Iconic Jhb bookshop closes its doors

2012-01-06 09:53

Johannesburg - South Africa may have produced two Nobel laureates in literature but a famous bookshop in Johannesburg is nevertheless about to close, a victim of the country's "poor reading culture".

Die Boekehuis (Afrikaans for "the book house") is in an old four-bedroom house, a stone's throw from the city's two main universities.

Its waxed parquet floors, moulded ceilings, garden and coffee shop became the book-lover's refuge. The shop's literary events, where readers could interact with writers, were especially popular.

Readership and literacy

"This is like a house, not only a bookshop. People come here to buy books, but not only. They come for the ambiance, to have a nice time. And especially for the talks," said shop manager Corina van der Spoel.

Die Boekehuis - which opened in 2000 - has been widely portrayed as independent, but it is in fact owned by Media24, South Africa's largest media company.

The giant multimedia group, which owns most of the country's magazines and major newspaper titles, announced in December that Die Boekehuis would be closing its doors at the end of January.

Leading figures such as award-winning author Andre Brink, photographer David Goldblatt and internationally acclaimed painter William Kentridge were among those who signed a petition to try to get Media24 to change its mind.

But their arguments have failed to sway the executives at Media24: The store has recorded annual losses of around R1m.

"Various possible solutions, such as finding a buyer for it, were pursued without success," the company explained in a statement.

"No interested buyers could be found."

National figures on readership - and literacy - help explain the problem.

"Only about 1% of the population buy books," says Elitha van der Sandt, head of the South African Book Development Council (SABDC).

And although the country can boast Nobel prize-winning authors such as Nadine Gordimer (1991) and JM Coetzee (2003), their works are mostly read abroad.

Price of books

Professionals and researchers give several reasons for the nation's lack of a reading culture - one problem is the price of books.

The cheapest start at R120 - a high price in a country where most of the 50 million people earn around R2 000 to R3 000 a month.

"While a few books sell very well, most books will sell only a thousand or so copies," says Beth le Roux of the University of Pretoria, a specialist in the publishing industry.

"This means that publishers have small print runs, which also keeps the costs (and the prices) high." A sales tax rate of 14% and transport costs for imported books only add to the problem, she adds.

"To make it onto the bestseller list, you only need to sell a few thousand copies of a book here."

Le Roux estimates the book industry's turnover at R3.5bn, but two thirds of that are made up of school and university textbooks.

Another 20% comes from religious books, which does not leave much of a niche for general literature.


A more fundamental problem however, is illiteracy.

In South Africa 18% of adults over the age of 15 are unable to read, and many of those who can read still struggle.

These depressing statistics are a legacy of the apartheid system, which gave lower quality schooling to the non-white population.

But even among white South Africans, the reading culture is limited.

Many of them are descendants of Protestants who have no tradition of diverse reading beyond the Bible.

Or as one bookseller quipped: "It wasn't just the intellectuals who left Europe!"

Stationery shops in the countryside sell a few romance novels, biographies of European royalty, thrillers and sports books. And there is no shortage of religious bookshops.

South Africa's main cities offer a few bookshops selling a broader range of literature: mostly branches of Exclusive Books, the largest chain in South Africa.

Increasingly however, many book enthusiasts are turning to the Internet to get what they need, even if for years Die Boekehuis was seen as an exception to that trend, partly because of the literary events it hosted.

Just a few kilometres down the road meanwhile, the local branch of Exclusive Books is also struggling. The chain, which belongs to a rival media group, just reduced the floor space of its biggest shop.


  • ailsa.j.loudon - 2012-01-06 10:11

    Books cost way too much in RSA. Lower prices and you WILL sell more! The government needs to do away with taxes on books!!

      Squeegee - 2012-01-06 10:28

      Several real reasons. 1. It's a worldwide trend. 2. Books are cheaper on Kindle. 3. Bad education system. I wonder how many of our Matrics will read a book in the next 5 years?

      Werner - 2012-01-06 10:42

      I agree, it will only take 5 years till the books recycle themselves like in Europe. Pick one up read it and leave it.

      Deon - 2012-01-06 11:23

      We should not forget that library cards are free. It should be promoted more in schools and by Gov.

