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House of Books no more

Business Maverick

Business Maverick, Media

House of Books no more

Boekehuis, a well-loved bookstore in Johannesburg, is set to shut its doors this month after Media24 Books, a subsidiary of Naspers, decided the store’s failure to turn a profit could not be sustained any longer.  KHADIJA PATEL spoke to manager, Corina van der Spoel, about the store’s legacy.

When the lease for Cape Town’s iconic Clarke’s bookshop at 211 Long Street was not renewed two years ago, a public outcry ensued that has since assured the store a continued presence on Long Street, albeit two doors away from the space it has occupied for 60 years. Clarke’s is a living tome of South African history but even history is not immune from the scourge of change. “It was devastating to lose the layers of history in this space,” owner Henrietta Dax said.

Among the vexations change is set to wrought, futurologists (not the kind who rely on crystal balls) tell us the price of oil will surpass $500 a barrel, water will be traded on the stock market, Africa will be an economic superpower and books, beautiful creatures that they are, will cease to be.

While we cannot yet account for such a price of oil, the progression away from the traditional form of books is plain to see. And at iMaverick, we are proud purveyors of this change. As home of Africa’s first daily iPad newspaper, we understand well that the means of our consumption of news, our ways of learning, are undergoing a radical transformation. Books, as we know them, may already have begun to retreat to the darkness of obscurity. 

Johannesburg’s Boekehuis could not pin its survival on history – as Clarke’s did. Just 12 years old, the decision to close Boekehuis was met with equal measures of rage and condemnation. Surely the big, bad wolf that is Naspers could sustain a R1-million annual loss, it was argued in righteous indignation. Naspers, however, has stood firm, even in the face of a petition from some of the country’s leading writers. At the end of January, the quaint little bookstore sitting jauntily between an ABSA call centre and the Media 24 parking lot will cease to be. 

The store just did not sell enough books.

After my initial outrage at the big, bad wolf was expended, the closure of Boekehuis brought with it the excitement of cheap books. At the start of the sale on Tuesday, hundreds of people teemed into the store, eager to fill their arms with the love of a good book. Later, as daylight dwindled into specks of orange strewn lazily across the Highveld sky, Boekehuis manger, Corina van der Spoel would describe the crowd as locusts feeding hungrily off the shelves.

And feed they did. After just a day on sale, the shelves were already a haunting echo of what they once were.

“Bookshops must prepare themselves for this new culture of consumption,” Van der Spoel tells me, “People don’t allow themselves time to browse any more. Not having the patience for it is one thing but there is also something else.”  The convenience of mall shopping, she feels, has also changed the way we interact with our purchases. “Boekehuis was not located in a mall so in that itself it selected its own audience,” she says, “So people who were not interested in mass consumption, people who thought of themselves as defenders of culture would come here.” 

Commercial bookstores are derided for seeking out profits beyond all else, but even a bookstore with the vaunted reputation of Boekehuis has been closed for its lack of profitably.  “The whole world is rigged to mass consumption and the independent voices are the lonely voices,” Van der Spoel tells me.

“There is no established reading culture in South Africa,” she points out.

Van der Spoel then pinned the success of the store on a select number of book buyers in Johannesburg. “After 12 years of running this bookshop I saw the decline of my possible audience,” she says. “I’ve lost many customers through death, literally, you know. I would book two books for a William Pretorius who was an extremely fine literature and film reviewer. I knew I could buy particular books and he would take them. He died,” she adds sombrely.

“I’ve had other people move to other cities, who moved to other countries – who were these one of a kind buyers. You know there are some books that you could maybe only sell five of in the whole country and I needed to find that person in my area,” she recounts.

And while she acknowledges the effects of technology on the book industry, she exudes still an air of confidence for the future of books.  “I’ve lost people to the Internet, the sort of people who buy books here are tech savvy, they migrated to the internet – I’ve done this myself – now these same people have embraced kindles and iPads because if you are a consumer of many books, then it makes sense for you to have a kindle. If you buy 10 books a month, and there are people who buy 10 books a month, for them it makes economic sense to buy a Kindle,” she says.

She hastens to add that she refuses too to demonise commercial bookstores like Exclusive Books. “They are doing a job,” she says, “And are the most likely to survive of all the bookstores in the country. And that gives me hope again because there will have to be stores created to cater for various, different kinds of readers.”

She points out the close relationship she shares with so many of her customers. “Where on the Earth do you go to a shop where everybody speaks to the shop manager as if they are family,” she asks with a chuckle.

