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Boekehuis blues

Boekehuis, Johannesburg’s premier book- shop, is set to shut its doors after Media24 Books, a subsidiary of Naspers, decided to cut the losses of the shop, which costs about R1-million a year to run.

Boekehuis, established 12 years ago, is housed in a century-old house and property that once belonged to Ruth Eastwood, daughter of anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer.

According to Eloise Wessels, head of Media24 Books, the bookshop has to shut down because it “has continued to make ever-increasing losses” and attempts to find a buyer have been unsuccessful.

The shop — run by bibliophile Corina van der Spoel, who is also the co-director of the M&G Literary Festival — has established itself as the city’s pre-eminent literary space. Boekehuis serves many functions: it hosts book events, it is a lekgotla for the city’s intellectuals and a stockist of tomes that you ordinarily do not find in the book-chain shops.

Rare intellectual encounter
In an attempt to stave off the ­closure, more than 350 eminent writers, artists, jurists, academics and others sent an open letter to Naspers chief executive Koos ­Bekker, Media24 Corporate chief executive Esmaré Weideman and Media24 Books chief executive Eloise ­Wessels, who took the decision to close ­Boekehuis.

The signatories include former Constitutional Court judges Albie Sachs and Arthur Chaskalson, artists William Kentridge and David ­Goldblatt, writers André Brink, Antjie Krog, Marlene van Niekerk, Njabulo S Ndebele, Nuruddin Farah, Ivan Vladislavic, Zakes Mda, Deon Meyer, Mark Gevisser and Makhosazana Xaba, and publisher Phakama Mbonambi.

Separately, Sachs wrote to Bekker that “to do away with Boekehuis is to pluck out your eye. It is a place of rare intellectual encounter, where every voice is heard.” He also wrote that “it’s not the economic logic of the decision that is in question, but its literaricidal [sic] impact. We hear a lot these days about the importance of sustaining freedom of information and openness of ideas”, adding that “the private sector has a ­responsibility in this area as well as the government”.

There is a strong rationale for a reprieve because of Media24’s ­glowing health: the company is ­valued at more than R120-billion. Furthermore, some form of cross-subsidisation by its parent company Naspers seems not unreasonable.

On November 29 the company announced robust results for the six months to September 30. These reflected ­revenue growth of 17% to R18.5-billion.

Core headline earnings increased by 8% on the previous year to R3.5-billion. Free cash flow — generated by Naspers totalled R1.4-billion. Contributions from its associates — Tencent in China, Abril in Brazil and Group in Russia — were up by 32%.

Those valuations and figures seem to give the lie to Wessels’s gloomy media release attempting to justify her closure of Boekehuis.

An exceptional space
Outrage at the imminent demise of Boekehuis has extended beyond local book lovers; literary visitors to South Africa are stunned, too. Ricarda de Haas, a ­German literary scholar based in Berlin, expressed her “shock and ­disbelief” at the decision, ­pointing out that “the importance of the Boekehuis is not measurable in cash only”. She added: “The bookshop — is internationally known as the place to go, no matter if one is looking for international sophisticated titles, African novels, poetry or crime fiction.”

Katharina Fink, a German always shuttling between Bayreuth and Johannesburg, was also dismayed. She wrote that Boekehuis “is one of the always reliable excellent partners, guaranteeing an exceptional space for books, readers and ­discussions — a rare find on any side of the world”.

Fink, who works with youths from Sophiatown on heritage projects, said the outreach of the bookshop was not just limited to Gauteng.

“It is one of the institutions we here in freezing Germany always think of when discussing literature.”

Media24 responds:

We are proud of the contribution Boekehuis has made, under the management of Corina van der Spoel, to the cultural and intellectual debate in Johannesburg over the past 12 years.

The closure of Boekehuis is therefore not contemplated lightly. Since its inception, the bookshop has continued to make ever-increasing losses. Boekehuis was established during economically prosperous times. As every­one knows this has changed dramatically, not only in South Africa but also all over the world. The changed situation has led to the future of Boekehuis being discussed and evaluated over a prolonged period. Various possible solutions, such as finding a buyer for it, were pursued without success. No interested buyers could be found.

The company still supports many cultural and intellectual initiatives but has to be more selective in the current financial climate. We trust that the many supporters of Boekehuis will retain an affectionate memory of the role it played in the cultural and intellectual life of Johannesburg over these years. — Issued by Eloise Wessels, chief executive officer of Media24 Books

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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