      Marc - 2012-01-06 16:29

      Not quite correct statements in the article or even in comments. Kindle is half the price of the book, its true and prior to Christmas, Amazon were moving more than a million units a week. But major US bookseller, Barnes and Noble has just announced a bumber Christmas season. SA has a variety of reasons for declining reading habits and consequently, literacy. Its not a new trend. Just as the 1954 Equal Education legislation in the USA has not made the slightest positive impact on literacy trends in the US despite being in place for over 4 generations, so the eduation standards negatively affected by apartheid policies had the most impact on the hard sciences and the least impact on verbal and written skills. Consequently, while we are possibly worse off today in terms of national literacy than we would have been without those policies, the difference would be less marked than you think. Many good comments on the prices of books. Certainly, like staple foods, they should be untaxed.

  • Squeegee - 2012-01-06 10:11

    This article is insulting. "Or as one bookseller quipped: "It wasn't just the intellectuals who left Europe!"" Arrogant prick. Does selling books put you on some moral or intellectual high ground? Get a real job, nerd. Huge assumptions are made in this piece of drivel such as Protestants only reading the Bible - this contradicts the statement that: "Another 20% comes from religious books".

      Riaan - 2012-01-06 11:53

      I agree. What a sanctimonious ass. I come from a protestant family and all the members of my family love to read books.

      Ryan - 2012-01-06 11:58

      No Squeeggee, we have to put our hand up on this one. South Africa is getting as bad as Australia as far as IQ goes and 20% is a huge chunk considering that most books sold are text books; it means that most leisure reading amongst the population is religious reading. The arrogance is on our part; any well travelled person could tell you that we are quite a dumb nation. With exception, all we seem to talk about is sport, how bad the ANC is, and the now somewhat tiresome debate between the religious and atheists. Anything else starts digging into our drinking time.

      Peter - 2012-01-06 13:15

      I once read an interview with a SA rugby star and when asked what his favourite book is he replied "There is only one book, The Bible". or it might have been "Die Bybel", I dont quite remember. Anyway, the point is that I think the writer is collecting the Bible and religious books under the same group, which I think is fair enough. Another point is that book stores and music stores will be obsolete in a couple of years as digital media and cloud storage take over. So this really is just a natural progression.

      Iameros - 2012-01-06 15:25

      @Ryan. I'm curios what you mean by saying South Africa is getting as bad as Australia. Have you actually been to Australia? have you lived there for a few years? If so, then I would like to know about your experiences and why you seem to think that Australians have a low IQ. If not, I can assure you that having spent time there and interacted with many Ozzies, they are generally very interested and engaged in all forms of culture, including reading. For one thing I can assure that almost all of them can read and write (unlike here) and a much larger percentage than 1% read books regularly. South Africans love to bash the Ozzies and will take any opportunity to do so, despite the fact that most affluent white people have arrange for some sort of exit plan to Oz. The funniest thing of all is that you don't get SA bashing in Oz. You see, unlike many of us here, they don't have a huge chip on their shoulder :)

      Iameros - 2012-01-06 15:26

      Arrange \ Arranged

      Ryan Holland - 2012-01-06 16:36

      @lameros, i was being semi-ironic, smile. No saffa bashing in Aus? Sure bud. Half my family live there. I visit often. I lived with Aussies in London and Paris. This kind of banter is par for the course. Granted, some Aussies think that South Africa is somewhere in Western Australia but they are not all hopeless. I still think we dumbing down as a nation.

      Iameros - 2012-01-06 18:52

      @Ryan. Fair enough if I misunderstood :) And yes, I concede their is of course some SA bashing in Oz. However as you said most of it is banter and playful. Whereas here I often come across people for whom it's not banter but rather view Ozzies as some sort of arch nemesis of South Africa. This was not my impression of how Ozzies generally view South Africa. P.S. I agree that we are dumbing down as a nation and would have to say that it's not limited to us but seems to be a global phenomenon

  • Piet - 2012-01-06 10:23

    Expensive books more likely than reading culture!

