Fortiscue Helepi, the founder and owner of African Flavour Books, an independent bookshop in the Vaal, gave a presentation at the Jacana Media offices in Johannesburg last week as the first in the publisher’s series of talks titled “Continuing the Debate – Decolonising South Africa’s Literary Landscape”.
Bridget Impey, MD of Jacana, opened the discussion with some background, and explained why the publisher wanted to continued the conversation.
“We were in the audience when Thando [Mgqolozana] made that declaration that he was leaving white literary festivals, and it was so goddamn brilliant,” she said. “There was such a good energy, there was such a good connection with all the people that were there. So we thought we had to keep the momentum going. It would be disappointing if we had Franschhoek and then we all went home and forgot about it.
“So we want to look at the practicalities. A lot of what happened at the follow-up event at Wits was people saying, we’ve got a situation – how do we change it?
“There are certain people who think we should go in, Stalin-style, and wipe out Franschhoek in one fell swoop. I’d rather build up new things.”
Forthcoming events include a discussion around the Google Mapping of all the independent booksellers in Johannesburg – including hair salons and street vendors – which is being undertaken by journalist Griffin Shea, and a talk by Mofenyi Malepe – author of the self-published book 283: The Bad Sex Bet, which has now sold almost 5 000 copies. Contact Jacana to find out more.
When asked where he stands on the “literary apartheid” debate, Helepi says the one message he is trying to preach is that black people must not sit back and wait for change.
“There are things that are very important to us, and we cannot sit on the fence and say, ‘people are not doing this for us’, when we don’t invest in it. I took R400 000 of my family’s money, that we saved the last three years, and I invested in this thing. Because it’s very important. I’m very passionate about it. You can’t point if you didn’t try. We need to invest our money. Where are our entrepreneurs?
“We have to ask ourselves what kind of legacy we are going to leave for our kids. We can’t leave that legacy of ‘we are not readers’. That’s not right.”
The story of African Flavour Books
Helepi, a chemical engineer, entrepreneur and author, opened African Flavour Books in February this year, after three years of research.
“It was a very long journey,” he says. “We always wondered why we didn’t have bookshops with African literature. I think most people come to this continent to get to the literature, and they still find American authors and European authors in the front of our bookshops.
“The other thing is that I am staying in the Vaal, and I had to travel every weekend an hour, at least, to come to Joburg, only to get to a bookshop that doesn’t have the books that I want.”
Helepi said he and his wife researched bookshops all over the country, and decided that there were so many authors, such as Zakes Mda, Niq Mhlongo, Zukiswa Wanner, that “this country needs to know about”.
The joys of starting a bookshop
“The nice thing that we found in the Vaal is that everyone wants a bookshop in their mall,” Helepi said. “So we could really negotiate prices. Some people cut their rental by R5 000!”
Helepi said he also wanted the design of his shop to attract any young kids that were walking by: “We wanted them to think it was an ice-cream shop! We wanted beautiful colours. We also have a nice kids’ area to encourage them.”
With the international trend of bookshops closing down, Helepi says a lot of people asked him why he was opening one. “We believe that it’s going to take a long time to get our lesser known authors on Amazon. In South Africa, people are still buying books in bookshops. And everyone is very excited about our bookshop.”
The challenges of starting a bookshop: Authors
Helepi says he always tells authors: “You need to market yourself as if you are self-published.”
He says he believes book events are vital to familiarise people with the work: “Most authors were not particularly excited at first, because our events were not really sponsored by their publisher, so we struggled and we are still trying to get authors to see the value of connecting with people. It’s a very new market and it needs to be encouraged.
“In our area there are a lot of students and they are very interested in the events, and they come. But it’s very difficult to get the authors there. Self-published authors are willing to work with us more, because have invested their own money.
“For us to create demand for the books, authors need to be out their marketing their material. If you don’t do that, your book will just collect dust.”
The challenges of starting a bookshop: Publishers
Helepi says publishers should also do more to market their authors.
“People cannot believe the collection of books that we have,” he says. “But I had to study. It took three years, and I researched on each and every website. Not every customer will have that passion. We need to make information available very, very easily.”
He was also disappointed that publishers always referred him to the distributor instead of handling his queries directly.
“The distributor doesn’t understand my needs; my needs are totally different. I want to see people who are not out there. I’m not trying to look like someone else, I’m not trying to be like Exclusive Books, I want to be totally different. I want someone who published a book in 2001 and it’s sitting there collecting dust – that’s the book I want. I want the material that people don’t know about. People are still trying to sell me Grey. I don’t want Grey. I don’t want it!
“I want to get the point where I have a 100 percent African bookshop. At the moment we are sitting at around 80 percent, to 20 percent international. Because you can’t say ‘no’ to a customer. If a customer says they want Grey, you need to give it to them.”
The challenges of starting a bookshop: Distributors and Booksellers
Helepi says his main frustration was with the distributors, from hard-to-navigate websites with outdated book catalogues, to bad communication, to poor tracking of payments.
“Because I’ve only been operating for four months, I’m working on a cash basis. So if I give you money, I want to get that money back as quickly as possible. When you are an independent bookshop, time is everything. Without cash flow, you will not stay afloat.”
The challenges of starting a bookshop: Readers
“With the market that I’m targeting there is that perception that people do not read,” Helepi said. “But you will find that actually people read.”
However, Helepi says the issue of “book travelling”, where one copy of a book is shared and passed along, is something he is trying to combat – and not chiefly for his own gain.
“What I’m trying to do now, is I’m stressing to everyone that comes into the shop the importance of keeping the copy. Because, yes, you might access it easier now, but in a couple of years later you will not have it. It’s better to make sure you have your own home library and keep all these books so that your kids can access them very easily.
“I want people to understand the value of buying books and keeping them, otherwise publishers don’t think people are reading.”
Helepi says theft is a big problem too, but that he designed to shop to be a big open space, which does help.
A lack of knowledge about local authors is another challenge Helepi faces, and he says he makes a point of taking his customers through the authors, because readers can be intimidated: “sometimes people want to read, but they don’t know where to start”.
He says his mother gave him Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and a few other volumes, “and from there, I never stopped”.
“Someone needs to introduce you to reading, and we try to do that. We make sure we invest a lot of time in teaching young people about the authors that we have. We recommend books they can relate to, Kopano Matlwa is a good example, and from there they come back for more.
“We don’t want to start everyone on Long Walk to Freedom.
“We try to make sure the budget is in the right place. If you are buying Grey, the money is taken away from buying Kopano Matlwa or someone else.”
Helepi says people are shocked at the books they are able to get at his store, but he always makes sure he has a wide variety to suit all tastes.
“Our customers buy books either because they can relate to them or because they can learn from them. They don’t buy books just for the sake of buying books.”
The bestselling book at African Flavour Books is Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, with Gayton McKenzie’s A Hustler’s Bible coming in second.
Incredibly, Helepi says fiction is the most popular genre. “I think people find it hard to get. We have everything, and people get excited.”
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Jennifer Malec tweeted from the event:
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