Now, though, more than half the bookstores have closed. Some storekeepers passed away, while others fled when it was impossible to make a living. Many who remain are in their 70s and aren’t sure what’ll happen after they’re gone.
It’s not just the businesses at risk. It’s Redu’s identity.
This is a place that celebrates itself as a village du livre, a “book town.” Its public lampposts and trash cans are adorned with bibliophilic hieroglyphs.
But what happens when the main attractions become less attractive? The village du livre now has to face this challenge.
“Life is changing, but nothing is dying,” said Anne Laffut, the mayor of Libin, the municipality where Redu sits. “Everything is evolving.”
‘The last village fighting everyone’
Redu holds a vaunted place in the history of book towns, an honorific that originated with an eccentric Brit who brought hundreds of thousands of books to the Welsh market town Hay-on-Wye in the 1960s.
Richard Booth, who died in 2019, transformed Hay into a global capital of used books, attracting numerous booksellers and opening a half-dozen shops of his own.
Booth’s success inspired struggling rural communities around the world to remake themselves as book towns, hoping to attract tourists and jump-start their economies. Redu was the original copycat.
Spurred by a visit to Hay in the late 1970s, part-time Redu resident Noel Anselot hatched a similar strategy for his weekend home, according to a brief history of the place by Miep van Duin, who at 76 is one of the village’s longest tenured booksellers.
On Easter weekend in 1984, roughly 15,000 people descended on Redu, perusing the used and antiquarian volumes vendors sold out of abandoned stables and sidewalk stalls. They decided to remain. Soon, others followed suit, including an illustrator, bookbinder, and paper maker. The crowd was eclectic and counter-cultural. The schoolhouse was also home to many young families and students.
The piece de resistance: For the first time in years, Redu had its own bakery.
The village, van Duin concluded, had been reborn.
“It was much more lively then than it is now,” she said.
Now there are 12 or fewer bookshops, depending on how one counts — and, perhaps, who is doing the counting. Higher numbers are attributed to those who feel more positive about the future.
Those who are less hopeful say their trade has fallen out of fashion, and that people, especially young people, are reading fewer books.
“The clientele is aging and is even disappearing,” said Paul Brandeleer, owner of La Librairie Ardennaise.
Brandeleer was among the pioneers of Easter ’84. He has hundreds of books in his collection.
Now, at 73, he’s living off his retirement pension. An old sign outside his shop used to say achat – vente , selling and buying, but this has now been removed. He does not want to buy any books.
“I have 30,000 books, but when we disappear, they will go to the trash,” Brandeleer said. “We have no kids to take over, they are not interested.”
Surveying his shop’s rows of books, its low ceiling and brick walls, he offered a metaphor pulled from the stacks: “I think we are the last of the Mohicans.”
Down the road, the owner of Bouquinerie Generale — a store that specializes in bandes dessinees, French-language comics also known as BDs — had his own genre-appropriate comparison.
“We are like Asterix: The last village fighting everyone,” said Bob Gossens, invoking the French comic book series about a small Gallic village that resists the Roman Empire.
In his telling, the Romans might be global tech companies or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, pulling his clientele away one app at a time.
“The Internet is breaking everything,” the 73-year-old said.
Nowadays, Gossens gets few customers aside from a core group of regulars who come for his rare editions. He has observed that those who visit the store tend to view it as an exhibition of antique artifacts, and not a functional shop.
“They come here like they go to the museum,” he said.
Gossens does not predict a storybook ending for the shops in his village: “We will die a natural death,” he said.
“When you go to a book town in the U.K. in November, sometimes you have to wait before you can pay,” van Duin said. “And here, when somebody comes in in November and buys a book, I could kiss him.”
While a return to the glory days is probably out of reach, van Duin is hopeful that Redu will retain its artistic vibe, even if the bookstores continue to become less plentiful.
“It will stay a special village, because that’s the reputation and that doesn’t die very quick,” she said.
This is a natural process in a village life cycle, said Maarten Loopmans, a geography professor at Belgium’s K.U. Leuven. Redu’s survival depends on a future generation that can strike the right balance between living in Redu and being an attractive asset for the outside world.
“I’m pretty sure it will still be attractive to tourists,” Loopmans added. “But it will need to reinvent itself with a new story that is more attractive these days.”
‘A change of mentalities’
When Johan Deflander and Anthe Vrijlandt moved to Redu about six years ago, the couple’s friends warned them they were making a mistake.
“Everyone said, ‘Oh you’re going to buy a house in Redu? Aren’t they the villages that are going to go extinct? “Deflander stated that they had bookshops in the places where they were.
The couple, who are in their early 50s and live part of the year in Kenya, wanted to open a new kind of establishment, one that moves beyond the “stuffy, old, bankrupt secondhand bookshop idea,” Vrijlandt said.
“It’s all in the narrative, you know?” Deflander said. Some people are here longer-term and have difficulty changing the narrative. While we — “
“While we have the luxury of not being stuck in the past,” Vrijlandt finished.
Their shop, La Reduiste, hosts jazz nights and film screenings, in addition to selling books in multiple languages and serving espresso and Belgian beer. Books — or, perhaps just as important, the idea of books as symbols of comfort or quaint sophistication — remain at the center of the business, which is a model the two say could be replicated villagewide. They said that La Reduiste is financially viable.
“The future is looking in the linkages between books and art in general,” Deflander said, as he and Vrijlandt took turns running the bar and greeting customers. “You can do a lot of interesting cultural activities if you open it up from just selling books.”
One of Redu’s most immediate concerns revolves around the schoolhouse, a stately but abandoned stone building at the center of town. Laffut, the mayor, called a meeting to discuss possible future uses of the building and some 70 people showed up — nearly a quarter of the village’s population. She said that the enthusiasm was inspiring.
“There is a change of mentalities,” Laffut said. The elders believe the village is in decline because there are less bookstores. It is disappointing. Redu is home to a vibrant new generation. Many volunteers are teaming up with the same desire for the village to continue to endure.”
Laffut, who has been the municipality’s mayor for 15 years, said she is no longer worried about Redu’s future. Its position in the Belgian Ardennes is a large area of rolling hills and forests that should make it a popular destination for nature-lovers. The proximity of the Euro Space Center and fewer restaurants will also ensure the village continues to attract people who love the outdoors.
But perhaps the most significant recent development was the arrival of Mudia, an interactive art museum that opened in 2018 in a former vicar’s house, which displays works by Picasso, Rodin and Magritte. Redu has gained a reputation for being a destination for artists and sculptors. The most notable example of the town’s transformation to an arts community is this museum.
Roland Vanderheyden has a foot in both Redu’s past and future. For six decades, he was a full-time bookbinder before deciding to turn his attention in recent years and become a painter. He now runs a gallery together with Annie Kwasny in four of the rooms that used to house his bookbinding workshop. They’re both 75 and convinced this is Redu’s path forward.
“We created this gallery to move the village toward the arts,” Kwasny said. “We are in the middle of a transition, really.”
Some, like van Duin, are content watching such changes unfold. De Eglantier and Crazy Castle are connected to her house and she intends to continue running them until they’re no more able.
Her bookstore — a renovated and well-appointed barn with an English-language section in the former hayloft — exemplifies Redu’s last great evolution, from a farming community in decline to a locus of letters.
“There’s a natural process of change,” she said. “It’s inevitable, I think.”
After a recent interview, van Duin flipped the sign on her shop’s front door back to open and took her seat behind the till, awaiting the village’s next chapter.