Welcome to a special edition of In Conversation! June is Caribbean American Heritage Month and in the bookish space we celebrate Read Caribbean Month. This month I will be focusing on very specific allies of Caribbean literature from across the Caribbean region and the diaspora, talking with these creative folks about their dedication to Caribbean books. Come meet our first guest!
Book subscription boxes have become increasingly popular for book lovers searching for a boutique-type experience to buying books. I first discovered them when I joined Bookstagram in 2020, and I’ve been intrigued by them ever since. Allow me to introduce Christabelle Elvin, she’s an Industrial Relations Specialist living in Trinidad and Tobago and the owner of All Book’d Up subscription box that she launched in 2018. She calls it her Caribbean book box experience! Sounds nice right?
I’m excited to chat with Christabelle about her book box subscription business. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Christabelle, welcome to In Conversation! Thank you for joining me!
Christabelle: This is so exciting!
Tricia: I have to admit that before joining Bookstagram, I had never heard of a book box subscription, but I love the concept. How did this idea come to you?
Christabelle: When it comes to the All Book’d Up experience, I wanted to create a service that merged my love for reading and adoration of all things local. A lot of research went into finding a model that would encapsulate this, and that’s when I saw that there were other countries offering ‘book boxes’ and, similar to you, I’d never heard of it before but I became thoroughly captivated by and did everything I could to bring a local version of it to life.
Tricia: What was it like for you growing up reading in Trinidad and tell me a bit about yourself and your personal reading habits?
Christabelle: My early reading days were definitely spent engrossed in a lot of my mother’s Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clarke novels. They were a lot more interesting than my Nancy Drew stories. I loved the escapism that books provided. I grew up on a street surrounded by farms, or what us Trinis will call ‘de bush’ and I didn’t have neighbours close by with other children that I could run outside and play with, so my solace was in my books. I was definitely drawn to narratives where the authors were exceptional at world building, so that I could easily imagine myself beside the characters.
Tricia: When I was living in Trinidad reading for me was only reserved for English Lit books in school and reading for pleasure wasn’t something I did. Can you comment on what you’ve noticed about this cultural and economic shift where reading has become more affordable recreationally?
Christabelle: I definitely feel you on that English Lit part! To be fair, I really liked The Wooing of Beppo Tate and Crick Crack Monkey. I love that books in all genres are now more easily accessible than ever through print, e-books and audio books. However, I don’t think they’re the most affordable they’ve been. Notwithstanding this, I do believe that the reading community understands that purchasing a book not only adds to their personal library, but we’re more cognizant of the fact that we’re supporting a person who has brought their dream to life through the completion and successful publishing of their book, which I can imagine is no easy feat.
Tricia: This concept of getting a Caribbean-authored book in a special package feels like such a treat for a book lover! Why did you decide to focus the books you offer on Caribbean authors and why was this important to your business model?
Christabelle: Caribbean authors have been creating masterpieces, writing about our shared and acquainted experiences and often in parlance that feels like home. When creating All Book’d Up, I wanted to lean into offering something that reflected this, where someone can flip through pages and get lost in a story that had a measure of relatability and was written by a friend, relative or simply someone they knew. To me, it would’ve been an absolute disservice to our plethora of Caribbean talent to create this experience and not include Caribbean authors.
Tricia: Talk to me about the demand and interest for your product. What was the initial response and how has it progressed since you first started?
Christabelle: I’ve been very blessed to have been part of a remarkably supportive bookish community from the day we launched, so we have always had persons showing interest and returning to purchase the boxes monthly. We have significantly grown since 2018 as more people became aware that the service exists when they delve deeper into Bookstagram. I started very small in our first year, offering between 10 to 12 boxes per month. Today, our monthly dispatch is an average of 45, with our largest dispatch having been 70 boxes.
Tricia: There’s been so many interesting books by Caribbean authors, how do you decide on books to include in your book box and how do you pair it with the other items you offer?
Christabelle: We always try to include an assortment from different islands, and we often run polls with highly anticipated releases for our subscribers to select which books come next. As often as possible we also feature self-published authors, or ones that we felt may have been overlooked in the past when they were released. The other items in the box are either meant to complement the book’s aesthetic, its contents, or what we believe may be an engaging ‘reading essential’ add-on.
Recently, we’ve started offering our Open-As-You-Read Experience Boxes that contains wrapped gifts that correspond with a scene within the book of the month. Once the reader gets to that page, they can open their gift and enjoy the added experience it brings to their read. This has definitely been one of our most enjoyed features and we’re definitely planning on offering them more often.
Tricia: That’s a very creative idea, I like that! How has your business been faring during the pandemic? The Prime Minister shut Trinidad and Tobago very early and limited movement. How were you able to maintain your business?
Christabelle: Initially, there was very little we could have done physically as postal services were closed for a bit however, with the mandate to stay at home, I had enough uninterrupted time where I was able to successfully build and launch our first website. This was recently upgraded to a full online shopping platform. Once postal restrictions were lifted, we held several online giveaways, allowing for people who were stuck at home to win books, e-gift certificates and local self-care packages¾just our way of spreading any bit of light where we could during a dreary time.
As I was working a full-time job, I still had the blessing of being financially supported while our boxes could not sell as they previously did, so I used that safety net to pay it forward as much as possible by supporting other small businesses and including their items in the boxes that were planned for when we eventually reopened.
Tricia: When you look at the impact your business is making on book accessibility in Trinidad and even the region, what is your long-term goals for All Book’d Up?
Christabelle: One of our biggest goals has been to take the Caribbean reading experience beyond our shores, and as of February 2022, we have been successful in taking baby steps towards this, having shipped three of our boxes to the U.S., one to the UK and one to St. Lucia. Our next goal is to create a physical reading experience space where you can shop books from throughout the region as well as from under-represented global south authors.
Tricia: What are your thoughts about the diversity of books being written by Caribbean authors and the impact these books can have on Caribbean readers?
Christabelle: The diversity that now exists is so refreshing! We have romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical and contemporary fiction all fully present and featuring characters of varying races, ethnicities, social stature and sexual orientation. I’m loving that we are being seen and I truly hope the familiarity that this diversity aims to provide allows fellow Caribbean readers to feel seen as well.
Tricia: Tricia: What’s your favourite Caribbean classic and favourite Caribbean contemporary books?
Christabelle: My favourite classic is Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge and favourite Caribbean contemporary…to this day I swear up and down that Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp is golden!
Tricia: Thanks so much Christabelle and continued success with All Book’d Up!
Christabelle: Thanks so much for having me!
Photo courtesy Christabelle Elvin