One of the most important days of the year in Catalonia is April 23, which is Sant Jordi’s Day, when the feast day of the country’s patron saint is combined with a collective celebration of reading and romance. Sant Jordi is not only one of the country’s most popular festivals, it is also one of its most unique, in which couples traditionally exchange books and roses, while crowds fill the streets to enjoy the spring weather. Yet this year, the coronavirus crisis has led Catalonia’s booksellers association to postpone the traditional celebration that coincides with World Book and Copyright Day.
In March, with the number of coronavirus cases rising by the day, and the authorities imposing ever more restrictions in an effort to halt the spread of the disease, Catalonia’s booksellers and publishers association, the Cambra del Llibre de Catalunya, evaluated the situation and made the decision to postpone the Sant Jordi celebrations until just before the summer holidays begin.
According to Montse Ayats, head of Catalonia’s publishers association, the industry will look for an alternative date for Sant Jordi so that booksellers can, as usual, set up stalls in the streets and authors can carry out book signings. Yet, Ayats was unwilling to be specific about possible dates, as the full reach of the health crisis and its impact is still unknown, although she insisted that “it’s important all sectors pull in the same direction to find a way out of this difficult time, especially with books being the best resort for solitude, for entertainment and education.”
The Cambra estimates that the impact of the crisis on the sector should the restrictions go beyond Easter “could affect a third of annual turnover,” which it says is the equivalent of all economic activity in the March to June quarter. “If to this impact we add the effect of the crisis in Latin America, which is having repercussions on publishers’ exports, the total amount could reach €200 million,” says the organisation.
Meanwhile, the Cambra has proposed measures aimed at helping a sector that is extremely diverse as well as financially fragile. The main proposals deal with the priority of providing liquidity to the companies in Catalonia’s book industry, which is also the primary cultural sector in the country. The organisation has also called on the Catalan government to use the €13 million in its budget destined for the culture sector on mitigating the effects of the crisis.
Bennasar’s book challenge
An alternative proposal comes from Mallorcan writer Sebastià Bennasar, who launched a challenge to all book lovers: “The suspension of Sant Jordi could lead many companies to close down if they lose this important source of income, or at least a major restructuring of their workforces. So I propose that between us all we meet the challenge of two millions books sold this spring.”
Bennasar’s proposal is for a quarter of the population to buy a book, the equivalent of the number of books that would have been sold on Sant Jordi. “How are we to do that? On the websites of trusted booksellers and publishers. As if it were just any other Sant Jordi. What will we achieve by it? That without having to spend an unreasonable amount (the average price of a book is €15) we ensure the sector and the people it employs can continue. There is a lot at stake,” he adds.
First time cancelled
Sant Jordi goes back centuries, although the origins of the tradition of exchanging roses and books is not clear. The official start date of the festival is 1456, when a rose fair was installed in the Palace of the Generalitat to celebrate Sant Jordi’s feast day. It was a festival associated with love, attended by couples who gave each other roses. As the years passed, the custom was lost and it was only resurrected in 1914.
The modern custom of exchanging books for roses began in 1920, when the writer Vicent Clavel i Andrés proposed to Barcelona’s booksellers and publishers association the idea of a festival in Catalonia to promote books. The first event took place on October 7, 1927.
Two years later, during the International Exposition in Barcelona, booksellers came on to the streets with stalls of books for sale, beginning a tradition that goes on today. The initiative was a success but the organisers changed the date to April 23, coinciding with the burial of Miguel de Cervantes and the death of William Shakespeare, both in 1616. Another great writer, although not so universally well-known, also died on April 23, in 1981: Josep Pla.
From the beginning, Sant Jordi provided a major annual boost to book sales, and not even the Spanish Civil War managed to halt it, when a limited version of the event was still held. That makes the current pandemic infamous for yet another reason, as 2020 will be the first time the festival has had to be cancelled.
Booksellers tend to make about 7% of their annual sales on April 23, which means that on average on the other 364 days of the year 0.25% of sales are made.
Meanwhile, Sant Jordi’s festive atmosphere with Catalonia’s main streets full of book and flower stalls, and large crowds enjoying the spring sunshine led Unesco to designate April 23 World Book and Copyright Day in 1995.
Flower sector “scared and powerless”
The book sector is not the only one affected by the postponement of Sant Jordi, as flower producers and sellers have also been hit hard. “We’re scared and powerless because we have to throw away the investment of the past few months and have been left with nothing,” says Jaume Brasó, a flower seller in Vilassar de Mar and board member of Catalonia’s market of plants and ornamental flowers. Despite production being in full swing with the start of spring, flower producers have nowhere to sell their wares with florists and market stalls closed due to the coronavirus restrictions and exports to France, a key customer for producers, halted. Added to this is the postponement of Sant Jordi, when some seven million roses are usually sold in one day. While most of the roses sold on Sant Jordi are from abroad, 9% are local and the loss of sales this year will have an impact on the sector in Catalonia. Florists are now waiting to see when a new date is announced for Sant Jordi. “We still have a month’s margin, but seeing how things are I’m expecting the worst,” says flower seller, Eduard Coll. / Elena Ferran