When it came to selling books, Joan Dayal thought outside the box. Paper Based, her bookstore – named by the late architect Roger Turton – evolved much like a good novel, with unexpected plot twists.
The Paper Based story began in 1987, when the newly renovated Hotel Normandie in St Ann’s added shops, and Fred Chin Lee, the hotel’s owner, offered space to Dayal.
She said, “Why not?” and opened a shop that catered to hotel guests with toiletries, local newspapers, postcards, greeting cards, wrapping paper and snacks like plantain chips and chocolate bars.
Gradually, a bookstore took shape, as her love for books – especially Caribbean literature – grew. Paper Based became the champion of Caribbean literature and an oasis for book lovers.
But this year, on August 16, Dayal and the staff of Paper Based wrapped up business in the Normandie. The Festival Events of TT (FETT) has bought the bookshop, which will now be in the Writers Centre on Alcazar Street, St Clair, where the literary NGO the Bocas Lit Fest is based.
Dayal has mixed feelings about the end of this era.
“For over 36 years, Paper Based has been my life and my passion. It’s like giving up my child,” she said.
In the early days, Dayal got books on consignment. Heinemann, a London-based publisher with a Caribbean division, had an agent here who helped Dayal stock its books. Book wholesaler Ken Jaikaransingh represented Longman in Trinidad.
Dayal relied on their guidance.
“I wasn’t familiar with literature. My parents moved here from China, and we didn’t have books at home.
"But I became interested in books – especially books from Trinidad.
"Then I noticed there were people who published their little books. (The late Jerry Besson’s) Paria Publishing started up, and I carried their books. The Folklore of Trinidad book was always popular.
"Then I started ordering books – mostly prize-winning books like the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize for literature.”
Dayal remembered one occasion in the early days when the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) was having a sale on its books.
“I went to get a whole lot of them. The Trinidad Express did books, and I carried them, along with (economist) Lloyd Best’s publications and (the late UWI professor) Dr Gordon Rohlehr’s books on calypso and Trinidad society."
More UWI lecturers sought out Dayal to stock their books. The bookshop took shape.
“I felt I had to do something to promote the books, so I had little readings outside of the shop.”
Since then, dozens of Trinidadian writers have given readings and launched their books there. Among them, artist Jackie Hinkson brought his sister from Tobago to read one of his books, and writer Lawrence Scott came calling.
“Lawrence came to the shop and said seeing so many Caribbean writers represented in the store was so good. I had his book Witch Broom and helped launch his novel Aelred’s Sin...
“A lot of people didn’t know so many people were writing in the Caribbean. Having the books in Paper Based gave new writers confidence. I tried to give them a platform.”
Then Dayal took music CDs and DVDs from Sanch Electronics, and also included locally made cards in the shop.
Along the way came the combination of tea and readings.
“The first one, we had tea served at tables while authors read. That was a distraction, so we had the reading first, then the tea."
The more-or-less monthly Tea and Readings series brought joy because, Dayal said, “I love to listen to eloquent people. I don’t have the command of English language that I would like. When I was younger I was drawn to people who spoke well.”
Readings will still happen at the Hotel Normandie.
Poet Shivanee Ramlochan joined the Paper Based team, and gave the bookstore a strong socia media presence that featured her book reviews and new books.
There were unforeseen challenges at times – especially how to order books and get them to TT expeditiously.
“There are a lot of publishers who don’t have the rights to sell in the Caribbean. Sourcing books can be very difficult. Shipping can be expensive,” said Dayal.
But exciting developments always seemed to offset the challenges. In 2011 the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, founded by Marina Salandy-Brown, began.
“Now we were becoming familiar with even more writers,” said Dayal.
She ordered books featured in the Bocas Lit Fest and sold them at the National Library, where the annual literary festival is held.
In 2017 Dayal received the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters. This lifetime achievement award recognises service to Caribbean literature by editors, publishers, critics, broadcasters and others. Dayal was the first bookseller to receive it.
In 2020, Dayal and Paper Based kept bibliophiles stocked up with books during the pandemic, and social media helped nonreaders to discover books available during lockdown.
“Through TT Post we did a lot of posting by Track Pak to all corners of Trinidad. We had many requests for African women writers and Caribbean literature. Many people turned to books during the pandemic,” said Dayal.
Other unexpected surprises included the demand for this year's Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein, which surpassed all Dayal’s expectations.
“There’s been an upsurge in book clubs – including online ones – that have boosted book sales,” she added.
She's also seen a growing demand for nonfiction.
“Many memoirs are coming out, more historical fiction, biographies and history. Since Bocas came along, there’s a lot more interest in poetry – good poetry; but poetry doesn’t sell very well.”
Children’s book sales are growing, though she feels it’s still more difficult to get boys to read.
Looking back, Dayal says, “I hope more people will read and be aware of Caribbean books – our own stories that we can share. I think I have helped young authors coming up. I always appreciated good writers.”
She sees a strong future for Caribbean literature.
“Right now it looks good. There are a lot of good Caribbean writers, who are becoming internationally acclaimed. For the time being, I think there will be continued interest.”
But she wonders what will become of our history.
“Many of our history books are out of print. A lot of people who wrote history are dying: Brinsley Samaroo, Gordon Rohlehr, Jerry Besson."
Yet: "There’s an increased interest in history. People are trying to collect old, out-of-print history books. Customers come all the time looking for them.
"We need history written in innovative new ways also.”
She would also like to see more nonfiction about culture, dance and music.
As Paper Based settles into its new home, Dayal said she doesn’t have any plans, though she will be working on the transition team until the end of the year.
“I would like to keep busy. I need to work. I won’t be able to survive if I can’t do something.
"I worked all the time when I had the bookstore. I did my own accounts.
"I was a member of the Rotary Club and we did a lot with literacy in schools. I used to read to children."
Now, she says, she might try an entirely new venture.
Bianca Peake will be in charge of Paper Based in its new home.
“We are making the Writers Centre into a literary hub, expanding on what Joan has built,” said Peake. “Joan has built an institution. We are incorporating this into a thriving centre where people can come and read and take writing workshops. It will be a meeting point. There’s a place for people to sit, and there will be a cafe. There is parking available at the centre, in a parking lot and on the street,”
Paper Based will continue to mainly stock Caribbean books.
“I’m excited,” said Peake. “It’s the end of an era, but there’s also room for growth. What better home could Paper Based have now than the Writers Centre?”
Paper Based will be open in its new location Monday-Saturday from 10 am-5 pm.
Dayal, Peake and the Paper Based team invite everyone to come and visit its new home, as Paper Based begins a new chapter.