A book fair amidst a pandemic: Cause for concern?

By Dinithi Gunasekera

The Colombo International Book Fair (CIBF), organised by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association (SLBPA), commenced its 2020 edition on Friday, 18 September at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) under strict Covid-19 health and safety guidelines. The book fair is scheduled to be held until Sunday, 27 September (today) from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It was with miserable realisation that many bookworms all over the island came to terms with the stark possibility of the absence of the annual book fair in its usual glory during the initial stages of Covid-19, with it being declared a global pandemic.

For better or worse, the CIBF, Sri Lanka’s largest book exhibition, is now open for the public for the 22nd consecutive time, astonishing masses across the seas and offering a wide selection of over 400 stalls, both local and foreign, with the participation of around 150 publishing companies.

Presently, social media is being flooded with the hashtags #CIBF and #CIBF2020, and avid booklovers and happy customers uploading their purchases online are guilty as charged.

In conversation with SLPBA Director and Vijitha Yapa Group of Companies Chairman Vijitha Yapa, The Sunday Morning Brunch raised concerns about the annual book fair being held in its typical regard with the ongoing threat of a second wave in the island.

Below are excerpts of the interview.

What are the differences between the typical CIBF held any other year and CIBF 2020? With the Covid scenario at hand, what are the extra health precautions taken into consideration this year?

The main difference is that specific health/safety precautions have to be observed at this year’s book fair. All who enter the premises must have their temperature checked and those having excess temperatures are not allowed in. All must wear masks and keep it on at all times. For the convenience of visitors, we have partnered with a company to sell masks at only Rs. 15 each, which is the lowest price in Sri Lanka as far as I know.

All visitors have to wash their hands and sanitise with special sanitisation liquid. They must maintain social distancing at all times and our staff do their rounds to ensure they (customers) adhere to the health regulations imposed by the health authorities.

People have been cooped up in their houses for months and this is an opportunity for them to step out and buy new books as well as bargain books. This book fair will show that people accept the limitations and are willing to observe the rules and regulations to pave the way for society to return to normalcy.

So far, are there any changes in the numbers and the crowd this year in comparison to other years?

The numbers were understandably less in the first five days (up to the time of this interview), but the enthusiasm is high. This is also an opportunity to meet up with friends, attend literary discussions, and enjoy the entertainment offered each evening with songs, dances, and plays.

But it’s a pleasure to see almost every visitor carrying a parcel of books. That is the joy of shopping as the whole BMICH has become a huge 40,000-sq. ft. bookshop.

There is an entrance fee of Rs. 20, which is utilised to award scholarships to economically underprivileged students to be educated at a university level. The scholarships are given up to four years as a monthly stipend. Members of the armed forces and the Police are allowed free entry as well as members of the clergy and schoolchildren in official school uniforms.

What are the challenges the organisers faced in the process of making CIBF 2020 a reality?

The main challenge was to accept that it was essential to have the book fair despite foreign participants not being able to attend due to quarantine restrictions and the lack of flights. However, foreign publishers have made arrangements for their local distributors to run stalls.

We have had a good response from local publishers and over 400 stalls. It is the largest public event in Sri Lanka and runs for 10 days.

What was the response from the Government and other state authorities?

The authorities were cautious and were surprised by our request. Nevertheless, as long as health guidelines were observed, they were happy to give permission. The expenses on our side are higher as staff members had to be recruited for the duration of the book fair, but we are happy to go through with it. The BMICH and other service providers responded with lower rates as well and we responded with concessions for the stall-holders. Moreover, all those running the book fair are obliging on a voluntary basis.

Were any regulations or special advice specified by the Government and state authorities?

We are following them – temperature checking, washing of hands, use of sanitisers, and compulsory wearing of masks – and to the best of our ability in order to assist customers to maintain social distancing. We also have the co-operation of the Ministry of Health, the PHIs (public health inspectors), and the Police.

How is the response so far from the customers and the crowd?

Excellent. They also recognise the importance of the book fair. We have been able to jointly keep Covid-19 at bay and we must now return to normal life. Bus and train travel, visits to cinemas, and opening of schools have taken place. Now we have to show the world what this little island has achieved, especially when Covid cases are rising in other countries like India, Brazil, and the US. It is indeed a pity that world press has hardly carried any news of our success.

Was an online or virtual approach to CIBF 2020 considered at any point in time?

The major booksellers in Sri Lanka have their sites and many orders were serviced in the last months. It’s nothing new. In many cases, we have been able to achieve 24-hour deliveries as well. Unlike other commodities, books are not easy to market online as people want to feel the books, read the synopses, and choose what they want, rather than what the publishers want.

This is the importance of book fairs like ours, where customers have the best opportunities to choose rather than stare at computers, making choices. Foreign companies using online platforms know about the limitations regarding the sale of foreign books. Many local booksellers sell the books at up to 50% discounts.

All I can say is, come visit the book fair, have a look, and buy what you really need.