This week I had the chance to check out Chattel House Books, Barbados’ newest bookstore. It only opened last week Thursday in Sky Mall and the shelves were still a little sparse but an employee at the bookstore explained to me that more books were coming. What really got my attention when I walked in though wasn’t the gaps on the shelves but the display of local publications. As you enter the store the first thing you see is a table draped with a blue tablecloth, covered by an eclectic selection of local publications. In most Bajan book stores, you have to look for the Local/Caribbean section (usually sequestered in some corner) and even when you find it, there are so few books there that it’s really not very inspiring.
I learned about Chattel House Books the same way l learn about most local things—just by chance on Facebook. The NCF Literary Cultural Officer Ayesha Gibson-Gill posted/or was tagged in some photos of (what I think was) the grand opening of the book store. I say grand opening, but the Chattel House Books is really a division of The Book Source, which has been around for a while. The difference with Chattel House Books however, is that it is committed to local and regional books/graphic novels. There are still some international books, but they seem to be more on the literary side.
In an earlier post, I naively repeated Jeremy Poynting’s (founder of Peepal Tree Press) statement that he made at Bocas Lit Fest about the habits of Caribbean readers. He discussed how they seem to have a predilection towards British/American popular fiction, while Caribbean writers aim to write literary fiction. Now though, I’m not so sure it is as simple as that. I think part of the problem may lie with the presentation of Caribbean books.
Obviously, I can’t speak for the entire Caribbean, but certainly in the Barbadian context, the British/American popular fiction sell more because they are more accessible. Presentation wise many of the international books come in more attractive packaging and are more readily available, while many local/regional book covers have a rough and unfinished feel to them and are hidden away. When a consumer walks into a book store and is confronted by an unfamiliar author, all they have to go on is the look of the book cover and the summary. Obviously, there is no correlation between the quality of a book cover and the quality of the writing, but presentation goes a long way. The presentation of the book cover also can, and often does, add a layer to the story or set the tone for the book.
The importance of book covers hadn’t really occurred to me before, but a writer friend of mine drew it to my attention. Recently, at a reading the featured author recounted a small disagreement she had with her publisher’s choice of book cover. When she complained about the book cover her publisher calmly informed her that, “you’re the author and I’m the publisher” intending that to be the end of the matter. The book was meant to be a young adult novel so the author showed the proposed book cover to an arbitrary 14 year old and asked him if he would read this book, and the boy said, “No. That looks boring”. Fortunately, the author and publisher finally ended up on a book cover that was satisfying to both parties. She said that at previous readings that she did in schools the students were really excited about the book cover, but imagine if she was stuck with the “boring” book cover—her book would probably get passed over for something that looks more like Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Despite that old adage, people do literally judge books by their covers.
The placement of the table in the new bookstore was very clever because even though there were books on the shelves around me I was drawn to the centrality of the display table. I didn’t have to navigate my way through shiny covers of international popular fiction to find the local books. Before I knew it I was standing by the cash register with Shakira Bourne’s In Time of Need. We can’t dictate what publishers decide their book covers will look like, but maybe the predilection that Poynting referred to can be changed, at least in Barbados, if more book sellers followed this example and put local/regional writings in more accessible places, and tucked the popular fiction books in some corner of the book store.