World Book Day in Catalonia’s Capital Barcelona – The Bookseller Event of the Year by Renata Zamida

The nineteenth consecutive World Book and Copyright Day, proclaimed by UNESCO to take place on April 23rd, is vivid in recent memory. The first spark for it actually sprang up in Catalonia, where the date is called the Sant Jordi, the day of their Books & Roses festival whose tradition goes back much further than two decades. It all began with romance, literature joined in along the way, and so it happened that Catalonia combines the holiday of lovers with the holiday of book lovers.

Sant Jordi, whose legend arose in the 15th century (the prince saves the princess from a dragon and gifts her a rose) is the patron protector of Catalonia. Ever since his fabled heroics, on April 23rd at the summit of spring, men present their ladies with red roses, receiving books in return. In the late twenties of the 20th century, a crafty Barcelona bookstore keeper was thinking of ways to throw some coin the booksellers’ way on that day, too, since April 23rd also happens to be the death date of two colossi of world literature, Cervantes and Shakespeare. He was able to convince the Franco authorities to proclaim the Sant Jordi a book holiday in addition to its romantic connotation, and the street sale of books and roses instantly found home in the hearts of the Spanish, venturing from there to a number of other countries (today the World Book Day is celebrated, in some form or another, by over 100 nations).

Since Barcelona last December became a UNESCO City of Literature, this year’s Books & Roses also sent out invitations to the booksellers and publishers from some other European cities boasting the same title, from Edinburgh to Krakow, from Heidelberg to Granada and Ljubljana. A month ago, the cultural department of the City of Barcelona established an independent UNESCO office, coordinated by distinguished Catalan journalist, writer and translator Marina Espasa, who appears to be well aware of the opportunity offered by literature in the context of re-evaluating culture and tourism in Barcelona where the public has been increasingly critical of the squandering of top city locations (including the pearls of Gaudi’s and subsequent modernists’ creation) on retail clothing stores, fast food restaurants and tacky hotel chains. After all, Barcelona is the cradle of Spanish publishing, as well as the seat of most of its publishing houses, harbouring more than a few extraordinary book shops (Central, Laie …).

Sant Jordi’s immense importance for the Spanish book industry is best illustrated by the fact that during those twelve hours of April 23rd (street sales run between 9:00 and 21:00) a staggering 7% of annual book sales revenue is generated, raking in 22 million € in one-day sales. Mr. Marià Marín, secretary of the Catalan Booksellers Guild, likes to stress that 60% of all the books are sold precisely in Barcelona, with the total number of books sold during last year’s Sant Jordi estimated at a massive 1.5 million! As much as 20% of that is children’s and youth literature (books portraying the legend of St. George sell like hotcakes that day). The Department of Culture doesn’t charge for the public surfaces where the books and roses are sold (which means practically all of the city’s streets, closed for traffic that day), interested sellers need only submit their reservations and state their desired stall dimensions. This year, 800 bookshops and publishers from all across Spain registered to participate, nearly all offering “mixed goods” – books in Catalan and in Spanish, side by side not separately, since Catalonia is, after all, a fully bilingual region (with as many as three official languages). All over town, smaller and bigger stands start popping up, belonging to media sponsors, bookstore keepers, public and private institutions… By five PM, the streets of Barcelona are already so crowded you can only move around at a snail’s pace, part of a slithering human snake that keeps on growing well into the evening, so that the roses must be held high overhead not to get crumpled.

Booksellers are tremendously excited about April 23rd since the financial crisis hit the book industry particularly hard, as Marín points out. Between 2009 and 2013, book sales took a 30% nosedive, managing to stabilize only last year, with a long road to recovery still ahead; edition sizes shrunk by half, and the key market in terms of sales was, for many, Latin America.

Sant Jordi is also an exquisite promotional moment (this year’s book holiday was opened by Claudio Magris). In early April, the Spanish publishers send out most of their novelties (the second peak being early fall), with book sales going up some 40% a couple weeks before the holiday already, when promotion is also picked up by their biggest public magnet, FC Barcelona. One of Catalonia’s central newspapers dedicated a whole quarter of this year’s World Book Day issue to a report on bookstores across Catalonia, while their TV and radio houses offer consistent coverage, too. As put by Bel Olid, president of the Association of Catalan Writers: the book is now the hero of the day, the rose just keeps it company…

By Renata Zamida

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 6 June 2016.

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