Bridge Books offers tours to a number of booksellers in the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: Supplied
Bridge Books offers tours to a number of booksellers in the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: Supplied

Marshalltown’s literary history can be traced back to 1890 when there were already libraries and 11 bookshops within a few blocks of Johannesburg’s old City Hall.

CNA started in a corrugated-iron building on the corner of Rissik and Commissioner streets. Juta started on the corner of Loveday and Pritchard and the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, at 1 Rissik Street, hosted social events, a boxing club, gym and a library founded by Herbert Dhlomo and run by Peter Abrahams.

Frank Thorold came from Manchester to fight the Boer War and was a pioneer of book sales.

“Mr Thorold used to walk around with a Gladstone bag visiting all the shops and markets when Bree Street taxi rank was the Flat Iron Market. He would open his Gladstone bag like a doctor on call and buy books and bring them back to the shop. And that is what the book vendors are doing today — walking around town buying books and taking them back to their place of sale,” explained American-born journalist and academic Griffin Shea.

Shea’s fascination for the SA book trade began when he enrolled at Wits University for a creative writing course. His search for hard-to-find books took him to the book vendors of downtown Johannesburg. He has since mapped 80 street vendors, specialising in new and second-hand trade, in the 1km distance along Joubert Street between Park Station and Ghandi Square.

The Nigerian book sellers are strongest in the market with a ‘Nollywood model’ of mass-produced books by Nigerian preachers with  hectic titles such as Satanic Barbers, Identifying Evil Restaurants, Combating Satanic Forces in Your Office and Expelling Witchcraft.

Shea is currently tabulating the statistics and research of this industry into a PhD. Two thirds of the underground book vendors are from outside of SA, says Shea. They have built a thriving cross-border trade with innovative techniques such as mobile bookstores, cellphone payments and cross-border bus deliveries. Even the smallest vendors with a piece of cloth on the pavement can sell 400 books in a month.

The pop-up bookshop is a growing concept in the city, with some hair salons and spaza shops creating solid returns from a single bookshelf. The Rand Club, together with book auctioneer James Findlay, has opened a basement floor for antiquated books, art and maps. 

Blessing and Present Tsakatsa, cousins from Zimbabwe, offer a well-curated store with a string of classic titles. Their book-storage is kept in an underground alcove in Park Station. It has no electricity and has been burnt down three times. It is also subject to the homeless using the books as a mattress, as well as the harmful effects of rats, fire and water.

“Underneath Park Station there are these secret chambers of books for people who go all over Gauteng looking for cheap second-hand books that they can bring into town, store and supply to booksellers,” said Shea.

The Nigerian book sellers are strongest in the market with a “Nollywood model” of mass-produced books by Nigerian preachers with titles such as Satanic Barbers, Identifying Evil Restaurants, Combating Satanic Forces in Your Office and Expelling Witchcraft.

Many of the local titles the street vendors sell are political memoirs and academic text books. “In the CBD people want books for problem solving: how to make a better business; make a better relationship; how do I improve my relationship with God; books that can help me do well in school, books that can address an issue that people are trying to fix. There is a whole giant population of people thinking about how to improve things. I still wish people would read a novel,” said Shea.  

Together with Bridget Impey of Jacana Media, Shea began providing SA books to the street vendors at wholesale prices in an attempt to “find a way to help them sell new books so there can be a higher mark-up, new authors and shift the perception of what people read”, he explained. Within a few months Shea was distributing a large number of books from his car boot. This necessitated the founding of a physical shop in the area to help fulfil the needs of storage and distribution.

Bridge Books was founded three years ago around the corner from the Rand Club, in front of the old City Hall. Though named after the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge, Bridge Books sought to create a metaphorical bridge between large-scale formal publishing, the readers and booksellers at the grassroots level, and become a hub for support, gathering and discussion that can pull together all these initiatives into a working network and system.

Shea explains, “Is there a way to pull all the initiatives together to make a system where things can work more easily? For really small booksellers, if they could combine their orders and their storage into one space where there is one delivery point and a way to share their space, then they would be able to order more books at a cheaper price.”    

Bridge Books is working on a larger proposal for the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) for the historic core of Marshalltown to be formally recognised as a literary district with improved street signs, maps, information, events, activities network and street libraries.

Bridge Books has launched an African Book Trust in an attempt to “create virtuous cycles and a new consciousness for African literature”, as Shea puts it. The trust seeks to buy new local African books and provide them to schools and libraries, and bring back SA titles that have disappeared, are out of print and are hard to find.  

Shea makes note of John Dube’s biography of Isaiah Shembe written in Zulu in 1836, or the Sotho version of Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, or Dhlomo’s epic, Valley of a Thousand Hills.

• Underground Bookseller Tours take place at Bridge Books, 95 Commissioner Street, Johannesburg. The next tour is on March 30.