“The time for a close relationship fostered between shopkeepers and their customers is over. The reason the Exclusive Books of this world can’t create that environment is that it costs too much money to do so. It’s too labour intensive.

“And you could see today, I don’t think there was barely any book here that we have more than one copy of. Every person walked out of here with completely different books and I would look up and see this person, I see the books they’ve selected and I think, ‘This is perfect for this person’, or, ‘Oh yes, you’ve found the book that’s right for you’.

“The world has become very bland.  It’s very sad that a shop like this could not stick it out longer,” she says, a hint of sadness creeping into her voice.

“I think Media24 has done well,” she continues. “Twelve years is not bad but there was never a real conviction for this bookstore. Nobody there ever really believed in it. Except maybe Ton Vosloo, who was a champion of Boekehuis. I don’t think they ever really understood the shop or what it does. And what is said about taking the shop away is not that now you suddenly make so many more millions or lose so many less losses away from your shareholders, you lose not the shop and the stock. That’s not what you lose. But you lose a culture that’s been created and a rare network of public knowledge.”
“What though did they seek from the store when they established it?” I ask.

“Look,” she tells me candidly, “I don’t think they saw it as a money spinner. Of course they would not want to lose money but at the time, and I remember well now,” she assures me, “things have changed really, but at the time, local bookshops did not stock a good variety of South African books, English, Afrikaans as well as our other languages. And Naspers/Media24 at that time said that ‘Well, we would like to have a bookshop holding our books. So there is a place in Johannesburg again where people can find, not only Afrikaans books, but local books, local content. And of course, I said to them, I’m not going to be an Afrikaans-only bookstore. If I’m only an Afrikaans bookstore that is not interesting enough for me.  It became then a bookshop known for its South African collection. A good, intelligent South African collection.  And also the store was opened at a time when South Africa was alive was real growth in South African publishing. South African fiction, particularly English fiction grew extensively in the last ten years. That was fascinating.”

She goes on to explain to me how her Afrikaans collection dwindled over the years. When the store first opened, Afrikaans books occupied a sizeable section of the store but the growth of South African English gradually saw English books take up more and more space in the store. As the South African English collection grew, the Afrikaans collection shrunk,” she explains.

I ask her then if she didn’t view the crowd at the sale with a twinge of resentment, wondering perhaps where they’d all been through these years. She replies thoughtfully. “No, they were all regular customers. A lot of them were drawn by the events we held here,” she says and then trails off,  silent for a few moments. She acknowledges, “It is the day to day ticking over that we needed more of, but you don’t need books every day. You need bread every day.”

Boekehuis was a special store, noted by the International Booksellers Federation in recognition as one of 50 unique bookshops in the world. The store felt very much as its name intended, a home for books. But as much as it was a space for books, it was a space for booklovers too. “The atmosphere meant I really had to choose books carefully,” she tells me. “I could not have the generosity of an Exclusive Books collection but I could have the best that there is, the best books available. When you came in here something would immediately catch your eye.”

With a chuckle she tells me, “There was a lot of people who were interested in the same things I was interested in.”

“In a way, this was a very idiosyncratic collection,” she confides.

The Boekehuis structure, a century-old house that once belonged to the daughter Braam Fischer, is set either to be razed to the ground to expand the Media 24 parking lot, or become a crèche for the children of their employees. Van der Spoel has not been privy to plans for the store but she speaks candidly about her own plans.

“I’m 44-years old,” she tells me, “I have enough energy for another good project. If I can get my teeth into something I can believe in. I’m not entirely sure it’s the time for more bookshops. I think I’ll probably stay in the book industry. I’ve invested so much time in it, all this experience – it would be silly to waste it now. I’ll miss this space, these honey coloured walls,” she says, looking fondly at the wall beside her desk, “it took me a long time to appreciate the ambience of this place. Ah to be surrounded by books!”

“I have been asked to organise a reading festival in the town of Prince Albert in October. The town in the Karoo is turning 250 years and the local library will be 150 years. I have already started working on that,” she says.

Libraries and bookstores have been the university anybody could enter. As we see more of them disappear, we lose an essential tenet of what it means to be human. Books will survive, they have to survive. If we are to continue to be, then books will survive. Their form may well be unrecognisable but they will live on – as Boekehuis lives on, on the shelves of its many, many ardent supporters. But what we begin to miss is room to read, physical spaces devoted to words. DM

Read more:

Photo courtesy of Boekehuis.


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