Redu, Belgium, is a town of books. But what happens when people stop buying so many books?

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REDU, Belgium — Nearly 40 years ago, books saved this town.

The community was rapidly shrinking. Farm jobs had disappeared and families were moving out of this pastoral patch of Francophone Belgium.

But in the mid-1980s, a gang of booksellers moved into the empty barns and transformed the place into a literary magnet. The town of about 400 people became home to more than two dozen bookstores — more shops than cows, its promoters liked to say — and thousands of tourists thronged its charming streets.

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Now, however, more than half of the bookstores have closed. Some of the shopkeepers died, others left when they could no longer make a living. Many of those who remain are in their 70s and are unsure what will happen after they are gone.

It is not just companies that are at risk. It is Redu’s identity.

This is a place that celebrates itself as a “book town”, or a “book city”. Its public lampposts and garbage cans are adorned with bibliophile hieroglyphics.

But what happens when the main attractions become less attractive? This is the challenge that the people of the book must now face.

“Life is changing, but nothing dies,” said Anne Laffut, mayor of Libin, the municipality where Redu sits. “Everything is evolving.”

‘The last village fighting against all’

Redu figures prominently in the history of “book town”, an honorific that originated with an eccentric Briton who brought hundreds of thousands of books to the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye in the 1960s.

Richard Booth, who died in 2019he transformed Hay into a used-book capital of the world, attracting numerous booksellers and opening half a dozen stores of his own.

Booth’s success inspired struggling rural communities around the world to transform into book towns, hoping to attract tourists and revive their economies. Redu was the first imitator.

Prompted by a visit to Hay in the late 1970s, Redu part-time resident Noel Anselot hatched a similar strategy for his weekend home, according to a brief history of the place by Miep van Duin, who 76 years old is one of the oldest people in town. headline booksellers.

Over the Easter weekend of 1984, an estimated 15,000 people descended on Redu, poring over the used and vintage volumes that vendors were selling from abandoned barns and roadside stalls. The booksellers decided to stay. Others soon followed, along with an illustrator, a bookbinder, and a papermaker. It was an eclectic, countercultural crowd. Young families arrived, too, and new students trickled into the faded school.

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La pièce de résistance: For the first time in years, Redu had his own bakery.

The town, van Duin concluded, had been reborn.

“It was much livelier then than it is now,” he said.

Now there are 12 or less bookstores, depending on how one counts and, perhaps, who is doing the counting. Those who are more optimistic about the future of bookstores tend to cite a higher number.

Those with less hope say that their craft has gone out of style and that people, especially young people, are reading fewer books.

“The clientele is aging and even disappearing,” said Paul Brandeleer, owner of La Librairie Ardennaise.

Brandeleer was among the pioneers of Holy Week in ’84. His inventory includes tomes that are hundreds of years old.

Now, at 73, he lives on his retirement pension. A sign in front of his store used to advertise his services as “achat — vente”, or buy and sell, but the first one has been crossed out. He doesn’t want any more books.

“I have 30,000 books, but when we are gone, they will go in the trash,” Brandeleer said. “We don’t have kids to take over, they’re not interested.”

Surveying his store’s rows of books, its low ceiling and brick walls, he offered a metaphor drawn from the stacks: “I think we’re the Last of the Mohicans.”

Later, the owner of Bouquinerie Générale, a store that specializes in “bandes dessinées,” French-language comics, also known as BDs, made his own gender comparison.

“We are like Asterix: the last town fighting against all,” said Bob Gossens, invoking the French comic series about a small Gallic town resisting the Roman Empire.

In his narrative, the Romans could be global tech companies or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, bringing in their clientele one app at a time.

“The internet is breaking everything,” the 73-year-old said.

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Today, Gossens has few customers other than a core group of regulars who come for its rare editions. He has noticed that those who stop by tend to treat the place like a display of artifacts from another era, rather than a still-functioning shop.

“They come here as if they were going to the museum,” he said.

Gossens isn’t predicting a storybook end for his town’s stores: “We will die a natural death,” he said.

