Fortescue Helepi, the owner of African Flavour Books, says he has put almost every cent he has earned over the past three years into his bookstore African Flavour Books. “It wouldn’t be fair for the next generation to grow up believing that black people don’t read. I’d travel an hour to go to a book shop and still struggle to find the books I wanted. We had money to spend on the books but we couldn’t.”
Fed up with an industry that only service the minority, Helepi did some market research and got the books his potential customers would want in their shop. “Its important to know that you can get any book you want your hands on,” he said.
The Mail and Guardian spoke to him at the Time of The Writer festival, where he was speaking at a panel on the book and readership.
You have spoken about the self-perpetuating myth that black people don’t read. Where do you think it originates from?
I think it’s the excuse from the industry that doesn’t want to serve us. Because from my side, since I’ve been in the industry in the last 12 months, I’ve seen people want books to the point where I can’t even keep up with the demand. But when you read the pieces people write about literature in this country, it always comes up. The closing of Exclusive Books in Soweto is always used as an example: “We’ve sent a bookshop to them but still…”
So what do you think about why a bookshop like Exclusive Books would fail in Soweto?
As a businessman, before you go into business, you do market research and try and understand the market. You try to understand the buying patterns of that market and adapt your business model to that market. Most of the time businesses that have failed in our townships it’s because people are copying and pasting and they are just taking the model from Sandton or from wherever and they just put it in our township just like that. So that, most of the time, will not work.
One thing that I’ve realised that differentiates the market that is targeted by other by other bookshops and that market that I’m targeting is that the other market are what I call advanced readers. These are people that can afford hours in a bookshop, looking at each and every book, deciding what they want to read and they will take six or seven books. And then we have this market that’s still new and growing and so when those guys come to our shop they know exactly what they want.
They come and they take the book and they go out but before they come and buy the book, they come to the shop. On the issue of the price we are greatly innovative, and I always joke with people and I say, “Why do we let people lay-by shoes and not books?” If you say books are more important than shoes, why don’t we let them do that? We know our market, they like lay-bying and we allow that and so it’s about not giving people excuses about not buying books. The moment the person the lay-byes the book, it becomes an emotional attachment and when they get home they look for money to come and get it.
Are there a lot of bookshops in Vanderbijlpark?
At that time there were only three book shops in the area. I’m talking about Vaal Triangle – Sasolburg, Vereeneging and Vanderbijlpark. They are very close to each other. We travelled a lot with my wife going to Johannesburg to buy books. But we realised that there were a few people doing that. So when we got into the industry, we realised that we needed to do a lot to grow the market because we only knew a few individuals. At the most, fifteen or so people. We gave ourselves two to three years to grow it.
How did you go about it?
Well, most of the people supporting us are actually coming from Johannesburg. We knew that everyone could sell books, but what touched people was the reason why we were doing this. It was not about being millionaires or making money out of this but leaving a legacy for our kids. It was to prove that black people are not only good in opening up bottle stores and taverns but we are also capable of opening up things that are good for us. We need to teach the next generation that it is not about money but it is about developing things that are good for our communities. Because of that our support is really growing.
Did you spend a lot of money getting your name out there, and what mediums did you use?
We are very big on social media. We know that our market is always looking at the phone. We put a lot of effort in social media. We spend very little money on radio or in print. Word of mouth is also a powerful marketing tool. When people come to the shop and they have expectations and we exceed them. When they look at the shop and it is beautiful and colourful, and the one-of-a-kind collection that is there – that is what we pride ourselves with.
You say you have exceeded expectations. How have you prepared for the plateaus that might come up?
They are always there. You need to consider challenges each and every day. It doesn’t mean that if you are doing well they are not there. One of the things that we have been careful about and thought about a lot is how to do the expansion. When you are doing well in one shop, because your costs are low and you are controlling them very well, if you expand too quickly, it can put a big challenge on your business. We know where we want to go to but we are timing it very well to make sure that we have enough capital to do it.
How important are books to you?
Books take away the limits that you put yourself in, they take away the impossible. When you read about other people’s lives and what they have manage to achieve regardless of the challenges that they have had, you realise that you can do anything. Doing this, I am very technical and I have the love for it but I read a lot about the business part.: how to brand your business, what is important, even though I didn’t go to school for it. I have learnt it from books. I always tell children that books might look expensive, but if someone is sharing with you how they lost R2 billion, they are sharing with you how not to make a R2 billion mistake for R200.
What are the biggest sellers in your shop?
Well, I can tell you that some of the biggest selling books are those that are self-published. I never judge a book because I know that every book has a story for somebody.
The writer’s accommodation and travel costs were covered by the Centre for Creative Arts.