It is certainly no news to report that in the last few years, the local media has been getting increasingly inundated with articles focusing on local cultural aspects. Surely, this is something commendable if this ‘cultural content’ is replacing tabloid-like stories, gossip and irrelevant speeches on trifling matters by village politicians. It is in the context of such an atmosphere that I will humbly put forward some observations on a matter which book lovers like myself, find very worrying. And my appeal comes as a result of these observations.
There were times when in Malta you could find bookshops. Now, of course some would disagree with this blunt statement which, although short in words, is enough to frame two distinct historical epochs having different ramifications. Let’ start dissecting. what is a bookshop?
A bookshop can be many different things to different people, hence different definitions are in order. However, we can easily distinguish between types of bookshops which are no more, and the so-called bookshops of today.
In the not so distant past we had bookshops which sold good quality books and stocked their shelves with the best titles of the day; and by best titles I don’t simply mean the most sold holiday paperbacks. Book lovers are still nostalgic reminiscing about the days when one could walk into Sapienza in Valletta or Florida in Sliema and be able to browse through the best contemporary fiction and a divergent mix of academic titles. And the booksellers used to be well-read individuals with whom you could even have a decent conversation on books and their authors. Gone are the days when bookshops used to be a social point where one could meet people with similar interests. Under the rectorship of Peter Serracino Inglott, students of the University of Malta could even make use of an independent bookshop run by a cooperative which did not restrict itself to the importation of books used solely for University courses, but actually had its own distinguished character by stocking and selling a wide range of interesting titles on many different subjects.
Book lovers can hardly be tagged as ‘romantics’ for harboring nostalgic feelings for bookshops. Nowadays, the sale of books in Malta is dominated by a number of bookshops, which, as a general rule, are all based on the same commercial model, with the sole purpose of a quick return. Book selling has become restricted to children’s books, textbooks, Melitensia and the occasional super-star best-seller title which hits the international headlines mainly for its controversial vacuity, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Da Vinci Code”. Occasionally, you could find Paulo Coelho in these bookshops, but nearly all other English titles are simply third-rate publications which in England would probably be found lying about in bazaars and big bargain shops. Forget about Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens, Marx, Brecht, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Thompson, shortlisted Booker authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, and did I mention Noble Prize winners? There’s the Internet for all that. Surely, ebooks have taken a share of this market, but this is only one factor which has caused the demise of the bookshop. There are still people out there who are purchasing large numbers of good quality paperbacks off Internet sites, for the simple reason that they have no alternative. And to further rub salt in the wound, one of the last bookshop owners still standing has told me that she will not bring in new stock again, while another bookshop popular with University students has recently reduced its shopping hours.
However, I refuse to accept the assumption that the demise of the bookshop has been simply brought by a decline in readership and the phenomena of ebooks and electronic devices. Indeed, book sellers and publishers alike have been remarking along the recent years that book sales weren’t what used to be. However, I would like to propose readers of this article to consider this situation in an inversed manner: that the demise of the bookshop has created a readership crisis and further fuelled ebook sales. Readers still exist, and despite dwindling book sales and Eurobaromter surveys, cynically implying that the Maltese people are philistines, there is still out there, a very large number of book-lovers who would be more than glad to make use of bookshops to buy reading material for their own enjoyment and personal interests. But what are they actually buying from the current bookshops available? Well, they are buying books by Maltese authors, of course, and the market is flooded with them.
It is truly encouraging to see new emerging authors having their works published and read by many. The new generation of writers is divergent and the talent is not lacking: Immanuel Mifsud, for example, even won the EU Prize for Literature. But then, one asks how wise is our belief that we should only be concerned about selling Maltese titles and not foreign ones? Undoubtedly, we should concentrate our efforts to support local publishers and native authors with all means possible, but while doing so, it seems that we have also forgotten that, apart from Maltese authors, there is a world out there with thousands of new books being published every single day.
Maltese authors and publishers should not look at foreign authors as their competitors. Instead I believe that they should complement each other. And it is in this spirit that I call for the revival of the bookshop. If Maltese authors are in fact selling their books, and if all those Maltese readers, hooked on books, are buying paperbacks off the Internet, then there is still the possibility of reviving the ‘old type’ of bookshop.
Having said that, if we want to revive, nostalgically, the old type of bookshop, creating a kind of Dickensian Curiosity Shop, then we have to take into account also the impact of current technology, for example, the ebook and Internet exposure, and try to blend the old with the new. At the end of the day, it is up to the owner or manager of the bookshop to ensure that s/he stocks the best of current cultural and literary offerings. A bookseller with an educated taste will ultimately be able to attract clients with similar sensibilities and powers of discernment.