  • Triffie - 2012-01-06 10:43

    I am an avid reader and have lived in Jo'burg since 1982. I have at least 2000 of my own books that I bought from Exclusive, CNA or through the internet, and mostly since I am in Jo'burg.In all these years, I have never heard of Die Boekehuis! To blame it on people being descendants of Protestants, is ridiculous.Rather declare the place a museum, because that is what it sounds like. The Kindle and e-books are soon going to replace most of the printed book, unless one buys it for aesthetic reasons, eg published by Struik, etc.We are living in the 21st Century and the location of a bookshop has a lot to do with its turnover or popularity, as your reference to the branch of Exclusive nearby that are also struggling.

      Squeegee - 2012-01-06 10:52

      I agree. Also never heard of it. Of the last 50 books I bought (past 8 months) only one was on paper - all the rest on Kindle at about a third of the price.

      Claire - 2012-01-06 11:32

      And I guess that you read trashy romance novels, hey? Have you never even picked up a JM Coetzee, besides for the fact that Disgrace was turned into a Movie? Die Boekehuis was an incredible book store, where poets and authors congregated. A pity that you never once bothered to dig deeper into the world of reading. BTW Die Boekehuis was located within walking and taxi distance to two of JHBs excellent Universities and a creative hub. It was in an ideal location. The problem was that it never had good marketing, and sold mainly niche and high-end books.

      Barbara - 2012-01-06 12:23

      I am an avid reader. I read my first book when I was 4 yrs old and every book since has been sourced from the local PROVINCIAL LIBRARY. When I was a child, living in one of the outlying suburbs of Johannesburg, my mother and I depended on the weekly visit of the Travelling Libary, and I've belonged to one ever since. I'm 80 now, and I still visit the library to see if there is anything I haven't read twice, if not three times over. Due to the lack of interest on the part of the Minister of Arts and Culture, who feels 'spending money on books is a waste of resources'(or words to that effect), libraries are ridiculously underfunded and this, combined with 14% VAT, means that two to three years go by before a new book reaches the shelves. Is it any wonder that the book-reading (and buying)public is declining? These days I order whatever I want from amazon.co.uk and it is delivered to my local Post Office undamaged and in good condition within a few weeks. Even with the Rand/Pound exchange and post and package, their books are still cheaper than in SA. Many books on amazon's list cost as little as ONE BRITISH PENNY! In addition, libary premises are neglected; untrained staff struggle to do their jobs and are disinterested in helping readers. Book reading is regarded as "elïtist" while sports take preference and are funded by the banks. How can a country progress if its people do not read, are not interested in improving themselves and know nothing of the outside world?

      Chantelle - 2012-01-06 13:28

      @claire wow - r u just miserable or what... could u get anymore horrible and attack this lady any more personally that you have? go and look at her profile on facebook - i assure you - she doesnt read those trashy romance novels. people have no tact in south africa... no respect for one another - and so frikkin nast just over a comment

      Pieter - 2012-01-06 15:53

      @claire You miserable cow. Why are you so bitchy? Were you one of the poets that congregated there? You will have to find another place to spew your masurbatory pseudo-intellectual drivel....or maybe you just need more interesting friends.

      Denise - 2012-01-06 20:57

      @Claire I can see where you are going. You are hurting that a lovely bookshop and a piece of history is going. However, just because your are hurting does not give you the right to hurt others. The sad thing is, selling high-end books will never make anyone rich, and we all live in a corporate world where the bottom line counts. One final thing - Trash sells - and nothing sells like cheap (ish) throw-away USA bodice-rippers.

  • Nkosinathi - 2012-01-06 10:51

    Let us toi toi, no vat for books. perios

      richard.grabe - 2012-01-06 11:15

      No VAT on Books: @ 14% to save the book shop losing R1,000,000 per year they would have to sell about R30,000 books per day or around 250 books! Possible? Also have to agree that I have never herd of this book store perhaps Media24 sales and advertising needs jacking up

  • heather.macalister - 2012-01-06 10:56

    wow what a pity - any idea where the books are going to and can the public not buy them?

  • Bennie - 2012-01-06 11:01

    It unfortunate times. I read like a mad person (on average 30 novels a year) but have opted for a Kindle. The books I'm interested in are either out of stock or twice the price of having the book delivered to my Kindle instantly in the comfort of my own home. Storage space for all my books also became a problem but with the Kindle it's no problem. It's heart breaking for the store but that's life!

