The cut-throat world of the Joburg street book trade

Johannesburg - The book thieves came late on a Saturday evening. This was not wholly unexpected as this particular stretch of sidewalk is never the safest place to work, which is why Mahle Mavimbela can't leave his stock untended. The risk is just too great.

The thieves came in a group, beat him, took his money and chased him off. When he came back, the books he'd so carefully arranged along the sidewalk were all gone. Romances. Novels. Biographies. Textbooks. Everything. He thinks it was an organised hit rather than random crime. Maybe a business rival? The book trade is a cut-throat business.

You wouldn’t know it from the hand-wringing about South Africa’s “culture of reading”, but books are hot commodities in downtown Johannesburg. Cynically, it’s easy to say that’s because they’re portable, often untraceable, and quite valuable – prices for imported titles are now often above R300.

While true, that misses an important point: the reason that stolen books are valuable is because people really want to read them. Johannesburg has an enormous, pent-up demand for books. A demand so great that people are willing to risk jail time to satisfy it.

Street vendors make easy targets, but they’re hardly the only victims. In 2013 Exclusive Books lost R5 million to theft. Books Galore in Edenvale last year reported losing R250 000 to shoplifting, with the Bible and Long Walk to Freedom among the most popular targets. Jacana’s books have been so popular with thieves that they run a marketing campaign on their most stolen-titles as 'Hot Reads'.

Stolen books have ended up, sometimes in bulk, on the shelves of small bookshops downtown. Every now and then the police raid a shop and confiscate books, sometimes still with the barcode stickers from their original shelves.

Books are bread and butter

But for most of the dozens of booksellers downtown, second-hand books are their bread and butter, making them targets just like shops in malls – except that they have more at stake. Their stock can represent their entire savings, the basis upon which their livelihoods depend.

Mavimbela’s hand was still swollen the weekend after the attack, making it difficult for him to sift through the books at the Wits Charity Shop in Orange Grove. This shop is an anchor of the urban book trade, a steady supply of cheap books that are literally steps away from the recycling bin.

Outside the shop, two workers stood in a pile of paper debris that filled a corner of the parking lot, wedged between outdoor stalls selling old shelves, vintage clothing and antique photographic equipment. From broken cardboard boxes spilled old binders and stacks upon stacks of books, which the men hoisted into the air and tossed into the back of an Impact recycling truck.

For many readers, the idea of throwing away books is counter-intuitive, even offensive. My first reaction was that I’d wandered into a scene from an environmentally conscious version of Fahrenheit 451.

Of course, it’s not that. These are books that have lived a full life, and in some cases, exhausted their usefulness. A 1970s cookbook entitled Microwave Secrets: One-pot pasta. A computer guide whose cover shows a boy smiling at the green monochrome screen of an IBM 5150. Old maps of Gauteng whose roads still carry their former names, hundreds of spiral-bound pages that now fit on our phones.

Other books were once treasures that lost their way in the world. A beautiful hardback book with a golden quill embossed on the cover by Nobel laureate Andre Gide, translated into Romanian, now covered in dirt. Nearby a paperback copy of his Scoala femeilor lay face down on the asphalt. These are books that you can’t even give away — or in this case, sell six of for R20.

Selection is incredibly important

That’s the price of insurance for booksellers like Mavimbela. The cheapest books at the Charity Shop are spread out on tables on the pavement outside the shop windows. They’re not in any order, organised only by the fact that they didn’t make the cut for getting shelved inside, but weren’t desolate enough to get recycled.

The inside books, carefully categorised across three rooms, are too expensive for an emergency restock. When theft happens, Mavimbela has to restock from whatever cash he has on hand. The cost of rebuilding his business is R20, starting from six books, or maybe 12, that he can resell at R50 or more each downtown.

That makes each selection incredibly important. Choose six duds, and he’s back to square one. Choose six winners that get snapped up quickly, and he can rebuild faster. Which means paying rent and keeping food on the table for his wife and young child. He really needs about 100 books to get his business back into full swing, but he may not find them today.

“My lucky day,” he said, picking up a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress with his good hand. There’s a copy in slightly better condition inside on a shelf going for R30, an unaffordable margin for a marginally better copy. The novel goes on top of his stack, replacing Louis Sachar’s middle-grade novel Holes, which never goes out of popularity because it’s found favour on the education department’s list of recommended reading.

Picture by Griffin Shea, News24 Correspondent.

Biko popular

In a hoodie, with a backpack tight on his shoulders, Mavimbela doesn’t look much older than a student himself. This is already his second career, though. He had been managing a takeout place, which involved long hours and low pay, about R2 500 a month.

He’s doing better working for himself. Instead of being trapped in a shop all day, he spends a lot of his days travelling across Gauteng looking for cheap, second-hand books. He can afford to pay someone to staff his bookstand while he’s away. Despite the risks, he still earns more than he did before.

After working through all the tables outside, he sets his selections in a pile by the doorway and heads inside. He’d love to find anything by Credo Mutwa, but his books are mostly out of print. Or Steve Biko, an equally impossible mission. I Write What I Like doesn’t stay on shelves on long, even in libraries where it’s among the mostly common 'long overdue' books, unlikely to ever get returned. He could buy Biko at Exclusive for R149, but by the time he marks it up so he can make a profit, it’s far too expensive for his customers.

Mavimbela thinks he could sell new books, if he knew where to find them cheaply. He gets requests for new titles from some of his customers, particularly for black authors, but they’re hard to source at affordable prices.

On top of a low shelf are what look like new books. There's Tell Me Sweet Something, the title of a local film, a romantic comedy released in 2015, about a bookstore owner in Johannesburg. Flipping through it, the chapters had unromantic titles like 'What Fear Smells Like' and 'A Regime on the Rampage'. It was Peter Godwin’s The Fear.

Don’t buy it, Mavimbela warns. He’d bought a copy that turned out to have Seeds of Destruction inside the rom-com cover. “I sold that book to a lady, she was looking for a nice book by a South African author. And she came back very angry about that.”

Metro officers seize books

It was only later that I remembered the final scene of the movie, where the main character has written her own book and has a signing. These were movie props. Mavimbela looked unconvinced.

I was at the Charity Shop trying to figure out where urban booksellers get their books, part of my PhD research at Wits. As a test, Jacana had offered to give me some of their books to see if any of the booksellers would buy them. So I arranged with Mavimbela to meet him and show him some of Jacana’s books.

When the day came, all of his books had just been taken again, this time in broad daylight. While he was out buying stock, metro police stopped and questioned the salesman he’d left behind to tend the store. He didn’t have any official permission to work as a vendor on the sidewalk, so the officers seized all the books. This is another recurring hazard, in the wake of Metro Police’s operation Clean Sweep in 2013, which chased vendors off the sidewalks downtown and confiscated their goods. The Constitutional Court stopped that scheme for interfering with traders’ ability to make a living.  

But last year it was reincarnated as Operation Ke Molao (It’s The Law), in which metro police use bylaws to remove traders over violations such as loitering.

"I just have to blame myself,” Mavimbela said. “The guy who works for me didn't understand. You have to talk to them nicely and give them some small money and they leave you.”

He wasn’t dismayed. He bought Zumanomics Revisited, The Kelly Khumalo Story, Rough Diamond, and From Debt to Riches from Jacana. And he had a lead on a church jumble sale.

If he gets there early, he can find more books to start again.

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