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.
“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 rand — a high price in a country where most of the 50 million people earn around 2,000 to 3,000 rand 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.
Le Roux estimates the book industry’s turnover at 3.5 billion rand: but two thirds of that are made up of school and university textbooks.