      Clutch - 2012-01-06 12:11

      Bennie is absolutely correct. I have had a Kindle from the word go. Books for entertainment, just the Kindle. And no problem with storage space.

      Iameros - 2012-01-06 18:55

      Agreed. I've also owned a Kindle for the last few years now and in terms of price, convenience, storage and ease of reading I will never look back.

  • Mary - 2012-01-06 11:03

    I think the problem starts with the mainstream publishers who publish what they feel people *should* read, not what they *want* to read. Established writers' books are published no matter how crappy, instead of evaluating each manuscript and accepting on merit. There may be glory in publishing Nobel laureates in literature, but people want to read Harry Potter and Deon Meyer.

  • francis.viviers - 2012-01-06 11:09

    "These depressing statistics are a legacy of the apartheid system, which gave lower quality schooling to the non-white population." This is utter rubbish. Can people bringing in and blaming everything on apartheid, its been 20 years already. People cant read because they don't want to!

      Ian - 2012-01-06 11:28

      Francis I cannot agree more - if anything everyone was taught to read, its just lazy brains.

      Deon - 2012-01-06 11:58

      I agree, rather blame the liberation movement: "Liberation before education" was a well known slogan in the struggle era. Someone forgot to tell the nation that the struggle is over.

      glen.e.huysamer - 2012-01-06 13:43

      I have to agree with you, it seems that when the ANC fail, which they do regularly, they always blame the legacy of Apartheid and the National Party. There are many things we can blame Apartheid policies on but thank our lucky stars this is a thing of the past, however, when it comes to education the ANC forgets that it was the National Party who instigated the processes that ensure that all our indigenous languages were recorded, put into alphabet and made literal. This was the start of formal education for the masses in South Africa and even though Apartheid was pathetic the ANC forgets that they can thank those within the previous government that pushed the envelope against the odds to modernize our local languages.

      Pixie86 - 2012-01-06 19:46

      @glen, incase you misred, the anc did not blame the apartheid. This article was written by news24

  • Erich - 2012-01-06 11:11

    What a sad day - there are more than one factor to blame. Children should be encouraged from a very young age to read and the parents should set the example. By reading something to a child every night at bedtime will help a lot.

  • edward.cheesman - 2012-01-06 11:16

    Pricing of books is an issue. Saying that books are cheaper on the Kindle doesn't really offer a reason because of the higher initial payment. If you can't raise the R120 for a hard copy, you're not going to be able the raise the money for a Kindle even though the books after that are cheaper. The lack of internet access penetration also makes Kindles useless even if given away for free. Truth be told; I only buy new books when giving them away as gifts, otherwise I visit second hand book stores.

      Mary - 2012-01-06 14:54

      Most of the books I own are second hand,as I cannot afford new. Otherwise there is the library. My children always had books when they were growing up - all bought second hand at school market days - and we visited the library regularly

  • Renier - 2012-01-06 11:22

    As far as I know media24 (which owns the "Boekehuis") is owned by NASPERS which owns amongst others DSTV. NASPERS has accumulated Billions and for the sake of "Culture" should sponsor the "Boekehuis" I have never seen a "Boekehuis" advertisement. They should have given the place publicity to increase the feet in the house. Unfortunately I have to recommend an English addition to the name as well. I support the call for the removal of VAT on books. It will help lowering the prices. Surely the Government can afford this small loss as in the end it will not be "wasted" money, it will actually be money well spent.

  • maldwyn - 2012-01-06 11:31

    Honestly in the end books itself its dying cause of a number of reasons but the feature now lies in Ebooks which are cheaper, easier to find and dont take up space. The age of the fat cow owning business such as book stores and musis shops is dying simply cause the end user can now get it quicker, have a huge selection and cheaper on the internet. If companies such as Exclusive books and Musica want to be around in a few years, they need to start looking digital. Its only a matter of time now till schools and colleges swicth over to ebook systems. Then that other part as meantion will be gone also. In terms of pricing of items, once the public moves more to the internet method you'll see pricing drop on items as price wars start there is. In some ways I believe you could see common distribution methods for these type of products going also, where the middle man will be removed. It doesnt even end there, soon magazines will be feeling the printing problem, considering printing is costly, kills trees and is a waste of space and cost retailers a lot to move across the country.

