Good luck sowing shelf restraint

Treasure trove: Books,birds,and writing on the wall at Ike's Bookshop in Durban. (Rogan Ward)

Treasure trove: Books,birds,and writing on the wall at Ike's Bookshop in Durban. (Rogan Ward)


One can't resist a bookshop that makes you want to read the moment you enter it; not later, not when you get home, but right there, right that minute. Ike's Bookshop and Collectables in Durban is such a place.

On the second floor of a fading but resilient old colonnaded building, its homely atmosphere and spacious wraparound balcony quickly have one fantasising about spending the day moving round the building, chair to chair, chasing the sun.

The open stacks are fastidiously organised and sub-categorised, a far remove from the anxiety-inducing, dusty jumble of many second-hand book­stores.

There are three rooms, one with South African literature, poetry and theatre, and children's books; another for art, photography, architecture, design and novels; and the largest room reserved for Africana –travel, history, politics and economics, the classics and sport.

The shop is dotted with curiosities and antiques, including typewriters, defunct cameras, political posters from the 1980s and maps. In one glass case, you will find several passes (a Natal pass to Indians born in the colony, dated 1896, and

a pass giving permission for a "native" to remain in Durban for five days, dated 1907), a pamphlet of Lenin on working-class policy from the 1940s, and a Che Guevara cigarette case.

Ike's is named after Joseph David Mayet, known as Ike, the son of a paraffin salesman.
At the age of 12, he contracted osteomyelitis (a bone infection) and ended up spending nearly three years in St Aidan's Hospital. But during those long, painful days, his love of books and reading developed. He would grow up to make a living as a boilermaker.

Although, with his pale appearance, he could pass for "white" during apartheid and might have been successfully reclassified, he retained his racial categorisation as Indian.

In his retirement after 1981, under the mentorship of Durban's "grand old man" of books, Ernest Rabjohn, of Adam's Books, Ike started learning bookbinding. A major contribution was his restoration of many rare books in the Gandhi Library.

In 1988, he opened Ike's Bookshop, originally in Chapel Street, a back alley in Overport. At the age of 62, he was the first South African antiquarian bookseller of colour.

Chapel Street, a stone's throw from his home, was in an apartheid "grey zone", a multicultural neighbourhood with crumbling buildings alongside high-rise apartments, shacks beside modern homes, and dukawallah shops jostling with shebeens and brothels.

He sold a wide range of books, from Mills & Boon to Marxist-Leninist theory. He sold banned books, too, and the bookshop was frequented by luminaries such as Jay Naidoo, Omar Badsha and Judge Chris Nicholson.

When Ike reached the age of 75, in 2000, he decided to close the bookstore. But his friends Vishnu Padayachee and Julian May (both professors of economics) bought it and relaunched it at its present location, in Florida Road. Ike's Books and Collectables, as it was renamed, was officially opened in January 2001 by Nobel laureate JM Coetzee.

Ike died a year later.

Soon after the new shop was opened, the tradition of writers signing on the walls began. Among the signatures and messages you will find Phillip Tobias, Lauren Beukes, Xolela Mangcu, Tariq Ali, Naomi Klein and Mamood Mamdani and, on the balcony, Lewis Nkosi scribbled "Lewis Nkosi's shebeen", with an arrow pointing to those very comfortable chairs.

The bookshop is now largely in the capable hands of the energetic manager and co-owner, Joanne Rushby.

"The obituaries of independent bookshops have been written many times," she wrote to me. "But they endure and, I believe, are now even experiencing a revival. There are challenges but we have to constantly reinvent ourselves, explore ways of reaching new customers and new ways of selling, while also maintaining the ambience that people seek and enjoy."

Ike's has entered the 21st century with an active Facebook page, links to the AbeBooks online bookstore and an online antiquarian auction site.

"Obviously e-readers and Kindles are a pressure on all booksellers," Rushby says, "but does reading a tablet replace the touch of paper, the smell, the notes and memories which we often find hidden amongst the pages?

"I also believe that writers want to launch their books, not in some sterile hall but in an environment where they are surrounded by books, feel comfortable; a place which celebrates books and knowledge. Ike's embraces all these aspects I hope; it is a very special place."


Ike's Books, 48a Florida Road, Durban. Tel: 031 303 9214. Inquiries, email:

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: Read more from Brent Meersman