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– Austin’s Bookstore has endured, owner remains hopeful amid digital revolution
By Gabriella Chapman
Austin’s Bookstore has been a household name in Guyana for generations. People from all walks of life have for decades viewed the book store as the go-to place for all original books and back-to-school-supplies.
Proprietor of the store, 81-year-old Lloyd Austin details how his drive and determination for success led to the creation of the longest standing book store. Born and raised in the mining town of Linden, Upper Demerara-Berbice (Region Ten), Austin obtained his first job as a teacher at St. Aiden’s Primary School in Wismar, Linden.
He thereafter completed the ‘Pupil-Teacher Exams’ after which there was an examination to gain entry to the then Government Training College. He passed the exam and was admitted to the College, located in Georgetown. In 1963, he graduated as a trained teacher and returned to Linden where he served.
While in Georgetown at the Training College, he met his now wife of 56 years. They got married in 1965. It was after the couple got married that Austin sought a transfer from Linden to St. George’s School in Georgetown where he served for a few years.
While serving at St. George’s, Austin said he saw no opportunities for elevation as in the city, there were many teachers more senior than he was. It was this lack of opportunity in the city which led Austin and his wife to seek placement at hinterland location. There it would have been easier for him to obtain a promotion. Austin was placed at St. Cuthbert’s Mission as Headmaster for some time.
“You want to see the best for your family, and without a decent salary, you really can’t provide adequately,” he told Village Voice News.
His drive to adequately take care of his young family saw him applying for and successfully securing a job as Manager at the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) Book Shop which is now occupied by Nesha’s Flower Shop.
Austin left his 13-year teaching career in the teaching profession to become the manager of the SPCK Book Shop, a task he had no experience in. His new job allowed him to receive a salary that doubled that he received as a Headmaster.
Despite his inexperience, Austin was afforded the opportunity to receive Regional training in Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago where he gained a thorough understanding of what the job required.
“Unfortunately, in 1976, the government at that time assumed control of almost every facet of life. A decision was taken to nationalise all the book shops in the country, and a whole lot of other enterprises were nationalised. Importation of food stuff, hardware, books and stationary, automobile, farm supplies were all controlled by the government under the Guyana National Trading Corporation,” Austin narrated.
Following the Government’s decision to nationalise, private bookshops, including SPCK started closing their doors. For Austin, returning to the teaching profession was no option especially since his wife had several academic advancements.
“No man likes to know that his wife earns more than him. So I didn’t go back… I joined the government book shop,” he chuckled.
With his qualifications, experience and training, Austin was appointed Senior Sales Supervisor, a designation created specifically for him since the position of Manager was already filled. He served as Senior Sales Supervisor for three years, before he was promoted as the third and last Manager of the Guyana National Trading Corporation – Books and Stationery Division.
For Austin, this was a ‘sweet’ 10-year period as head of that division, until a fire of unknown origin, destroyed the entire building in 1990.
“The time when that fire occurred, it was a time of great political upheaval and great ferment. That time cane fields were being burnt, police stations, schools; it was a very troublesome period. And that was the 10th attempt to burn the building,” he disclosed.
Again, Austin was jobless. But his determination to adequately maintain his family pushed him to open his own bookstore in 1992. At that time, his wife had completed her Master’s Degree and was one of two persons to have completed the programme then.
His new book store was located near the then Plaza Cinema on Camp Street oblique to the Georgetown Club. He shared the building with the owner of Jerry’s Snackette for about four years.
During those years, rental was expensive and due to the annual increase Austin thought it better to purchase his own property from which he would operate his book store.
“For that little place, in 1992 they were charging $45,000 and by the fourth year it was $60,000 a month. So I decided I had to look around for a place to own rather than keep paying rent all the time. So in August 1996, I was able to acquire this spot here (church street), that used to be owned by a dentist dean. Many of the old folks would remember. I bought this building from Dentist Dean’s executor and did some renovations: tiling the floors, changing up the facade, to make it look like a store rather than a residence. After all the renovations, we officially moved in May 1st 1997. Austin’s Book Store as you know it now, began its operation at this location,” Mr. Austin shared.
Austin disclosed that selling books has never been the most profitable business. Over the years, however, he developed a knack for what people wanted to read. He said whatever his store did not have, his customer service section was able to note and eventually imported all that his customers needed.
His venture was not without challenges. He told Village Voice News that “Even though it [Book sales] was something that many people wouldn’t get into because they know it’s not so profitable, before 2013, one guy started to reproduce books of the publishers. Long ago it was okay to photocopy a few pages for research and so forth but not a whole book, especially to resell. It’s an illegal activity. After it got overbearing, five publishers: Oxford, Cambridge, Nelson, Macmillan, and Longman, decided to take the main actors to court,” Austin said.
Among the challenges faced was the then Government’s decision to purchase the pirated textbooks. Austin recalled that the Minister of Education at the time acknowledged that the government’s decision was wrong but noted that given the number of books required, and limited resources, the move could be justified. This problem continues and Austin believes that Guyana should take a stronger stance on fighting the issue.
“I did some writings in the papers, as well as my wife, but nothing ever happened to stop the piracy or to stop the practice of buying. We’re the only country in the Caribbean where this kind of practice exists. No other country tolerates the piracy of books and people’s electronic stuff like music and movies. People can’t make a living off of their talent here in Guyana. Guyana is in a Rogue state where protection of intellectual property is concerned,” Austin told Village Voice News.
He disclosed that book shops in the Caribbean receive “good patronage” from their Ministries of Education and libraries.
“I can speak without fear of contradiction because I meet with the Caribbean people once a year. Publishers would have a conference in one of the islands and we share experiences…The government doesn’t get involved in purchasing books from third parties,” he said.
Notwithstanding the challenges, Austin said some persons prefer to purchase original books and that has kept his business afloat over the years.
“Having worked at GNTC so long, we see the pleasure in people when they come in and find something they really appreciate. Even now, my greatest joy is to see when kids get so excited when they find something in the store they like and want. It is so gratifying to see how happy my little effort made somebody’s child. I feel so good to see that. At Austin’s we really concentrate on the children’s section for good reason. When children develop the habit of reading, they will most likely continue as an adult,” he stated.
Threatened by the digital age?
Austin told Village Voice News that even with the advent of technology and online education, he remains hopeful that conventional reading would not die.
“From all the conferences I have attended, e-books have their place, but not to that extent where books in the conventional form will be obsolete in the near future. E-books are convenient, but many people would tell you they like hardcopies, they like the smell of a new book. They like to highlight, and make notes in the margin, as opposed to a gadget. E-books have their place and so do printed books,” he said.
Austin’s Book Store has survived all of its challenges because of Austin’s perseverance and determination to succeed that the book store remains a household name.
“Nobody can gain progress without reading and gaining knowledge. Some of the best minds have penned their thoughts in writing. All those great philosophers and scientists have written down their knowledge so that others might benefit from it. Almost anything you want to know is in a book. So it is important to learn to read and comprehend what you read. And it is even more important for us to provide the books for our population to read,” he declared.