A TOWN IS NOT A TOWN WITH­OUT A BOOK­STORE!

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By

TCle­ment WulfSoulage he writ­ing is on the wall. STAR pub­lisher Rick Wayne poignantly refers to the na­tional aver­sion to read­ing as “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, to us read­ing seems to be an alien cul­ture. Should we care? You bet. It’s hard to imag­ine a na­tion, any na­tion, with­out book­shops. But then there is the Saint Lu­cian re­al­ity, how­ever hor­ri­fy­ing.

One more re­tail cloth­ing store, bank, fast-food out­let, or lawyer’s of­fice in an area al­ready awash in them tends to flat­ten the tone of a com­mu­nity. But 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 also say much about peo­ple. 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 award­win­ning 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 do not en­cour­age book­selling, de­spite that books re­main the most es­sen­tial of learn­ing tools. In the last three years or so, we have ob­served book­stores are dis­ap­pear­ing overnight while those that re­main carry 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 dis­heart­ened US pub­lisher 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 that 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 a 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 lo­cal book­stores shut­ting their doors be­cause they can’t ad­just to new eco­nomic re­al­i­ties is heart­break­ing. But it is also bad for the busi­ness of pub­lish­ing. Alas, lo­cal au­thors who de­pend on in­de­pen­dent brick-and­mor­tar 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 sub­ur­ban 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 with books. It’s not un­com­mon to hear adults ac­knowl­edge they haven’t read a good book since they left school. Gen­er­ally, to­day’s par­ents hardly en­cour­age their kids to read; 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 noise th­ese days. Ap­par­ently the ubiq­ui­tous ra­dio and TV call-in pro­grammes have turned most of them into ex­perts. But will a na­tion that won’t or can’t read even­tu­ally also for­get how to think?

For a small chest-beat­ing is­land that boasts of a No­bel Prize win­ner in Lit­er­a­ture, it’s kind of hard to be­lieve lo­cal au­thors are not given the recog­ni­tion and na­tional at­ten­tion they de­serve. Why aren’t the works of lo­cal writ­ers fea­tured more promi­nently at 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 per­sons of Rick Wayne, John Robert Lee, McDon­ald Dixon, Ken­del Hip­polyte, An­der­son Reynolds, Dawn French—to name only 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 they be truly in­spired to read avidly, write ex­per­i­men­tally and ap­pre­ci­ate our lo­cal he­roes and their art. I will never un­der­stand why our small na­tion hasn’t seen the need to make greater cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional use in our pri­mary and sec­ondary schools of our dis­tin­guished No­bel lau­re­ate Derek Wal­cott.

Li­braries and book­stores are the keep­ers of com­mu­nity now, in ad­di­tion to be­ing cen­tres for knowl­edge and recre­ational read­ing. I am there­fore 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 to show­case 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 freemi­umpric­ing 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 first named to dramatically re­struc­ture their sales, mar­ket­ing, and pro­duc­tion forces, and the lat­ter to scram­ble to find ways to con­tinue to sell phys­i­cal books. But no amount of dig­i­tal books or on­line brows­ing can come close to find­ing a rare book in a sec­ond-hand book­store, or hav­ing an au­thor ded­i­cate a hand­writ­ten note in­side his books es­pe­cially for 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 this: 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 of ig­nor­ing it. For com­ments, write to Cle­men­twulf@hot­mail. com - Cle­ment Wulf-Soulage

is a pub­lished au­thor and a for­mer uni­ver­sity lec­turer and

man­age­ment econ­o­mist.

Vis­i­tors to Saint Lu­cia of­ten en­counter No­bel win­ner Derek Wal­cott re­lax­ing or paint­ing at the beach. What a pity they

can­not buy his books and re­turn home with an

au­to­graphed vol­ume!

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