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Paper Based at The Normandie a bibliophile’s hidden dream

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Paper Based stacks the works of Caribbean authors on its shelves, just the way many book lovers like.

The Normandie Hotel and Conference Centre sits almost hidden between the trees, and against the backdrop of the St Ann’s foothills. Although only minutes away from the Queen’s Park Savannah and the Emperor Valley Zoo, its off-the-main-drag location means that for travellers, it must be found or recommended. Once discovered, however, among the treasures it offers, including its boutique-style café, restaurant and bakery, is the Paper Based bookshop. A Caribbean-literature-loving bibliophile’s dream, Paper Based stocks the writing of regional writers, stacking them on shelves just the way many book lovers like. 


Space limitations mean that little stands out, but with the time to peruse, your fingers will rub against new titles by Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid, before which would have been Latin American author Gabriel Cabrera Infante, eventually meeting T&T’s own Earl Lovelace and VS Naipaul. Where most other bookshops in T&T specialise in schoolbooks, Paper Based has made a niche out of Caribbean literature and its 27-year dedication to it has made the bookshop a perfect fit for the NGC Bocas Literary Festival, which annually showcases the work of some of the Caribbean’s finest poets, novelists and thinkers.  When Joan Dayal opened the bookshop over two decades ago, she never imagined where it would take her. 
“I wasn’t much of a reader,” she admits. 

But in some ways, the Paper Based bookshop, which she says was originally a “hotel newsagent or tobacconist,” decided for itself what it would be. Chosen by the likes of Paria Publishing as a good location to leave new titles on consignment, there was perhaps something about the shop’s quaint position, in a hotel that attempts to offer a slice of good Trini living, that made buying Caribbean literature almost natural. “At the time there was a lot of Caribbean literature being published,” Dayal says, recalling the likes of Heinemann, which produced a Caribbean Writers Series, Lexicon and the UWI Press. Although Paria were the only ones to come to her, Dayal, who grew up in her family’s business, found that her instincts sent her out to find the others.
Dayal describes the growing feeling that it was important to be a repository of all this new writing, important for especially Caribbean readers “to know more about their history, to know ourselves through fiction and creatively.” 

“There is something about seeing yourself in a story that boosts your confidence,” she says, “your self-esteem.” Paper-Based “opened up a lot of avenues for me,” she continues, explaining that she became more than a bookseller.  Apart from becoming an avid book reader and founder of a book group, she began to encourage and advise on titles in-store, distinguishing herself with the willingness to track down books she didn’t stock. She hosted book readings and book launches, formalising an almost monthly event (she was simply too busy in the month of the festival) called Tea and Readings. Her efforts have made her a well-known feature of the local literary landscape and the bookshop’s shelves unsurprisingly, carry signed copies of many of the titles.


During the festival, Dayal met with the T&T Guardian in the throes of managing shipments of festival titles. “There are almost all in,” she said, looking towards the store’s entrance, currently behind her. “There are only a few that we didn’t get.” She shares that there are still publishers publishing the work of Caribbean writers who have not secured the rights to sell that work in the Caribbean. And it is for this reason that she had a few setbacks this season in her bid to have titles by all the festival’s authors. For the five days of the Bocas Lit Fest, which ended on Sunday, her stall sat side by side with those of other booksellers like RIK, Nigel R Khan and Mohammed’s bookstore. But hers had pride of place—she has made a living almost exclusively from “selling Caribbean books written by Caribbean people.” “People are surprised that I have survived only selling Caribbean books,” she says, but admits that the festival, which started four years ago, really increased her exposure and with it, her sales. As a result, Paper Based now also has its own blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. “I am really looking forward to continuing what we are doing,” she says, “and expanding to include film, music, whatever is available from the Caribbean.” 


Feeling the pull towards further growth, Dayal admits that she is beginning to feel the confines of the small space the bookshop holds at the Normandie. “We would like to do a lot more with it,” she says. But for now, her plans do not include moving. She says there is an increasing number of children’s books written by Caribbean writers, and she looks forward, with the eagerness of one who knows when they are on to a winner, to stocking those.


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