A founding member of the International Organization of Book Cities, Redu is part of a network of similarly situated communities. Van Duin, who was the group’s first chairman of the board, said the book towns that are still thriving are in Britain, including wigtown of scotlandwhich hosts a renowned literary festival.

“When you go to a UK book town in November, sometimes you have to wait before you can pay,” van Duin said. “And here, when someone comes in November and buys a book, I could kiss him.”

While a return to the glory days is probably out of reach, van Duin is hopeful that Redu will retain its artsy vibe, even if bookstores remain less plentiful.

“It will continue to be a special town, because that is the reputation and it does not die very quickly,” he said.

This is a natural process in the life cycle of a village, said Maarten Loopmans, a geography professor at Belgium’s KU Leuven. If a community like Redu wants to survive, eventually a new generation must take over and strike a balance between “livability for themselves and, at the same time, an asset to sell to the outside world,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it will continue to be attractive to tourists,” Loopmans added. “But it will have to reinvent itself with a new story that is more appealing these days.”

‘A change of minds’

When Johan Deflander and Anthe Vrijlandt moved to Redu some six years ago, the couple’s friends warned them that they were making a mistake.

“Everyone said, ‘Oh, are you going to buy a house in Redu? Isn’t that the town that is going to die? Where did they used to have bookstores? Deflander said.

The couple, who are in their early 50s and live part of the year in Kenya, wanted to open a new kind of store, one that goes beyond the “old, rundown, second-hand bookstore idea,” Vrijlandt said.

“It’s all in the narrative, you know?” Deflander said. “Some of the people who have been here the longest are having a hard time changing the narrative. While we – “

“As long as we have the luxury of not getting caught up in the past,” Vrijlandt concluded.

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His shop, La Reduiste, hosts jazz nights and movie screenings, as well as selling books in multiple languages ​​and serving espresso and Belgian beer. Books, or, perhaps just as importantly, the idea of ​​books as symbols of comfort or quaint sophistication, remain at the core of the business, which is a model the two say could be replicated throughout the village. You reduced it, they said, it’s profitable.

“The future is in the links between books and art in general,” said Deflander, as he and Vrijlandt took turns tending the bar and greeting customers. “You can do a lot of interesting cultural activities if you just sell books.”

One of Redu’s most immediate concerns revolves around the school, a majestic but abandoned stone building in the center of the city. Laffut, the mayor, called a meeting to discuss possible future uses for the building and about 70 people attended, nearly a quarter of the town’s population. The enthusiasm was encouraging, he said.

“There is a change in mentalities,” Laffut said. “The elders think that the town is changing because there are fewer bookstores and it is a disappointment. But there is a new generation, which is very active in Redu. Many volunteers are joining with the same desire that the town continues to endure.

Laffut, who has been mayor of the municipality for 15 years, said she no longer worries about Redu’s future. The town’s location in the Belgian Ardennes, a vast region of forests and hills, means it should continue to attract nature lovers, she said, and its handful of restaurants and proximity to the Euro Space Center also help.

But perhaps the most significant recent event was the arrival of moved, an interactive art museum that opened in 2018 in a former vicar’s home, displaying works by Picasso, Rodin, and Magritte. The museum has reinforced Redu’s reputation as a viable destination for sculptors and painters, and is the most prominent example of the city’s transition from book to art city.

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Roland Vanderheyden has one foot in both Redu’s past and future. He worked full time as a bookbinder for six decades until he cut back in recent years to become a painter. Now, in the four rooms where his workshop used to be, he runs a gallery with his wife, Annie Kwasny. Both are 75 years old and are convinced that this is the way forward for Redu.

“We created this gallery to move the town toward the arts,” Kwasny said. “We’re in the middle of a transition, really.”

Some, like van Duin, are pleased to see these changes unfold. His shop, De Eglantier and Crazy Castle, is connected to his house and he plans to keep it going until he can’t.

His bookstore, a renovated and well-appointed barn with an English section in the old barn, exemplifies Redu’s last great evolution from a declining farming community to a locus of letters.

“There is a natural process of change,” he said. “It’s unavoidable, I think.”

After a recent interview, van Duin flipped the sign on his store’s front door open and sat behind the checkout, waiting for the town’s next chapter.

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