Bookselling in a Pacific Island Paradise

In Feature Articles by Andrew Wilkins


By Andrew Wilkins

NUKU’ALOFA. TONGA: With an economy based on farming, fishing and some tourism, there’s not a huge demand for consumer books in Tonga, although the country has the highest literacy rate in the Pacific (over 98%) and a good primary and secondary education system. Still, it’s enough to support a handful of small publishers and a bookstore chain — the Friendly Islands Bookshop — which has outlets on each of the country’s four main islands.

Unlike the early European explorers of the Pacific, such as Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook, it’s hard these days to stumble across Tonga by accident. Four hours from Australia, and 13 from Los Angeles (via Samoa or Fiji), Tonga is not really on the way to anywhere. Sitting just to the west of the International Dateline, it is the first place in the world (along with Kiribati) to welcome in the new day. It is also a remote anomaly in the Pacific: the region’s last surviving kingdom and a country that’s never been colonized.

The flagship Friendly Islands Bookshop in Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa looks pretty run-down, but that’s quite understandable given the trials it has faced. The shop, owned by the Free Wesleyan Church, was razed to the ground during Nuku’alofa’s momentous riots of November 2006. The damage done to the capital city was so extreme that the city center was closed for three months, causing many businesses to cease trading. The shop’s other branches have now closed but this single location, on Nuku’alofa’s busy main street, still remains.

In such circumstances, the shop’s continued existence might be seen as a minor miracle. It sells a combination of new and secondhand books, plus stationery and office supplies.

The list of bestsellers for Tonga wouldn’t resemble any you’d find in neighboring Australia or New Zealand. The top seller is a local publication, Making Sense of Tonga, produced by local company Training Group of the Pacific.  The book is a helpful guide for palangis (as white people are known) on how to navigate Tonga’s complex and largely intact social structure, answering questions such as why Tongans wear mats and what it means when a Tongan flicks his eyebrows at you.


BROWSE: A list of Tongan Books available at the Friendly Islands Bookshops

READ: More about Making Sense of Tonga

SHOP: Online for titles at Pacific Island Books, a US-based specialty bookstore

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.