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Johannesburg’s Underground Bookselling Industry

by Eva Rose Tesfaye on May 22, 2018

Bridge Books on located in the CBD of Johannesburg is often thought of as one of the first bookstores in downtown Johannesburg. However according to a statement to the Sunday Times from the owner Griffin Shea, that’s simply not true.

“People are always telling me, ‘Oh, there’s finally a bookstore in town!’ But if you look out that window there are two booksellers right across the street. There’s another one behind us, and if you go round the corner there are just tons and tons of people selling books,” Griffin told the Sunday Times.

He is referring to the underground book sellers of Johannesburg.

Shea, who now runs this independent bookstore started out selling books out of his backpack after he moved to South Africa, in a similar way to many of the other informal booksellers in the Johannesburg CBD.

“I was armed with all this grim data about how nobody reads in South Africa,” he says. “But when you walk around you realize there’s a lot of reading happening that the formal book industry just doesn’t know about,” Shea says.

Because the book trade happens informally, you do not see the books that people are reading on bestseller lists, and much of the data you see online about people not reading neglects that. Books are actually in fact hot commodity. So much so that 2013, the big chain in South Africa, Exclusive Books, lost R5 million to book theft.

Informal work in South Africa is actually a huge contributor to the economy that is often ignored. According to research conducted in 2010, there are about six million small businesses in South Africa. Most of them are informal. Some of the booksellers Shea works with finds they can make more money selling on the street than working at a minimum wage paying job.

However, bookselling in downtown Joburg is not easy. It’s actually quite cut-throat, according to a News24 article by Shea, who did a PhD at Wits University on the subject. Because they are often sold outside, the books can be damaged by the weather, theft, or animals such as rats. He gives an example of a seller named, Mahle Mavimbela, who will not leave his books unattended after being attacked and robbed. He believes it was an organized attack, possibly by a competing business.

Mavimbela too however found he is better off selling books than his previous job of managing a takeout place, where he only made R2500 a month. Selling books he can manage his own hours and make more money.

Bridge books, located at 95 Commissioner Street, is not only committed to bridging the gap between the informal and formal book industry but also to “supporting African writers and in finding as many ways of getting books into the hands of as many readers as possible,” according to their website. The bookstore holds ancient and modern African literature as well as international books.

They are also setting up a non-profit called African Book Trust, which aims to provide African literature to schools and libraries all across South Africa.

Shea also lead a walking tour, partnered with JoziWalks, over the past weekend, showing not only all the different booksellers that are located in this busy part of the city, but also the rich history of book selling and libraries in South Africa dating back to 1800s. The tour also reveals how safe the inner city is, despite popular misconceptions.

The tour ended with two traditional oral African stories, one from Angola and another from Ethiopia, as well as a discussion with two African authors, Zukiswa Wanner, author of The Madams, and Chike Frankie Edozien, who talked about his recently published memoir, Lives of Great Men, in which he reflects on being gay and growing up in Nigeria.

Featured image via Flickr/brewbooks

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Eva Rose Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye has traveled around the world her whole life but thinks of Africa as home. She loves reading novels and watching plays (especially ones with people of color in them). She has a love-hate relationship with her big curly hair.