By Ryan Enslin
Ever in search of interesting stories, Ryan Enslin headed into Johannesburg’s independent bookshops to gain insights into the city he calls home.
Joburg has a fine history of second-hand bookshops. New books were often out of reach of the everyday Joburger due to a weak currency and limited print runs, which drove prices up. But there is a history, and culture, which these local bookshops gave rise to, and continues to flow through Joburg’s veins.
As the largest second-hand bookshop in southern Africa with over 2 million titles spread over five floors, there are stories for days at Collectors Treasury. Located in Maboneng, owned and managed by the Klass family, brothers Geoff and Jonathan are bibliophiles of note. Jonathan’s wife Jenny handles the task of marketing this Johannesburg institution.
“Your interest will lead you,” said Geoff when I asked him for advice on navigating this behemoth. My advice? Go with time on your hands as you browse Greek and Roman classics, philosophy, motoring, weapons and Word War II. There is also a large photography section which captured my attention.
Geoff shared with me the story of a book that was found on a rubbish dump, which subsequently sold for R60 000.
Collectors Treasury also stocks antiques and a large collection of vinyl’s, including an Elvis and Janice vinyl, made in South Africa back in the day. Find Collectors Treasury at CTP House, 244 Commissioner Street, City and Suburban.
As a self-styled radical bookstore, coffee shop and reference library, The Commune is all about people organising in alternative ways. A sense of community drives this non-profit organisation, located in Braamfontein in Reserve Street. You could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in a forest, as vegetation of all sorts hangs from beams connecting each side of the street.
With a passion for revolutionary politics, this project, run by a team of eight, contains works covering subjects from grassroots social movements, to environmentalism, queer theory and disability studies. You will also find books covering art, poetry and fiction.
Their commitment to community runs deep – during the recent student protests The Commune provided a safe space for the students to meet.
Find The Commune, which also serves great coffee and vegan cakes, at 14 Reserve Street, Braamfontein.
L’Elephant Terrible Bookshop
L’Elephant Terrible was started by the husband and wife team of Wolfgang and Gundi Weinek and owes its name to a rather amorous elephant observed on a zoo outing, and how such goings-on were explained to a group of school children. Wolfgang, a founding trustee of the Market Gallery and erstwhile trustee of the Market Theatre, started sharing his passion for books in 1987, together with Gundi, at a market located in the Market Theatre building.
Sadly Wolfgang is no longer with us, but Gundi continues this love affair at a shop in the 44 Stanley development in Millpark. On a chilly autumn morning I met Cati, Gundi’s daughter, who helps her mom from time to time. She tells me that her parents have always been passionate about access to literature. As such, an independent bookstore was a natural extension of this ethos.
“We are but custodians of the written arts,” shares Cati, as we walk through this curated space. Her eyes light up as she recounts how a young man proposed using a note strategically placed in a certain book.
Although the collection on offer is varied, I particularly enjoy the selection of Africana works.
Find L’Elephant Terrible Bookshop at 44 Stanley Avenue, Millpark.
James Findlay Collectable Books and Antique Maps
Another husband and wife operation, run by James and Kate Findlay, their bookshop can be found in the basement of the Rand Club in downtown Joburg. As a respected figure in the trade, James has many stories to share of items which have passed through his hands.
Their stock covers a diverse range of topics including the history of Johannesburg, the Boer War and a large range of non-fiction titles. James says he is on the lookout for works you won’t find elsewhere, and collectable and rare books are sold via auctions to true enthusiasts.
When it comes to antique maps, James shows me his oldest piece, dating back to 1619 and showcasing the continent of Africa. The art of cartography is riddled with stories of intrigue. Empty maps were not desirable which led to the inclusion of sometimes questionable elements on the map. Blank spaces depicting the unknown were often marked “here be dragons” on old maps. These fascinating pieces provide an interesting snapshot of life as it was at that time.
In addition to books and maps, James Findlay also stocks an interesting range of political posters. These apartheid-era relics, the most desirable of which were printed in Botswana by the Medu Art Ensamble, were smuggled into South Africa and used in the fight against an unjust system.
Find James Findlay Collectable Books and Antique Maps at 33 Loveday Street, Marshaltown.
Considering the differences, and one might say extremes, in the book retailers I found in Johannesburg, I think they offer an interesting commentary on life today in the City of Gold. Never boring, with many interests catered for, even if you are just looking for an casual morning out, I love living in this diverse melting pot of a city. And watch her evolve.
Pictures: Ryan Enslin