Reis Thebault & Quentin Ariès
REDU, BELGIUM (THE WASHINGTON POST) – Almost 40 years ago, books saved this village.
The community quickly dwindled. Agricultural jobs had disappeared and families were moving out of this rural corner of French-speaking Belgium.
But in the mid-1980s a gang of booksellers moved into the empty barns and turned the place into a literary magnet. The village of around 400 was home to more than two dozen bookstores – more shops than cows, its advertisers liked to say – and thousands of tourists crowded the pretty streets.
However, more than half of the bookstores are now closed. Some of the shopkeepers died, others left when they could no longer make a living. Many of those who stayed are over 70 and do not know what will happen after they leave.
It’s not just businesses that are at risk. It’s Redu’s identity.
This is a place that celebrates itself as the Village du Livre, a book town. Its public lampposts and garbage cans are adorned with bibliophile hieroglyphics.
But what happens when the main attractions become less attractive? That is the challenge that the village du livre now has to face.
“Life changes, but nothing dies,” said Mayor Anne Laffut of Libin, the municipality in which Redu is based. “Everything is developing.”
Redu occupies a vaunted place in book town history, an honor given to an eccentric Brit 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 Hay into a global capital of used books, attracted numerous booksellers and opened half a dozen of his own stores.
Booth’s success inspired struggling rural communities around the world to evolve into book towns in hopes of attracting tourists and boosting their economies. Redu was the first to imitate it.
Inspired by a visit to Hay in the late 1970s, part-time reduer Noel Anselot developed a similar strategy for his weekend home, such as a brief history of the place by Miep van Duin, who at 76 is one of the longest-running booksellers in the village.
On the Easter weekend of 1984, around 15,000 people came to Redu to read the used and antiquarian volumes that were being sold from abandoned stables and sidewalk stalls. The booksellers decided to stay. Soon others followed, an illustrator, a bookbinder and a papermaker. It was a diverse, counter-cultural audience. Young families also came and new students trickled into the faded schoolhouse.
The Pièce de résistance: For the first time in years, Redu had its own bakery.
The village, van Duin concluded, had been reborn.
“It was a lot livelier then than it is today,” she says.
Now there are 12 or fewer bookstores depending on how you count – and maybe who counts. Those who are more optimistic about the future of bookstores tend to give a higher number.
Those who are less hopeful say that their job is out of style and that people, especially the young, read less books.
“The clientele is aging and even disappearing,” said Paul Brandeleer, owner of La Librairie Ardennaise.
Brandeleer was one of the pioneers of Easter ’84. His inventory includes tomes several hundred years old.
Now, at 73, he lives on his old-age pension. A sign outside his shop advertised his services as an achat-vente, buy and sell, but the former was crossed out. He doesn’t want any more books.
“I have 30,000 books, but if we disappear, they end up in the trash,” said Brandeleer.
“We have no children that we have to take over, they are not interested.”
As he looked at the rows of books in his shop, the low ceiling, and the brick walls, he offered a metaphor he’d taken from the piles: “I think we’re the last of the Mohicans.”
The owner of Bouquinerie Générale – a shop that specializes in bandes dessinées, French-language comics also known as BDs – had his own genre-based comparison.
“We are like Asterix: the last village that fights everyone,” said Bob Gossens, referring to the French comic series about a small Gallic village that opposed the Roman Empire.
In his narrative, the Romans could be global tech companies or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are pulling their customers away on an app-by-app basis.
“The Internet is ruining everything,” said the 73-year-old.
Nowadays Gossens has only a few customers, apart from a core group of regulars who come because of its rare editions. Those who stop by, he noticed, tend to treat the place more like an exhibit of artifacts from another era than a still-functioning shop.
“They come here like they’re going to a museum,” he said.
Gossens is not predicting a picture book end for the shops in his village: “We will die a natural death,” he said.
As a founding member of the International Organization of Book Towns, Redu is part of a network of similarly located communities. Van Duin, the group’s first chairman, said the still-thriving book towns are in the UK, including Scotland’s Wigtown, which hosts a prestigious literary festival.
