In locked-down Belgium, books are 'essential'

Brussels (AFP) –


In the now desolate alleys of central Brussels, one type of business is keeping the light on during one of Europe's toughest coronavirus lockdowns: the book store.

Chocolate shops and beer halls will remain shuttered until at least December, but bookseller Marc El Khadem said nothing could stop that sale of what Belgium considers "an essential good".

"In a period of anguish and uncertainty that brings us back to our own mortality, the book probably remains the best food for thought and reflection," said El Khadem, his long white hair tied in a ponytail, as customers thumbed through pages around him.

Belgium drastically tightened its virus restrictions on Monday, and the Tropismes bookshop was one of the few stores in the Galeries Royales -- an elegant covered passage in the centre of Brussels -- to attract a constant flow of customers.

The open bookshops in Belgium are in marked contrast to the country's big neighbour France, where the government's decision to close beloved book stores has caused an uproar and led to scenes in supermarkets of aisles selling books cordoned off from buyers to prevent "unfair competition".

"Reading in a lockdown is essential," said Francois Bellet, a retired Brussels resident as he gathered a pile of books he planned to read over the month.

For him, the decision to close bookshops in France is incomprehensible.

"It shows that the people in power are no longer interested in books. It's a descent into hell -- and in France, the world's most literary country!" he said.

"We sympathise, we feel absolutely in solidarity with our French colleagues -- and sad for their readers," said El Khadem.

Belgium, population 11.5 million, has more than 6,000 hospitalised coronavirus patients with over a thousand in intensive care.

The Belgian government had already imposed in mid-October the closure of bars and restaurants, the recommendation of working from home and a curfew between midnight and 5 am.