Getting your hands on a new book in South Africa will cost you a lot of money – but that doesn’t mean South Africans aren’t reading. Culture Trip explores the second-hand book industry feeding Johannesburg’s literary hunger.
In South Africa, a copy of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a winner of the 2019 Man Booker prize, sells for R373 (£19), in the country’s largest retail bookseller (and that’s only if the book happens to be in stock). The same book sells for £14.28 on Amazon, which doesn’t have a presence in South Africa. Locally published books are even more expensive, due to weak currency exchange rates, high printing costs and the necessity of small print runs. Anything that sells 2,000 copies is considered a best-seller but books generally sell far fewer than that.
But it doesn’t mean South Africans aren’t buying books. The country’s informal and second-hand books markets are thriving, especially in cities like Johannesburg, which boasts a fantastic community of second-hand book shops, run by knowledgeable experts selling books at a variety of price points. Some of these shops are conventional retail storefronts; others are delightfully quirky and hidden away. There are also many informal vendors selling a rich selection of local books that you won’t find at the big chains.
Collectors Treasury is, by its own account, the largest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere. As the store occupies an eight-storey building in downtown Johannesburg – stuffed from top to bottom with millions of books, records and other collectibles – there is little reason to disbelieve this assertion. While Collectors Treasury tends to be more pricey than other used bookstores, it’s worth a visit to marvel at the sheer number and variety of books.
Bookdealers is one of Johannesburg’s most popular second-hand book chains, with four locations around the city. Owner Doron Locketz is passionate about books and literature, as are all of his salespeople, and they will go out of their way to track down rare, out-of-print books for keen buyers.
Bridge Books is the brainchild of writer Griffin Shea, who noticed how many informal traders were selling African literature, self-help books, and academic texts on the streets of the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD). When he spoke to these vendors, Griffin found they struggled to procure enough stock for their book-hungry customers, and at the time there wasn’t a single retail bookstore in the CBD.
Griffin developed a side business, procuring excess books from local publishers (books that would have been thrown away otherwise) and selling them at discounted prices to vendors in the CBD. In 2016, Griffin’s mobile book suitcase became a brick-and-mortar shop, Bridge Books, with two locations in the CBD. Bridge Books focuses solely on African literature and still partners with the city’s informal booksellers.
Kalahari Books, located in a cavernous, loft-like space above a panel-beater in the sprawling suburb of Orange Grove, is a book-lover’s heaven. It’s not much to look at from the outside, but inside natural light streams through high windows to illuminate towering shelves of books. The pleasant, musty smell of old paper pervades.
Richard Welch, Kalahari’s founder and one of Joburg’s best known rare-book experts, recently retired. But Kalahari is now in the hands of Vusumuzi Phakathi, a book enthusiast with a keen interest in promoting African literature among South Africans. Kalahari hosts regular “book hunts” – treasure hunts in which customers try to find specific books hidden in the shop, with prizes awarded to the fastest finders.
For a truly unique second-hand shopping experience, pay a visit to James Findlay Collectible Books & Antique Maps in the historic Rand Club. James specialises in rare books, mostly focused on history and geography, and stunning old wall maps of Africa and the rest of the world.
James’s quirky shop is in the basement of the Rand Club, one of downtown Joburg’s most historic and beautifully restored buildings. Be sure to admire the building’s graceful staircase and stop for a drink or meal in the Rand Club’s iconic bar, reportedly the longest bar in Africa. Bridge Books also has a location inside the Rand Club.