“When you go to a book town in the United Kingdom (UK) in November, you sometimes have to wait before you can pay,” said van Duin. “And here, if someone comes in in November and buys a book, I could kiss them.”
While a return to the glory days may not be possible, Van Duin hopes Redu keeps its artistic vibe even as bookstores keep dwindling.
“It will remain a special village because that is the reputation and it doesn’t die so quickly,” she said.
This is a natural process in a village’s life cycle, said Maarten Loopmans, geography professor at KU Leuven in Belgium. Eventually, if a community like Redu is to survive, a new generation must take control and strike a balance between “vitality for oneself and an asset that can be sold to the outside world,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure it will still be attractive to tourists,” added Loopmans. “But it has to reinvent itself with a new story that is more attractive these days.”
When Johan Deflander and Anthe Vrijlandt moved to Redu about six years ago, the couple’s friends warned them that they were making a mistake.
“Everyone said, ‘Oh, you are going to buy a house in Redu? Isn’t that the village that’s going to die? Where used to be bookshops? ‘ “Said Deflander.
The couple, in their early 50s and living in Kenya for part of the year, wanted to start a new breed of establishment that went beyond the “stuffy, old, bankrupt second-hand bookstore idea,” Vrijlandt said.
“It’s all in the narrative, you know?” said Deflander. “Some of the people who have been here a while are having trouble changing the narrative. While we -“
“We have the luxury of not being stuck in the past,” concluded Vrijlandt.
Her shop, La Reduiste, hosts jazz nights and film screenings, sells books in multiple languages, and serves espresso and Belgian beer. Books – or, perhaps just as importantly, the idea of books symbolizing comfort or quaint sophistication – remain at the heart of the business, a model that, according to the two, could be copied across the village. La Reduiste, they said, was profitable.
“The future lies in the links between books and art in general,” Deflander said as he and Vrijlandt took turns running the bar and greeting customers. “You can do a lot of interesting cultural activities when you open yourself up to just selling books.”
One of Redu’s most pressing concerns revolves around the schoolhouse, a stately but abandoned stone building in the center of town. Laffut, the mayor, called a meeting to discuss possible future uses of the building, and around 70 people attended – almost a quarter of the village’s population. The enthusiasm was uplifting, she said.
“There’s a change in mentality,” said Laffut. “The elders think the village is changing because there are fewer bookstores, and it’s a disappointment. But there is a new generation that is very active in Redu. Many volunteers join forces with the same desire that the village can continue to exist. “
Laffut, who has been the mayor of the township for 15 years, said she is no longer worried about Redu’s future. The village’s location in the Belgian Ardennes, a vast region of forests and rolling hills, means it should continue to attract nature lovers, she said, and its handful of restaurants and proximity to the Euro Space Center help with that too.
Perhaps the most significant recent development, however, has been the arrival of Mudia, an interactive art museum that opened in a former rectory in 2018 and exhibits works by Picasso, Rodin and Magritte. The museum has strengthened Redu’s reputation as a viable travel destination for sculptors and painters and is the most prominent example of the book city’s transformation into an art city.
Roland Vanderheyden has a foot in Redu’s past and future. He worked full-time as a bookbinder for six decades until he retired in recent years to become a painter. In the four rooms that used to be his workshop, he now runs a gallery with his wife Annie Kwasny. They are both 75 and confident this is Redu’s way forward.
“We created this gallery to move the village towards art,” said Kwasny. “We’re really in the middle of a transition.”
Some, like Van Duin, are pleased with the development of such changes. Her business, De Eglantier and Crazy Castle, is linked to her house and she plans to run it until she is no longer able to do it.
Her bookstore – a renovated and well-equipped barn with an English-speaking section in the former hayloft – exemplifies Redu’s last great development from a farming community in decline to a place of letters.
“There is a natural process of change,” she said. “It’s inevitable I think.”
After a recent interview, van Duin opened the sign on the front door of her shop and took her place behind the cash register to wait for the next chapter of the village.