By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2
‘A Lot of Logistical Problems’In comments to Publishing Perspectives, Johannesburg bookseller Griffin Shea talks about his plans for a newly opened store, Bridge Books:
“Part of our mission in making sure that African books get into as many hands as possible is my work with the African Book Trust, which will launch later this year.
“The trust will choose a selection of African books that we think everyone in South Africa should be able to read, and then raise money to buy the books to donate them to libraries around the country.
“South Africa is doing a lot of work to build libraries, so we want to find ways to support the government’s work as best we can.”
Shea talks about distribution challenges being among the most daunting in his part of the world.
“The median age in South Africa is 25,” he says, “which means that every year millions of young people are becoming adults with their own new reading habits. That’s a lot to keep up with. Sometime the struggles that publishers have in reaching new readers is interpreted as ill-will, when really publishers are incredibly eager to find as many new readers as possible.
“The good part of this is that it creates an opportunity to link publishers with readers. The bridge in our logo is the beautiful Nelson Mandela Bridge, which connects downtown Johannesburg to main roads.
“But there’s also the metaphorical bridge that we want to become, connecting gaps among readers, writers and publishers.”
Writing about Shea and Bridge Books for South Africa’s Sunday Times, Jennifer Malec quotes Shea talking of how unaware local citizens might be of opportunities to buy books.
“People are always telling me,” Shea says to Malec, “‘Oh, there’s finally a bookstore in town!’ But if you look out that window, there are two booksellers right across that street. There’s another one behind us, and if you go around the corner there are just tons and tons of people selling books.”
What makes Bridge Books stand out, Shea says, is a commitment to selling both new and used African and South African books, with just a small portion of the store’s stock dedicated to literature from other parts of the world. On top of that, Shea acts as wholesaler to a group of “informal vendors,” who supply him with used books.
Many in Shea’s network of booksellers are, according to Malec, migrants and young entrepreneurs, working without bank accounts, credit reports, or even IDs, which makes them, by Shea’s own description “disenfranchised from the world of books.” This, in turn, says Shea, “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.”
His ambition is, at least in part, to “connect the publishing establishment” with the reading that takes place on the street level. “When I hear these debates about decolonizing publishing,” he tells Malec, “it blows my mind. There are these huge issues, but there are also some very simple problems that, if solved, can have a big impact.”