November 6, 2017
Over the Halloween weekend, Afterwords Used Bookstore was bustling with people, perusing second-hand books, and catching up with friends. If it were not for the sobering sign posted at the storefront, one would not have any inkling that the store would be closing down after Halloween. Founded in 1972 by Don Austin and brothers John and Jim Furlong, the ownership had changed hands to the current owner, David Benson. According to Benson, his wife, Catherine McCausland, has been working there since she was fifteen years old.
On this particular Saturday morning, one man was drawn into the bookstore when he saw several people lugging books on the street. In the store, locals could be seen carrying stacks of books in their hands as they lined up at the cash. One family was even planning their Christmas shopping as they were going about, shortlisting books for their loved ones. Even though the store was bustling with activity, Benson was generous enough to spare some time to have a conversation.
Throughout the years, Benson has seen customers from various walks of life enter his store, from the people he refers to as the “elites” to the people on the streets scrounging up pennies to save up for a book. He welcomed them all with open arms. Over the years, he has hired a handful of students, some of whom were able to pay for their tuition fees through the help of the part-time job. The closure of his store marks the loss of a part-time job for some students, while the community has lost an invaluable source from which to obtain second-hand books. When asked what he thinks will become of the premises after the store’s closure, Benson replied that he has absolutely no idea and that only time will tell.
Benson thinks that St. John’s is incapable of supporting a university setting as it is lacking a direct connection with the community. With its close proximity to the university, Benson wonders how Churchill Square has not been transformed into a thriving hub for bookstores and cafes catering to professors and students. He believes that the area has plenty of potential to become an academic centre where people can have serious debates and discussions.
For years, Benson had foreseen the closure of his bookstore due to economic conditions. As he mentioned, everything from the cost of rent to the city taxes were steadily increasing. It was almost impossible for him to catch up with the “crazy” rates, as the prices of his books have not gone up. He feels that books are not considered as valuable as they used to be, much less second-hand books. Nowadays, people are more willing to shell out a couple of dollars on a cup of coffee as opposed to a physical work of literature. He finds this notion disappointing, as he believes it reflects how society is placing a lower emphasis on the importance of knowledge and information.
Benson seems to have a point here. The closing of libraries and the introduction of the book tax in the province further deters the community from the pursuit of knowledge through printed materials. This step backwards is referred to by Benson as a return to the “Dark Ages.” Roughly eight or nine bookstores have closed down throughout St. John’s in recent years. The only ones remaining in the downtown area now are Broken Books and Elaine’s Books. This drab number marks a rather bleak demise for the bookstores here.
Although Benson believes that there is still hope for the future, he is unable to stay open, as much as he would like to. He cannot further sustain the store since rent and phone bills needed settling, he has no other choice but to close down his establishment. He claims that people need to decide the type of society they want to live in. It cannot crush individuals who want to create value in the society, instead, people need to take responsibility for their actions. If people insist on purchasing their goods online, who will then pay patronage to small, local businesses such as Afterwords Bookstore and Fred’s Records? Whenever people shop local, symbiosis occurs as the shop owner not only benefits but the economy is driven as well, benefitting the community in return.
When asked what plans he has for after the store closes, Benson shrugged and replied that he still has that to figure out. He has been working seven days a week for the past several years, at times nine, ten or even twelve hours a day to sustain his bookstore. There are days he believes he makes less than the minimum wage. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. He hopes that people will value education for its own sake. He would like to live in a world where people are able to have serious discussions about poetry or philosophy with any random person, be it the bus driver or the barista serving him coffee.
For now, we can only wish him and his family all the best in their future undertakings.