BOOKTOWNS - A NOVEL FORM OF TOURISM
Economic development is a serious issue for communities that have suffered decades of rural decline. Of late, tourism seems to be punted as the answer for these communities. Thus, farmers now offer accommodation on 'working farms'; other farmers have decided to cash in on the property boom, and have offered large tracts of agricultural land to city slickers' in search of that idyllic country retreat. Small towns and villages try to distinguish themselves with such special events as trout festivals, mampoer festivals, biltong festivals, oyster festivals, witblits festivals, cherry (the edible kind) festivals etc. The list is endless.
Not very well known in this neck of the woods is a truly novel form of tourism- a Booktown!!! The Booktown idea is a fairly recent, and highly successful addition to attempt by rural communities to bolster tourism, and thereby the economies of rural communities.
So what then is this beast that calls itself by the name 'Booktown'? A Booktown is a small, rural area, usually a small town or village with a high concentration of booksellers, specializing mostly in second hand and rare and outdated books. The bookshops are often twinned with coffee shops, internet cafes, bakeries, cheese or wine shops or with artisan enterprises such as paper production, book design, book illustration and the dwindling art of bookbinding. Some of these bookshops also sell arts and crafts and antiques.
Most Booktowns develop around villages of historic significance or of scenic beauty. Very often, the architecture of these towns harks back to a period forgotten by time. But most crucial is cheap property. In order to be successful, booksellers must have lots of inexpensive display and storage space, for low overheads remains the key ingredient for a profitable business. Cheap property is a rarity in cities. Moreover, many cities may have booksellers to match that of a Booktown, but they will never be clustered in one area. Attracting enough booksellers to a rural community creates a critical mass that is irresistible to the bibliophile, that 'Neanderthal' that loves nothing better than prowling one dusty and overcrowded bookshop after another in search of that one book that has eluded them until now.
These bibliophiles are indeed the foot soldiers who engineer the revitalization of the economy. They have a multiplier effect on the economy, because they are usually discerning tourists with high spending potential. They prefer to stay in guesthouses and bed- and- breakfasts. They pound the streets in search of that special antique that will become the conversation piece at their next dinner. They patronize the local café, the quaint restaurants and sometimes even become residents of these towns after exchanging a few months salary with the local estate agent.
The idea of a Booktown was thought up by the maverick Richard Booth, way back in the sixties. His dream was to create the largest second- hand bookselling centre in the world. Today, Hay- on - Wye in Wales attracts over a million visitors a year. What makes Booktowns examples of what U.S presidential candidate Senator Obama calls 'the audacity of hope' is best exemplified by Booth, who started the venture all on his own with just one bookshop. Slowly, he started buying up the empty buildings in a town whose population was dwindling, and turned these buildings into bookshops. Booth always maintained that 'a town full of books could be an international attraction'. Today, his 'build- it - and- they- will- come attitude' has resulted in Hay- on Wye being home to 38 bookshops, and Booktowns developing in 25 other regions throughout the world.
Think it can never work in South Africa. Think again!!! Darryl Earl David, the youngest and only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in SA and freelance travel journalist has done what only approximately two dozen before him have done. In the next part of this story, he will bring you the news of South Africa's first Booktown, and how he came to choose this town. For those doubting Thomases out there, here are a few photographs that Darryl took on his recent trip to 3 European Booktowns:Redu, the French-speaking Booktown in Belgium. Redu is the second oldest Booktown in the world, and has a total of 23 bookshops. It is situated in the picturesque Ardennes region, a few minutes away from the principality of Luxembourg; Damme, the second Belgian Booktown,also happens to be the most picturesque of the 3 Booktowns, and is situated a mere 5 kilometres from Brugge, ( referred to as the 'Venice of the North'.) Even if you hate Damme and it's bookshops (which you won't), Brugge will not disappoint; Bredevoort is the national Booktown of The Netherlands, situated about 4 hours from Amsterdam. Bredevoort is the 3rd oldest Booktown in the world, and undoubtedly the most innovative. The village dates all the way back to the 12th century, and is situated on the border with Germany.
And the national Booktown of South Africa? Richmond Northern Cape.