New store bridges a book market gap

Griffin Shea in the City Central building that will house Bridge Books. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)

Griffin Shea in the City Central building that will house Bridge Books. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)

Opening a bookshop anywhere in the world is a tremendous act of faith and hope. 

Such time-honoured repositories of highbrow literary delights and three-for-two retail specials for thrillers, romances and a host of other genres have struggled ever since Amazon launched its Kindle e-reader. 

That menace proved no phantom and was followed closely by other virtual-reading devices so that books in the traditional codex form pioneered by Gutenberg and Caxton steadily lost sales. 

Falling revenues spelt the end of many independent bookshops, and even mighty chains such as Waterstones in the United Kingdom and Barnes & Noble in the United States battled the invisible rival that took up no space on shelves at home or in holiday-reading luggage. 

But the physical bookstore seems set for a comeback. There is movement locally too, in downtown Jo’burg to be precise, at 85 Commissioner Street, where a piece of optimism and belief is rising under the name of Bridge Books.

Griffin Shea says he got into Johannesburg’s book-vending circles after going into a panic that a book he was working on would never reach its audience. 

Setting out to do some market research, Shea, a former journalist for Agence France-Presse, discovered a variety of vendors ranging from stall operations to storefronts. 

After getting to know some of the the vendors, Shea is acting as a gobetween, to alleviate issues related to the size and profile of some of these operations. 

Bridge Books, which will open on June 1 at 85 Commissioner Street, will act as a wholesaler, and offer new and second-hand books as well as an online ordering service. 

The building, known as City Central, was the old Barclays Bank headquarters and will be used as a space for launches and other literature-related events. 

Shea says booksellers and publishers such as Jacana, New Africa Books and others have offered invaluable support in terms of marketing, brainstorming and access to books. 

Since “stumbling into” the idea of setting up the shop, Shea says he has realised how much demand there is for books, especially for African literature titles, many of which are out of print and are prized finds in secondhand markets. 

Shea is not alone in finding out that demand for books remains incongruent to the channels of supply. After spearheading the e-reader, Amazon recently opened Amazon Books in Seattle’s University Village, its first physical bookstore in a 20-year run of selling on the internet. 

What this suggests is that the internet is not the replacement for the physical form that it has long been touted to be. In South Africa, for example, the success of a bookstore, particularly one focused on African literature, has more to do with how it complements the community it trades in.

For more information on Bridge Books, visit bridgebooks.co.za

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