      Renier - 2012-01-06 12:09

      Although I agree with you my problem is that I spend a lot of time in front of a PC and the last place I would read a book is on a PC. When it becomes more affordable I might get a tablet which could be the answer. However there is few more relaxing things than reading a book in the shade of a tree.

  • Johan - 2012-01-06 12:01

    what a pity ... this decision perhaps due to a new ceo at media 24? more used to the turnovers from the "pony" press? one of the biggest problems appear to be the cost of producing, promoting and stocking books ... a writer friend advises that 80% of the price is "hived" off by agents, cna etc and out of the remaining 20% he still needs to pay the printing and binding costs ... that is the true problem ... e-books ae unfortunately going to win ...

  • Willem - 2012-01-06 12:10

    I buy my books from Loot.co.za or Takealot.co.za. There books are still affordable.

  • warren.d.manning - 2012-01-06 12:25

    Reading culture has nothing to do with it.. ipad,kindle,nook, and other E readers. They say exclusie books are also battling, well why not hook up with a proudly South African tech company and introduce their own version of an E reader. Barns and Nobel book store did this in the US with their Nook e reader with massive success!

      Daniel - 2012-01-06 13:14

      Spot on! I 've been to the USA, and wherever you look, people are reading on the go. Nook, Kindle, etc. The bookshops must wake up and adopt new reading technologies or else they 'll be obsolete. Now people can borrow ebooks from public libraries, and the books are not heavily taxed. What's wrong with SA?!

  • rianadk - 2012-01-06 13:06

    Second hand books are extremely cheap. Just the other day I bought a book on bidorbuy for R10!

      Mary - 2012-01-06 14:58

      exactly! I support charity shops like CAFDA or buy at flea markets!

  • Peter - 2012-01-06 13:21

    Its 12 years old so its hardly a monument. My local exclusive Adams has been there as long as i can remember.

  • Dudley - 2012-01-06 14:06

    Sad ! I am a prolific reader : patronize loot.co.za for the most economic buys - have to wait two weeks for delivery but the savings are worth it. My "The best ever historical novel" discussion forum has over 8000 posts on Amazon...funniest book I have ever read is "A Confederacy of Dunces", scariest "The Girl Next Door" by Jack Ketchum,a book that will challenge everything you have thought about parenthood is the incredible "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver which examines whether evil is born or nurtured, a great non-fiction is "Unbroken" by Lauren Hillenbrand...just finished the based on fact "Beyond All Evil" about two mothers - strangers but living quite near to each other in the UK - whose husbands, on the very same day, took the lives of their children in revenge for their estrangement. There is nothing as scary as the human predator ! If you want to share book talk e-mail me at dairis@telkomsa.net (subject mark books and include no attachments ...I don't open e-mail with attachments from unknown sources ...

  • Justin - 2012-01-06 15:33

    The article misses the key point. It's not the death of book stores or even books, it's the death of paper books. The age of the ebook is upon us and there is no turning back. It's a wonderful day for authors. No longer do we need publishers or book stores, anyone can get their book on Amazon's virtual shelf with the click of a few buttons. In the States, the low cost and accessibility of ebooks is actually increasing sales.

  • Jdcptza - 2012-01-06 16:53

    A factually correct article. Perhaps book reviews in the newspapers should be made more prominent, and more books reviewed.

  • Jdcptza - 2012-01-06 16:56

    Also, i personally cannot abide with an electronic book. I need a wiff of the pages every noe and then.

      Marc - 2012-01-06 21:10

      I agree. I buy a number of books every month. I also have hundreds of digital books -- many of which are copies of my 'paper versions' -- the ones I actually value. But when I want to read properly, I always choose the paper object. Even the Kindle (which I have) doesn't replace an actual BOOK.

  • neels.nel - 2012-01-06 17:11

    What a bunch of self promotion by Media24 / News24 in this article. Is there no shame in writing an article in which you first try to tell everyone how great you are before you get to the actual topic. "The giant multimedia group, which owns most of the country's magazines and major newspaper titles"

  • Charmaine - 2012-01-06 18:24

    It is a pity, people should read books, and yes, the prices are too high, there should be no taxes on books, why must the government get a share of the Authors due?

