Cruising Jozi’s Streets, Selling Books From a Suitcase

A few weeks ago I came across a News24 article called The cut-throat world of the Joburg street book trade. I clicked on it immediately because: 1) I did realize Joburg had a cut-throat street book trade; and 2) The article was written by a friend of mine — an American journalist-turned-entrepreneur named Griffin.

Griffin’s article was about guys who make a living selling books at outdoor markets and informal shops in Joburg’s chaotic central business district (CBD). Apparently there is a huge market for both new and used books in downtown Joburg, where there is not a single retail bookstore. If you live in the CBD and want to buy a book — whether it be a school book, a religious book, a children’s book, a biography of Steve Biko, or a romance novel — your only options are to take a costly trip to the Jozi suburbs or buy from an informal vendor.

These informal vendors aren’t just scraping by. Some of them make decent livings, despite that fact that their book collections are often raided by thieves or the police.

Books for sale at an informal shop in downtown JoburgBooks of all shades for sale at an outdoor market near Park Station.

I had coffee with Griffin last week and learned that he has become more than just an observer of the Jozi street book trade. Griffin is now a supplier, working with local publishing companies to sell books at discounted rates to Joburg’s downtown book vendors.

Cruising With a Suitcase Full of Books

I asked Griffin if I could come along on his next street-book mission.

Griffin with a suitcase full of books in downtown JoburgGriffin with his trusty suitcase filled with books. Thanks, Griffin, for letting me photograph you in this awkward passageway.

So here we have a white, middle-class guy — an American Joburg transplant like myself — cruising the streets of downtown Joburg with a suitcase full of books. He goes into town at least once a week, usually on Fridays, visiting his clients — most of whom are African diaspora from places like Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria — peddling brand-new books that publishers have deemed un-sellable and were planning to recycle.

China and Mozambique: From Comrades to Capitalists. A biography of Cyril Ramaphosa. Zoo City. A children’s book about Easter. (“Easter is on its way!” Griffin exhorts to a Christian book vendor.) The Beginner’s BibleThere’s a Tsotsi in the Boardroom50 Flippen Brilliant South Africans. Lovely books that were destined for the paper mill because publishing houses often print more copies than they can sell. That’s where Griffin comes in.

Griffin and I meet in the middle of Park Station, nicely renovated since the I was last there, and walk out through a back entrance. We emerge into a bustling market where Griffin makes his first stop, at a Ugandan-owned stall selling mostly school books. (It’s the beginning of the school year and students have to buy their own books, Griffin explains.)

Books for sale at an informal shop in downtown JoburgSchool books for sale at the first stall.

School books for sale at an informal shop in downtown JoburgMy eye goes straight to the Romeo and Juliet study guide. I probably used a similar one, back in the day.

Griffin speaks to Hannington, the man staffing the stall, who tells Griffin that his boss has stepped away. We wait around for a while — Hannington isn’t authorized to make purchases — and eventually decide to move on. Griffin tells Hannington that he’ll try again later.

Book selling-7981Hannington and his stall.

We walk out on to a busy street, admiring downtown Jozi’s crumbling architecture and pressing through warrens of stalls. We walk past the Ansteys Building, Joburg’s most famous Art Deco high-rise, at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert Streets. Griffin tries a few of his usuals but no one bites. Not all the vendors trust him yet, Griffin says. They suspect him of being a spy for the big retail companies.

Book selling-8026Kiosks like this, selling everything from airtime to earrings, usually offer a small selection of books.

Griffin stops to chat with Albert, a South African with a tiny streetside stall near the Kerk Street market. Albert sells mostly Christian books by big-name evangelists, with a few self-help books and a stray copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. “Someone brought that here,” Albert says of the steamy sex novel, shaking his head. “I don’t know what it’s about.”

After a few minutes of pleasantries, Griffin sets the suitcase down in the middle of the sidewalk and unzips it. Albert peers inside, looking surprised and interested. In the end though, he doesn’t buy.

Griffin selling books at an informal market in downtown Joburg
I think Albert might buy next time.

Griffin finally hits the jackpot at a shop across from Oppenheimer Park, run by a Kenyan named Henry. Like many of the shops Griffin frequents, Henry’s establishment sells mostly hair extensions. But he has a nice corner of books and buys a sizeable stack from Griffin, handing over more than R500 in cash.

Griffin selling books at an informal market in downtown JoburgHenry sorts through books with Griffin.

The gates have opened now, and Griffin makes a few more sales before things start to peter out.

Book selling-8070The next shop-owner buys several books but doesn’t want to be photographed. I sneak this shot of his front window. (Why Men Marry Bitches is a popular title; I spot it all over town.)

