Friday, January 20, 2012

Informal book vending

Storyboard welcomes the window back as neighbour columnist next door. Reading Steven Winduo allows us to peruse each printed word with diligence. It is through his window of books and literature that we build up an intellectual capital for ourselves. We look forward to more of his offerings in the year.

On the subject of building up an intellectual capital what would be more appropriate than casting an archetypal glance at the amount of written material being sold in the streets. We suspect it was the students, the recent graduates and the senior students, of the Waigani campus that started this least noticed informal kind of business venture. Everything centres on the sale of text books not so much to make extra cash as to rid of what has, to the seller, become suddenly outgrown or obsolete. But it is a worthy kind of trade as at the end of the day you do manage somehow to retrieve some of how much your parents had spent in ordering and purchasing a year’s supply of required reading and research material. Texts books do become profitable, come to think of it, especially in the natural and applied sciences.

Not so in the world of literature and the arts. Hardly a second-hand looking scrap book of poetry gets noticed when lined up with the rest of the academic stuff in the streets by an informal book seller. But the good thing we notice here is an informal trader’s choice of selling books.

The reader may recall our brief mention of informal book vending in last week’s storyboard article. This Monday, believe it or not, our informal book trader did so well that when storyboard checked again there were but a handful of primary text books left. And what a success story it might have been for our book vendor, who was nowhere around to be interviewed but whose “agents” consisting of his wife and relatives informed us he worked as a security guard by day and as an informal book trader from 4.30 to 6.30pm daily. The agents or informants also told us that he got his supply of books from students anxious to lower their prices in order to fly home for Christmas holidays. Most shoppers the informants told us consisted of men who bought off the thrillers and mothers (accompanied by children) who went for the text books from primary school up.
Discussions with bystanders on this informal Waigani "book fair" led to the understanding that course text books obtained through standard means often proved costly for the parents. Some were government funded handouts which went back to their schools giving the pupils and older students little chance of close perusal of texts in relaxed environments such as at home. This would help them get a good grip of a given subject matter for study.

Other discussions, which touch lightly on the poetics (meaning politics) of book trade, revealed that informal book trade ventures anywhere in the country were quite excusable and that established international publishers such Oxford University Press or McMillan should see no cause to complain if their books were discovered being sold in the streets. Indirectly, these publishers were benefiting more from the government’s purse than a local book publishing shop or workshop such as The Anuki Country Press, Manui Press, Buai Press or even the University Book Shop at UPNG. And the copies sold at these street sites would be useless to the publishers because they looked marred by time and weather, not to mention the occasional betel nut or coffee stain on the covers and the pages.

But the most important thing to consider here is how much the informal book trader can make in order to sustain a family. The activity warrants support as much as encouragement at various urban community settings so that both the trader and buyer are compensated in one way or another. The trade itself becomes their subsistence activity, as it were.

What storyboard feels so excited about such informal book vending is the way they enable a child to go back to school armed with that hardly affordable science or mathematics text book.

Looking at the activity from a broad perspective we realize that street book vending has been around since the invention of paper and the printed word. Hundreds of years ago the Japanese haiku composers did their text messages on bamboo slits which they sent out to lovers or suitors. Thousands of years ago a certain Roman called Atticus employed a hundred slaves to sit and compose texts on papyrus as dictated by a supervisor. These, when completed, turned out be books which were sold out in the streets. Rumour has it that Atticus, who was the father-in-law of the governor of Judea, might have been one of those responsible for the first and Grecian printed version of the Bible.

On the subject of the Bible who can deserve more praise in the business of informal book trade than our good old Jehova’s Witnesses. Time and again we see them gather in clusters under rain trees for a word of prayer and encouragement from their leader before venturing out to homes to sell their literature. And they have been doing that in Papua New Guinea for many years. A journalist whose name now slips storyboard’s mind once wrote a nice line for the JWs in the then Niugini Nius or the current National. Indeed, long before Carol Kidu’s call for an enactment of the necessary and relevant laws on this type of self-sustainable business venture for the ordinary Papua New Guinean, the JWs have been selling and sharing their thoughts at various homes that could receive them often for as little as 20t or a glass of water. And still they do it. And still they remain as rich and strong as ever.

Perhaps the greatest lesson we all can learn from this idea of informal book trade is by looking at a prize winning Papua New Guinean writer, Martyn Namowrong. One moment he sells betel nuts and cigarettes, the next he is writing, and again the next instant he is running a web log that is read all over the world. There is one thing missing here, though, Martyn. There should be some books next to your other goods for sale, such as copies of The Watctower and Awake!