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A tale of how a supermarket is helping the unemployed sell second-hand books

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Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

The volunteers at the Durban Book Fair work with very little, but through a partnership with a big supermarket chain they are packing a big punch on the literary scene.

A shy smile flickers across Esther Phooko’s face. She has a trained eye for a reader parting the supermarket’s glass doors, and it delights her. Durban is Africa’s only Unesco City of Literature but its formal bookshops are as rare as honest politicians. It’s taken the quiet convincing of a band of volunteers in the Durban Book Fair NGO to entice a leading supermarket chain to think about its corporate social responsibility a little differently.

The supermarket offers a free space for unemployed people trained through the book fair programme to sell second-hand books. The shoppers do the rest. They come toting bags of books they no longer need and leave with an armful of reading that takes their fancy. In the process of that happy transaction, Phooko earns a dignified living. There are zero admin fees or rentals. The planet benefits too, as hundreds of books get recycled each week. “These are the novels and here’s the nonfiction,” Phooko purrs. She is not your typical bespectacled bookshop fountain of information about the latest and greatest flowing off the world’s printing presses, but she oozes an infectious charm that makes you want to read something off her neatly stacked rows.

A handbill propped on a stand shows off the Heritage Day weekend book fair programme. “Musa Zulu will be speaking about ‘I am Art’ and Judge Nicholson will be launching ‘Two Right Feet’,” croons Phooko.

Another handbill advertises Daily Maverick’s webinar with Pallo Jordan and Mac Maharaj talking about their recently released book, Breakthrough, the backstory to the negotiations leading to the 1994 elections. “If you like that book I’ll look for it,” says Phooko, pencil and notebook in hand, notching another customer to her database.

The flow from the book fair’s programming is astounding. Aside from its once-monthly litfest in a public park, it has seized every cyberspace opportunity from Facebook to Zoom. Its weekend programme linked scholar Jonathan Jansen in Stellenbosch with octogenarian author Bala Mudaly in Melbourne to talk about his book, Colour-Coated Identity, while local essayist Kiru Naidoo chaired the proceedings from Durban.

First-time author Ntombifuthi Mkhize from rural Nqutu found a ready platform for her recently published Unknown Journey, while struggle stalwart Ismail Vadi ran several live online sessions with his stellar political biography of Thambi Naidoo and his family. Unlike their counterparts in London, Frankfurt or New York, the volunteers at the Durban Book Fair work with very little but pack a big punch on the literary scene. With ambassadors like Phooko, reading has become a super-cool pastime in the coastal city. DM168

Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI and postdoctoral scholar in Gender Justice, Health and Human Development at Durban University of Technology.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 3

  • What supermarket chain is the author referring to? If it is Pick n Pay, it would be much more socially responsible if it stopped applying to sell alcohol in their Pick n Pay Express stores in BP garages. Alcohol and driving do not mix.

  • There must be millions of books on book shelves waiting to be read and millions more destroyed every year. Finding a way to recycle them in this fashion is great. Although it is not really a new idea it makes a lot of sense for this to be done in a big way by supermarkets. Well thought out!