By Jean Liou / AFP
South Africa may have produced two Nobel laureates in literature but a famous bookshop in Johannesburg is nevertheless about to close, a victim of the country’s poor reading culture.
The Boekehuis, whose Afrikaans name means “book house”, is in an old four-bedroom house a stone’s throw from the city’s two main universities.
Its waxed parquet floors, moulded ceilings, garden and coffee shop became the book-lover’s refuge. The shop’s literary events where readers could interact with writers were especially popular.
“This is like a house, not only a bookshop. People come here to buy books, but not only. They come for the ambiance, to have a nice time. And especially for the talks,” says shop manager Corina van der Spoel.
Boekehuis which opened in 2000 has been widely portrayed as independent, but it is in fact owned by Media24, the country’s largest media company.
The giant multimedia group, which owns most of the country’s magazines and major newspaper titles, announced in December that the Boekehuis would be closing its doors at the end of January.
Leading figures such as award-winning author Andre Brink, photographer David Goldblatt and internationally acclaimed painter William Kentridge were among those who signed a petition to try to get Media24 to change its mind.
But their arguments have failed to sway the executives at Media24: the store has recorded annual losses of around a million rand ($120,000).
“Various possible solutions, such as finding a buyer for it, were pursued without success,” the company explained in a statement.
“No interested buyers could be found.”
National figures on readership — and literacy — help explain the problem.
“Only about one percent of the population buy books,” says Elitha van der Sandt, head of the South African Book Development Council (SABDC).
And although the country can boast Nobel prize-winning authors such as Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J.M. Coetzee (2003), their works are mostly read abroad.
Professionals and researchers give several reasons for the nation’s lack of a reading culture: one problem is the price of books.
The cheapest start at 120 rands ($14, 11 euros) — a high price in a country where most of the 50 million people earn around 2,000 to 3,000 rands a month.
“While a few books sell very well, most books will sell only a thousand or so copies,” says Beth le Roux of the University of Pretoria, a specialist in the publishing industry.
“This means that publishers have small print runs, which also keeps the costs (and the prices) high.” A sales tax rate of 14 percent and transport costs for imported books only add to the problem, she adds.
“To make it onto the bestseller list, you only need to sell a few thousand copies of a book here.”
Le Roux estimates the book industry’s turnover at 3.5 billion rands ($420 million, 320 million euro): but two thirds of that are made up of school and university textbooks.
Another 20 percent comes from religious books, which does not leave much of a niche for general literature.
A more fundamental problem however, is illiteracy.
In South Africa 18 percent of adults over the age of 15 are unable to read, and many of those who can read still struggle.
These depressing statistics are a legacy of the apartheid system, which gave lower quality schooling to the non-white population.
But even among white South Africans, the reading culture is limited.
Many of them are descendants of Protestants who have no tradition of diverse reading beyond the Bible.
Or as one bookseller quipped: “It wasn’t just the intellectuals who left Europe!”
Stationery shops in the countryside sell a few romance novels, biographies of European royalty, thrillers and sports books. And there is no shortage of religious bookshops.
South Africa’s main cities offer a few bookshops selling a broader range of literature: mostly branches of Exclusive Books, the largest chain in South Africa.
Increasingly however, many book enthusiasts are turning to the Internet to get what they need, even if for years, the Boekehuis was seen as an exception to that trend, partly because of the literary events it hosted.
Just a few kilometers down the road meanwhile, the local branch of Exclusive Books is also struggling. The chain, which belongs to a rival media group, just reduced the floor space of its biggest shop.