The end of an era

2011-02-16 00:00

AN era that began in 1969 ended last month when second-hand and Africana book dealer Dennis Slotow shut up shop in Umhlanga. ABC Books will now only have an online presence.

Slotow has been a well-known figure among book lovers in Pietermaritzburg and Durban for more than 20 years, and before that, in Pretoria. His father started Africana Book Collectors in Pretoria in 1969, more or less as the overflow of his own collection. He read Denis Godfrey’s The Enchanted Door, about collecting books and antiques and now a piece of Africana itself, and was bitten by the bug. Slotow has been involved ever since he left school, joining the business full time in 1972.

In 1986, a couple of years after he married, he closed the shop in Pretoria and moved to Pietermaritzburg, opening in Prince Alfred Street in premises that many locals still remember fondly. “The reason we came to Maritzburg was the number of old-world shops, selling second-hand furniture, antiques and books,” recalls Slotow, mentioning Thomas Welz’s Bloomsbury among other shops that brought collectors into the city. Slotow later moved ABC to 50 Durban Road, and to the Quarry Centre in Hilton, as well as having a branch first at Gateway and then in Umhlanga. The Hilton shop closed in 2009, and now Umhlanga has gone as well.

Second-hand book shops, beloved of browsers, seem to be an endangered species. Asked why this is, Slotow says that for high street shops, or shops in a mall, rents have become prohibitive, particularly in a business where the margins are small. “Some dealers go to villages where there are antique and book shops, or, overseas, to places like Hay-on-Wye where second-hand bookshops proliferate. There will probably always be some doing that, but things have changed.”

Slotow insists that it is not the case that people are not reading. “I’m often asked that. People are reading as much, if not more. In South Africa, literate black people are becoming a huge reading base.”

In Slotow’s Africana speciality, the past five or six years have seen an upsurge in books on African culture, from rock art on. “Publishers aren’t stupid: they want to publish what will sell,” he says.

Africana collecting has changed over the years. “A lot of collectors have left the country, and this has meant that Africana is now internationally collected — a lot by people who we have lost here. Some of the international trade is attributable to the Internet, but people were buying from catalogues before that. I brought out my 100th catalogue 12 years ago. I wanted to get to 100, and then I stopped.”

Slotow was one of the earliest book dealers to have an online presence, in his Durban Road days. While he agrees that the pleasure of browsing in a second-hand book shop is becoming rarer as physical shops become virtual places, and he acknowledges that the effect of the Internet on the new book trade has been considerable as more and more people buy online from sites like Kalahari and Amazon, he believes that anything that makes literature accessible is a good thing.

“There are people, especially business people, who think they don’t have time to go to a book shop, but can spend a couple of hours on the Internet. And having access to books, DVDs and CDs on one site has made it very easy.”

Still, I can’t help feeling that some of the fun of book shopping has gone. One way of bringing it back is the online auction, which Slotow is involved in.

“There are two methods. There’s the eBay way, where the site hosts dealers. You put in a bid and it automatically updates, and it has a fixed time limit. The way I do it is not so sophisticated, and it’s interactive between me and the customer, which people appreciate.”

Slotow explains that his auctions, which run regularly, have a starting and finishing point, and bids are made by e-mail rather than directly onto the site. He keeps the site updated, and as the auction comes close to cut-off time, he contacts the underbidder directly, giving them five minutes to re-bid. “The odd auction goes over time if there are two keen bidders — it’s more like a real auction. I enjoy it, and the customers seem to as well.”

And although it means that Slotow has to be at his computer to run his auctions as the bidding hots up, his new shopless state means he will have more time to travel and look for books; more time to interact with his children and be at their sporting events; and when he has a slow day, he doesn’t have to sit twiddling his thumbs in his shop. He can walk away from his computer and go for a swim — or just chill. After almost 40 years in the business, he has earned it.

 

• To contact Slotow visit www.abcbooks.co.za or e-mail him at books@abcbook.co.za or phone 083 321 7872.

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