Threatened by the Internet and the pandemic .. How were bookstores more than cows in this Belgian village?

Relative calm has enveloped the cultural sector and its activities intermittently since the beginning of the Corona pandemic, affected by the closure decisions and health and prevention measures taken by government authorities in most countries of the world, and libraries faced various situations that fluctuated between complete and partial closure.

But a village in southern Belgium has another unique story. Almost 40 years ago, Rideau, in the French-speaking parts of the country, was saved by books.

Says a report Society was rapidly shrinking, farm jobs disappeared and families moved away from this pastoral part of Belgium, but in the mid-1980s a group of booksellers moved into the empty barns and turned the place into a literary attraction.

The village of about 400 people is now home to more than two dozen bookshops, bookstores are more than cows, enthusiasts like to say, and thousands of tourists throng the joyous streets of the transformation.

However, now more than half of bookstores have closed, some library workers have died, others have left when they can no longer make a living, and many of those who remain in their 70s do not know what will happen after their departure.

And it’s not just about taking a risk in the business, it’s about the identity of Rideau Village. So what happens when major attractions become less attractive?

This is the challenge that Book City must now face.

“Life changes, but nothing dies, everything evolves,” said the mayor of Lieben, where Rideau is located.

‘The last village is struggling to survive’

Rideau has a place to brag about in the history of book cities, 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 2019, transformed the British city into a world capital of used books, attracting several booksellers, and opening half a dozen of his own bookstores.

Book stalls in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye (Getty Images)

Booth’s success has inspired struggling rural communities around the world to remake themselves as book cities, hoping to attract tourists to revive their economies, and Rideau was the first imitator.

Motivated by a visit to Hay in the late 1970s, part-time Rideau resident Noel Ancelott devised a similar strategy on his weekend, according to a brief history of the place written by 76-year-old Mip van Doyen, one of the village’s oldest booksellers.

On the Easter holiday in 1984 nearly 15,000 people went to Rideau, surveying the sellers of second-hand and antiques sold from abandoned stables and sidewalk stalls, and the booksellers decided to stay.

Others soon followed, working in occupations such as illustration and bookbinding and packaging. Then young families arrived, too, and new students flocked to the decaying school.

Now there are just 12 or fewer libraries, depending on how the count is done and who is counting, but those who are more optimistic about the future of the libraries tend to report a high number, according to the US newspaper.

Those who are less optimistic say that their business has departed from the prevailing new pattern, because people, especially young people, read very few books.

“Customers are getting old and even disappearing,” says Paul Brandler, owner of La Libraire Ardenays, who has volumes hundreds of years old.

Paul Brandler is now 73 years old, and there is a sign in front of his store used to advertise his buying and selling services, but that sign has been crossed out because he doesn’t want any more books.

“I have 30,000 books, but when we leave those books will go to the trash,” Brandler says.

“We are like Astarix (a French-Belgian fictional character), the last village fighting everyone,” said Bob Goossens, citing the French picture book series about a small French village resisting the Roman Empire.

“Romans could be global tech companies or entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley,” he adds, as the 73-year-old watches one of his clients pull away. “The internet is destroying everything,” he says.

At the moment Goossens has few customers apart from a core group of regular customers who come for his rare editions.

He notes that those who stop by tend to treat the place more like a gallery of artifacts from another era than a shop still in operation, commenting that “they come here as if they were going to a museum.”

Goossens does not anticipate an end like the book stories of the shops in his village. “We will die a natural death,” he says.

International Organization of Book Cities

Rideau Village is a founding member of the International Organization of Book Cities, which is part of a network of local communities with similar locations.

Van Doyen, who was the first to chair the group’s board of directors, said Britain’s still thriving book-cities are found, including the Scottish Wigtown, which hosts a famous literary festival.

“When you go to a book city in the UK in November you sometimes have to wait before you can pay. But here, when someone comes in November and buys a book, I can almost kiss it,” Van Doyen added.

And while a return to its glory days may be a long way off, Dwayne hopes Rideau will retain its artistic weight, even if libraries continue to decline. “It will remain a distinguished village, because reputation does not die very quickly,” she said.

This is a natural process in the village life cycle, said Martin Luebmanns, a professor of geography at the Belgian University of Leuven.

He added that if a society like Rideau is to survive, a new generation must eventually take charge and strike a balance.

And he added, “I am confident that it will continue to attract tourists, but it will need to reinvent itself with a new story that is more attractive today.”

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