Where We Find Books, or Where They Find Us
I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the West Indies in the spring. I particularly loved the island country of St. Vincent, with its thirty-two islands and cays, known as the Grenadines. Some of the islands are inhabited, and others are a tangle of jungle and dramatic mountains and deserted beaches. They have mystical-sounding names like Mustique and Isle À Quartre and All Awash, names that bring adventure to mind.
And, of course, while travelling, I am always looking for interesting bookstores in unexpected places. The most curious I found on this journey was on the island of Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) in Port Elizabeth, its tiny harbour town.
My daughter Brenna and I took the hour-long morning ferry to Bequia from St. Vincent, arriving in time for milky coffee before setting out to explore by foot what we could of the island, which, from the moment we stepped off the ferry, was atmospheric and welcoming. The whole island has less than 5,000 inhabitants, and this sleepy little port town had the charm of a place slightly lost in time, in the best possible way. Bequia means “Island of the Clouds” in ancient Arawak, the language of the indigenous peoples of South America and of the Caribbean, and for us the island lived up to its name.
All along Belmont Way, the only main street in Port Elizabeth, were small tables of local wares: rich, colourful displays of Caribbean artwork, handmade jewelry, brightly colored clothing, scrimshaw, and handcrafted wooden boats. The majority of businesses on Bequia are locally owned and managed, and, because of its small size, the people living here are connected through their community pride. The street contained small, humble hotels and guesthouses with endearing names like The Gingerbread Hotel, The Frangipani, and Rambler’s Rest, as well as little shops selling all manner of products. And there was a beautifully painted little bookshop, aptly named Bequia Bookstore. I was disappointed to find it closed.
Thinking I wouldn’t get to see what the bookstore had to offer, I stopped to look at a table of children’s books on the street, and had the pleasure of meeting a woman who said she was the poet laureate of the island, showing me a computer-generated diploma with her name written onto it. Was she actually the poet laureate? Does the island HAVE a poet laureate? I don’t know, but she was personable and friendly as she read me a rhyming book on recycling on Bequia she’d self-published. I was a captive audience of one as I stood, anxiously moving from foot to foot, watching my daughter disappear on her own explorations. Still, it was a cool experience any way I look at it.
While we would have loved to visit the strange-sounding Moonhole Beach, it could only be reached by boat, so we decided to take a little footpath to Princess Margaret Beach, one of the island’s two more accessible beaches. Part of the path along rocky scree and jungle was washed out due to a recent storm, and we had to do some mountain-goat-like leaps and crafty maneuvers to get to this mainly deserted, gorgeous white sand beach. There were only a couple of locals there, happy to pour us plastic cups of rum punch from huge jugs they had brought down to sell on the beach. There were also a few friendly dogs who followed us to a shady spot under some tall palm trees and then slept peacefully beside us, happily jumping up to accompany us when we walked along the surf, and sitting patiently at the edge of the sea as we took a quick swim to cool off. The white sand beach was tranquil, although with a sense of wildness, the jungle coming right down to the sand.
After a few hours of sun and sand and sea (and yes, rum punches), we said good-bye to the locals and dogs and headed back to Port Elizabeth for our afternoon ferry back to St. Vincent. I was excited to see Bequai Bookstore was now open, a young girl I assumed to work there reading on a chair on the porch.
I loved what I found inside. There was West Indian, North American, and European fiction, as well as lots of informative books on the flora, fauna, and wildlife of the islands. There were instructive manuals on sailing and yachting. I even found some old classics that looked as if they’d been on the shelves since their publication. There were no other customers, the girl running the store still reading outside, and I browsed to my heart’s content. And in a back room, along with Christmas decorations, were open cabinets of hundreds of faded scrolled charts and survey maps for sailing.
I wondered how many people visited the bookstore. I wondered how many survey maps they sold. I bought one, then carried it, rolled up in my carry-on, through another few islands and eventually all the way home to Canada. I have no use of a map of this sort, but I leave it on a shelf in my office, and every time that rolled map catches my eye I’m transported back to the Island in the Clouds, and the beautiful, dusty little Bequia Bookstore.