Only recently, the Agenda bookshop in the exclusive departures section of the Malta International Airport has been replaced with the WHSmith franchise. Unfortunately, this is not good news. Only one side of the shop remains dedicated to books and the rest is now stocked with food, drinks and magazines. In retail terms, the bookshop has turned into a newsagent.
The prospect of the major book-chain in Malta making space for a new franchise of shops that fully comply with the definition of a newsagent seems very worrying. Yet, this change seems peculiar given the healthy indicators of the book market. According to NSO statistics from 2010 to 2014, the total retail value of books sold by all local distributors and bookshops in Malta increased by an average of 4% per year and it is predicted that forthcoming statistics will reconfirm this increasing trend. Over all, book imports both in wholesale terms made by bookshops and distributors and in terms of individual purchases made through the internet are also increasing.
Agenda bookshop is practically the backbone of the book industry in Malta and most of the players in the book industry depend on it – a small change in the infrastructure of its operations will of course easily affect the rest of the industry. The fight to retain shelving and thus conserve the market platform from which locally published books are sold along with their international counterparts is hardly only a Miller Distributors issue (Miller Distributors being the current owner of both the local Agenda chain and the WHSmith franchise) but an issue that is much broader in nature and which probably has to do with the general culture of how business is conducted in Malta.
In Malta we do not have the privilege of debating whether private capital patronage of the arts is acting as a complement to the power and influence of the elite. Instead, cultural patronage in Malta is so rare that the government has ended up in the awkward situation of actually having to beg for cultural patronage with desperate measures. The Arts Council has recently announced a scheme to grant a maximum of 150% tax rebate capped at €50,000 to cultural patrons.
The scheme will of course reap immediate benefits for the arts community if it actually comes to the attention of anyone with enough capital to spend, but the scheme itself is also testament to the tragic situation in which culture, the arts and, as a consequence, even research and development, are shunned by our local business elite. These are the sectors of the economy which, at face value, look risky and difficult to succeed in, however they are also sectors which provide sustainability in the long-term and added-value to the economy. Surely, in order to succeed in these sectors one has to be creative and creativity is hard to find in the local business class.
The concept of obtaining quick and easy profits is endemic in the local business culture and this is also reflected in the recurring pattern of how capital is invested. In Malta we have no shortage of mega-millionaires and mega-businesses as the profits of major supermarkets and the relentless construction opportunities which are now leading us to the sky (and maybe even beyond) can attest. What’s surely lacking is a sense of sustainability, a sense of commitment to the general development of the economy and society even in cultural and educational terms. It seems that the only option available for the local elite to clear their conscience is to annually donate a small part of their surplus to charity.
The fact that major private capital investment in the property industry is being made loosely and following no clear direction or sense of planning whatsoever is quite clear and evident to all. In the wake of the excessive (and rising) cowboy investment in the construction and property industry, Minister of Finance Edward Scicluna has come across as the voice of reason when he insisted that investment should be well planned so as to avoid overheating and overcapacity. Still, it seems that reason only thrives in limited corners of the local business industry and it generally fades away unnoticed like a noble gas.
All of this can change, but not with tax incentives – in the long-term and considering our current condition these types of tax incentives will serve to augment the idea that investing money in the arts, culture or research development is only a rare form of charity which doesn’t give enough credit in return, so much so that it needs to be incentivised by the government.
The government needs to start making clear and strong demands on the business elite. If mega-millionaires are being allowed to make mega-profits, the least the government can do is instill a sense of responsibility and commitment in the big business community towards the general economic-social, cultural and intellectual health of society and not just make sure they are committed to the rule of law. Alas, the situation in this regard is so dire that even commitment to the rule of law is lacking and I need not mention the many times persistent law breaking by the rich and powerful went unpunished, such as for example the irregular fish farming practices which are contaminating our shores with slime, the illegal Montekristo Zoo and the countless infringements in the construction industry.
As for the book industry, the National Book Council has always worked closely with private players in the industry and is always available to collaborate with such entities to support the long-term sustainability of the industry, including Miller Distributors itself. There is clear room for growth in the book industry and this is why it is inevitable for literary and book circles to feel disappointed with any cutback in shelving space available in the market, especially in a prime location such as the international airport.
On the other hand, the Malta International Airport shouldn’t be spared any excuses. It is a shame that despite the fact that MIA keeps boasting of record passenger figures and its four-star SKYTRAX status, it then compromises its commitment to local culture, arts and literature. The existence of proper bookshops at the exclusive departures area of MIA is not only an expectation shared by several passengers who pass through the airport, but also by the local Maltese community who share a dedication and passion for our culture and our literary and artistic heritage.