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Facts and Fictions: Find out about Bridge Books – Joburg’s newest independent bookstore – and the coming reading revolution

By Jennifer Malec for the Sunday Times

Facts and Fictions: Find out about Bridge Books - Joburg's newest independent bookstore

“People are always telling me, ‘Oh, there’s finally a bookstore in town!’ But if you look out that window there are two booksellers right across the street. There’s another one behind us, and if you go round the corner there are just tons and tons of people selling books.”

Griffin Shea likes to emphasise that he is no trailblazer when it comes to selling books in downtown Joburg. But his new shop, Bridge Books, certainly makes an impression. It’s located in the old Barclays Bank on Commissioner Street, one of the city’s most revered Art Deco buildings. You are greeted by a triple-volume entrance hall decked out in wood panelling and brass, bordered by marble colonnades and finished off with giant, glittering chandeliers.

Bridge Books focuses on new and second-hand African and South African books, with a smaller collection of “rest of world” huddled on its own shelf, in a pleasing inversion of standard local bookshop practice. But Shea also acts as a wholesaler to a group of informal vendors who, in turn, source second-hand books for him. “It becomes a two-way dynamic,” he says, “which works so well because if you want classics like Nervous Conditions or Things Fall Apart recent prints are still expensive but if they come in second-hand you can sell them for R80. Lots of people can make an impulse purchase if it’s double digits.”

… When you walk around you realise there’s a lot of reading happening that the formal book industry just doesn’t know about.

Shea describes the informal booksellers he works with as “disenfranchised from the world of books”. Many are migrants or young entrepreneurs, without a bank account, credit record or ID book. “That makes it very difficult to interact with large companies, because companies need you to have those things, and reasonably so. But there’s also no reason not to bridge the gap and be the go-between.” And that’s his plan.

An aspiring novelist in the young adult genre himself, and with a vague plan of selling his own books, Shea struck out into the inner city last year. “I was armed with all this grim data about how nobody reads in South Africa,” he says. “But when you walk around you realise there’s a lot of reading happening that the formal book industry just doesn’t know about.”

His ambition is to connect the publishing establishment with the reading that happens “quite literally on the street”. But he also wants to keep it simple. “When I hear these debates about decolonising publishing, it blows my mind,” he says. “There are these huge issues, but there are also some very simple problems that, if solved, can have a big impact.”

For example, informal booksellers have a hard time keeping their stock safe from theft, water and rats. Shea mentioned this to Pan Macmillan, who donated some plastic bins and trolleys. “That’s a problem you can solve with R1000, and it can significantly change the way people do business,” Shea says. “Nobody needs their problems solved for them, but to provide a tiny bit of support, that’s part of what I’m trying to do. To make connections with people that they might not otherwise have, for dumb reasons.”

Bridge Books hasn’t been open long, but Shea says the response has been “amazing”. “People gravitate to a bookstore where they feel they will find what they’re looking for,” he says. “There’s a disillusionment about bookstores – without slamming anyone – and there’s a demand for local stories. I think in the city people feel neglected.”

SO what are people looking for? Well, everything. But Shea says his younger customers are interested in lesser known liberation heroes, as well as early African or pre-colonial stories about the San or Mapungubwe. “They tend not to be so obsessed with the recent past, which weighs so heavily on many people. They want a much broader look at history, which is inspiring.”

Shea says the bad rap publishers and bookshops often get in South Africa is undeserved. “There’s this idea that they don’t want to sell books to the population at large, but they all do,” Shea says. “Not everyone knows how. Everyone I’ve been in contact with is willing to experiment and gamble on this very random project in town. People really are willing to try, and if this project addresses just one little thing, it’s a start.”

Shea is starting an NGO, the African Book Trust, which will buy books to donate to libraries. To find out more and hear about Bridge Books events, follow them on

Griffin Shea recommends

Radiance of Tomorrow
Ishmael Beah - Famous for his memoir about being a child soldier, Radiance of Tomorrow is about returning home. It’s gorgeously written, because he translates often very literally from his mother tongue into English, which creates some beautiful metaphors.•

Sometimes there is a Void
Zakes Mda - As soon as the books arrive they go back out. I ordered two of everything to start, to see what would work, but two is not enough for Zakes Mda. You need 10 of each thing and they just keep going.•

Niq Mhlongo - Affluenza is really good. Short stories are underappreciated; they’re really hard to write. These are gorgeous little gems, and as a parent of young children I like that I can have a feeling of accomplishment by finishing one and then collapsing asleep.•

So Long a Letter
So Long a Letter - People are always looking for Nervous Conditions and Things Fall Apart, so to broaden the African canon a bit, Mariama Bâ is someone we don’t usually read because the books are geographically or linguistically distant.

* * * * *
I Write What I LikeOliver Tambo RememberedThe Coming RevolutionEight Days in SeptemberCyril RamaphosaWhen Hope Whispers

Bridge Books top sellers

1. I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko
2. Oliver Tambo Remembered, edited by Z Pallo Jordan
3. The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema and the Fight for Economic Freedom, edited by Floyd Shivambu
4. Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki, by Frank Chikane
5. Cyril Ramaphosa, by Anthony Butler
6. When Hope Whispers, by Zoleka Mandela

Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer

Book details

  • Oliver Tambo Remembered: A Collection of Contributions from Around the World Celebrating the Life of OR Tambo edited by Zweledinga Pallo Jordan
    EAN: 9781770102361
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

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