At the end of the morning, we visit a Nigerian-owned shop selling mostly religious books imported from Nigeria. The owner isn’t there and his staff person doesn’t buy anything (although he seems interested). But I strike street-book-photography gold.

Book selling-8097I forget to ask the story behind this battered bust of Jesus Christ in the center of the shop.

Nigerian religious books for sale at a shop in downtown JoburgThere is so much to see on this cluster of shelves, but War Against Satanic Caterers & Evil Restaurants speaks to me the loudest. I thumb through it quickly and learn that a girl who dreams of carrots will marry early and have many children.

Nigerian religious books for sale at a shop in downtown JoburgOh yes.

By the end of the outing we’ve walked at least a couple of kilometers. Griffin’s suitcase is significantly lighter, and he has some good leads for next week. Also, I’ve discovered a lovely bakery and a rad clothing shop.

Book selling-8073Dicky’s Cakes on President Street. This is Gregory, Dicky’s son. I’ll be back soon, Dicky’s. Your cakes look amazing.

Book selling-8081Tayo (left) and Viwe (right) of the DOPEstore on Commissioner Street. I love the tennis-themed clothing for sale here.

I’m looking forward to more adventures with Griffin in the future. And by the way, he’s planning to open his own bookshop in the next few months. It will be called Bridge Books and it will be on Commissioner Street in the CBD. Keep an eye out for it.

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20 Comments

  • Reply autumnashbough February 1, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Cool article — love the illegal book vendor. Any idea why Griffin’s all be the first book shop?

    • Reply 2summers February 1, 2016 at 5:36 pm

      Well, the inner city deteriorated terribly in the 1990s and 2000s and basically all formal businesses left. They’re slowly moving back, but at this point it’s still mainly clothes stores, grocery stores, etc. the big book retailers need to wake up though because there’s obviously a thriving book market that they’re missing out on.

  • Reply Expatorama February 1, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    Did you buy a copy of ‘War Against Satanic Caterers & Evil Restaurants’? I held a book-swap at home once. All the good books went and I was left with about 15 copies of the 50 Shades of Grey books. Getting rid of them again proved to be quite challenging. I should have kept them and taken them to Downtown Jozi! I could have started my own bookstall. Loved this post.

    • Reply 2summers February 1, 2016 at 5:37 pm

      You could definitely unload those books quickly in the CBD. I wish I’d bought the satanic caterers book – didn’t think of it until later!

  • Reply shannon walbran (@ShannonWalbran) February 1, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    I’m looking forward to seeing Griffin’s bookshop! Would you please post about it / let us know when it opens?

    • Reply 2summers February 1, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      Most definitely!

  • Reply Kevin Ryan February 1, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Amazing how like India it becoming on thestreet

    • Reply 2summers February 2, 2016 at 7:05 am

      Not quite that crazy but I suppose there are some similarities 🙂

  • Reply Di Brown February 1, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    I love your Joburg. Love books too, great post.

    • Reply 2summers February 2, 2016 at 7:05 am

      Thanks Di!

  • Reply miavzyl April 13, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Where could I find Griffin or how could I get in contact with him? I have some amazing books (also publishers’ excess) but no space to keep them any longer. Would love to find a worthwhile place for them to go, and wouldn’t mind making a few bucks in doing so. Thanks.

    • Reply 2summers April 13, 2016 at 8:21 am

      Hi there, please send me an email through the ‘Contact me’ page on the blog – I’m happy to put you in touch!

  • Reply Kate Melville April 19, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Curious why people aren’t going to the several used/trade-in bookstores around for books. Trading is a great way to get rid of books that are hanging around, and bed of all, get “new” stuff to read! Isn’t there one in Melville? There used to be a good one in Rosebank mall, unfortunately, it has closed.

    • Reply 2summers April 19, 2016 at 12:00 pm

      Yep, there is a very good used book store in Melville, and many others around the city. I actually think they are quite well used! South Africans are big fans of used books, in my opinion.

      • Reply daltonkadams April 19, 2016 at 12:58 pm

        I would imagine so, since new books seem quite pricey here given the value of the rand. Btw, sent you a personal message on here, hope that I can talk to you in more depth later 🙂

        • Reply 2summers April 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm

          Oh, I didn’t receive the message! Did you send it through my “Contact Me” page?

          • Kate Melville April 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm

            Yep! Should I try to send it some other way? or just try that way again?

          • 2summers April 19, 2016 at 2:52 pm

            Hmm, maybe try again, just so I can see if there is something wrong with the page 🙂

  • Reply Kate Melville April 19, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Ugh, so many grammatical errors in that last comment! I’m not usually that awful 😀

    • Reply 2summers April 19, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Haha, no problem.

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