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 didn’t 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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