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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Keeping the conversation alive

As Chile was walloping Switzerland, fans in Mary Fitzgerald Square were oblivious to the generator that kicked in when Eskom workers left the rest of the Newtown Cultural Precinct in the dark. I wondered what Fitzgerald, said to have been the first female trade unionist in South Africa, would have made of this.

It didn’t faze June Josephs and her team at Xarra Books. They were determined to go ahead with the event they had planned for the evening. A dozen or so of us gathered at the front of the shop, and Chris Abani, comfortable with moving between worlds, read his poetry by candlelight and prose by iPad. When June asked him what he thought the iPad meant for the future of bookshops, he was unsentimental. He said he recognised the value of books as artefacts, but in the past year he’d sold more e-copies of his novel Graceland than he’d sold paper copies in previous years.

Then he joked about an experiment some writers performed in the US, going into bookshops and asking: “Do you have A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?” (the Dave Eggers memoir). And the response they often got: “Which one?” –  illustrating how little the average bookseller in the chains these days knows about their product. Towards the end of the reading, he looked up and said: “We’ve filled up.” Looking back, I saw there was now only standing room available. The absence of electric light hadn’t deterred poetry fans.

Over a glass of wine I met Zakhele Dumas, who told me about his new venture, Isipho Books – “the gift you deserve” – selling books “out of the boot of my car”. Actually he was being modest. His service involves sourcing and delivering books to busy readers; particularly (though not exclusively) books in African languages. He had some interesting ideas about marketing and positioning, and why he thought Exclusive Books in Maponya Mall in Soweto failed. As we chatted, Zukiswa Wanner came over and handed back a couple of signed copies of her books for one of his clients. This is also part of his service.

I recalled two decades ago when I began reading, long before I thought of writing, how Doron Locketz – the owner of Yeoville Books at 28 Rockey Street, immortalised by Ivan Vladislavić in his short story The Book Lover – introduced me to books I didn’t know I was looking for. Every now and then I’d receive a phone call, and he’d say: “I’ve got something in I think you might like.” And I’d take a walk down the street to have a look.

Similarly with Corina van der Spoel on my first visit to Boekehuis. I’d gone to pick up something I’d ordered, and based on that she took me over to a shelf: “I think this might interest you,” she said. I’ve been told that Ann Donald at Kalk Bay Books and Mervyn Sloman at the Book Lounge in Cape Town have similar relationships with readers.

When I need anything from the African history section at Exclusive Books in the Rosebank Mall, dreadlocked TK is bound to be able to help. And in the process I’m likely to learn what he thinks about the ANC Youth League’s latest antics, or an upcoming election. I leave with more than a book.

As Spain was gearing up to knock Honduras out on the giant screen in the Newtown Precinct, the last stragglers left Xarra’s. The square was closed off to traffic, and we had a five-minute walk up to the car park. On the way, I told Akin Omotoso how sad I was that his wonderful movie Jozi only lasted on circuit for a week. He, too, was pragmatic. “I think the time will come when all movies go straight to DVD,” he said. “Basically, I want people to see my movies.” And I felt profoundly depressed by the idea of no more laughter shared with strangers; that all our cultural experiences might become private, or virtual.

Reading and writing are solitary activities, but it’s the conversations and experiences around the books that keep us going in seclusion; and what gets me up out of my chair, travelling across the city to a bookshop. Without that, I may as well resort to the efficient delivery of Kalahari and Loot to my door.

 

This article first appeared on LitNet, 13 July 2010.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 2nd, 2012 @00:18 #
     
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    Also part of why I love libraries... that sense of finding something you didn't know you were looking for. This resonated: "...I felt profoundly depressed by the idea of no more laughter shared with strangers; that all our cultural experiences might become private, or virtual."

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