowledge and recreational reading. Hence, I am appealing to the state to make it a statutory requirement for every primary and secondary school in Saint Lucia to have a library, on the grounds that there are proven links between reading and attainment. One gets the impression that over the years, the use of library services has been undervalued and neglected. In any event, local libraries need to actively source books from all local authors and showcase them in special sections and exhibit them at special events.
I am fully aware that the world is moving from analogue to digital, from products to services, and from premium to freemium pricing models. However, no matter what one thinks of Amazon, it has been wildly effective at wiping out the competition—thanks to its demographic reach and massive used book inventory. E-books have truly revolutionized the publishing and book-selling industries, forcing the former to restructure their sales, marketing, and production forces dramatically, and the latter to scramble to find ways to continue to sell physical books. But no amount of digital books or online browsing can even come close to finding a rare book in a second hand bookstore or having an author dedicate a handwritten note inside his books to you.
It’s really no surprise that the death of the bookstore has coincided with a decline in the literary and creative arts. Saint Lucia and the wider Caribbean have the potential to build a cultural economy on the pillars of their creative industries and literary capital. Unfortunately, the neglect of the creative and literary arts industry bodes ill for our local economy since it could have given this country a unique advantage in a world evermore reliant on the knowledge economy. For all we know, this could have been the elusive answer to our unemployment problem. The point is if we are to truly make an economic success of the creative industries in Saint Lucia, we must aim to strengthen the sector, promote intellectual property rights and invest in the next generation of content creators to keep the flow of IP coming. The economic benefits could be huge. Now the challenge for public policy is to fully embrace and invest in this dynamic sector or regret the dire consequences if ignored.
The road ahead will be difficult and the solutions to save the book industry lie outside the industry itself. It falls to political and community action and policy that can provide tax and other subsidies to bookstores. Another idea is to use non-profit organizations to incorporate a bookstore’s presence into commercial or mixed-use real estate development in towns and cities.
Sadly, contemporary life as is being presented to us is not enriching our lives but instead impoverishing our experiences, and the demise of bookstores is a perfect example.
For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Former University Lecturer, Management Economist and Published Author.