      Marc - 2012-01-06 21:14

      I don't accept this excuse about book prices. There are other parts of the world where people earn on average far less, where books are no less expensive, yet people READ, READ, READ. How? The Libraries. Our libraries (if they are not being burned down) are hopelessly under-funded by government. If you don't believe me, go and ask a librarian! People don't value libraries in South Africa. Do a check around the country: how many libraries do we have, and where are they situated? Also, who goes to the library?

  • Gail - 2012-01-06 18:46

    Reading is something that must be promoted from birth if not during pregnancy. All three of my sons read prolifically because there were always books and magazines dealing with a variety of subjects in our house and we made reading a bedtime ritual from day one. once in bed we would read age appropriate books for a set time. I still prefer to read books myself although I am looking at a Kindle because my mother (also a great reader) went blind at age 80 and her books keep her mind as sharp as a tack even now at 90 and she wears out a tape recorder in a year between her music and her books. I always have a book with me as it is all the company I need and is portable. It makes standing in queues anywhere pass in a flash. If it's a really good book I don't mind how long the queue takes. Yes I have TV but wouldn't miss it if it was stolen as there is nothing much worth watching. Ive ust read a super book called Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford about how the abduction of a child in America in 1981 changed America in part because there was none of the CSI type facilities available but also about the shortcomings of the particular police department who despite having by sheer luck caught the killer NEVER charged him because their attitude was that a missing car was more important than a missing kid of 6 whose decapitated head was found within 2 weeks of abduction and the killer being in their hands within 3 years. The killer was charged 27 years later after dying in prison.

      Marc - 2012-01-06 21:18

      I have NEVER owned a TV set. It is a prime government intrument of public mind control. As Neil Postman wrote in "Amusing Ourselves to Death", radio is the theatre of the mind. Television is the theatre of the mindless. Mindless criminals steal TV's; but they never steal books. That's the sum of our hopelessly under-educated culture. Kill your television before it cripples or even kills you first.

  • Hugh - 2012-01-06 18:48

    Iconic. What is iconic about 10 years. You people do write absolute BS at times.

  • Hugh - 2012-01-06 18:51

    Ever heard of free books. There are dozens of places in the UK where you can pick up an iconic new book for free. The only catch is that you give it to another to read. They in turn pass it on to another. Hell will freeze over before that happens in SA.

      Marc - 2012-01-06 21:25

      Exactly, exactly, Xenswim1. South Africans are so full of pathetic self-abrogating excuses. Like the excuse that illiteracy (and aliteracy) is a legacy of apartheid. What utter rubbish!!! Now there are plenty of things that truly ARE an effect of apartheid. One of them is the racism/xenophia set of ideological binaries that will continue to infect SA public life until the last person born after about 1990 is DEAD! How do you account for a pathetically low reading culture among whites (rich and poor alike)? Reading is a CULTURE. It is not a psychological EFFECT.

  • francoisvdmerwe - 2012-01-06 19:11

    shame whatever

  • Marc - 2012-01-06 21:05

    Reading culture is LEARNED. Television discourages reading. Even some universities discourage a reading culture. In a department from which I resigned recently, staff "teach" students by showing them movies. They learn to sit back and absorb. Then they are given notes copied off the Internet to 'explain' what the movies are about. Then these pathetically under-educated so-called 'students' just have to repeat back in exams what these so-called 'academics' have 'taught' them. These so-called students can go through and entire three years of university without reading a single book. At most, where books ARE prescribed, they get the books read to them in class (like in school). Mostly they get these things called READERS, made up of photocopied bits and pieces, most of which comes from the Internet. No wonder South Africa has no reading culture. Even our universities discourage students from reading. They never learn the habit. They come in illiterate (or functionally literate), and leave in the same condition. Bookshops are not part of South African public life and culture. It's all just entertainment and TV -- breeding an ignorant and gullible public.

  • Ethel - 2012-01-06 22:18

    I find it highly amusing that, considering the subject matter, some people posting here can't tell the difference between 'their' and 'there'.

  • Zamokuhle - 2012-01-20 12:30

    I agree books are expensive but second hand book stores are way cheaper than cinemas. However, people won't read, purely because every good book is turned into a film.

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