South Africa entered an economic recession in June, and the country’s unemployment rate is fast approaching 30 percent, according to the government statistics agency. But for the sellers of secondhand books, business has never been better.
Eric Nofal, who has been selling used books for almost 30 years, shows a customer around his store in Johannesburg.
He says he recently faced “intense” competition before launching his fifth bookshop in the city.
“My ex-wife also wanted to open up a shop in this area, but I beat her to the punch, so she is a bit [angry] with me, actually!,” he admitted.
Nofal adds "I am making money and it is going into my third month and that is pretty good for a new business to make money so quickly. Books have come back."
It is a big contrast to five years ago when Nofal’s sales dropped dramatically. Book lovers were embracing electronic reading devices like Kindles. He had to close six stores.
But now, Nofal says, the “kindle craze” may be over and many South Africans want to turn “real pages.”
Yet many of his clients give another reason for no longer buying new books.
“They have gone up a hell of a lot. Obviously it depends on your import or your [South African] rand level,” he said.
The rand has dropped steadily against the dollar since the end of 2011, when one dollar was valued at about eight rand. Presently, a dollar is valued at 13 rand.
“A new book should cost you about the price of a meal. In the UK [Britain] that is about right, a meal costs about seven pounds and a [new] book costs about seven pounds. Here on the other hand a reasonable meal for one person will cost you about 70 rand, 80 rand and a [new] book costs 350 [rand]. People just can not afford [new] books,” he said.
Dealers across Johannesburg put the number of second hand book stores at about 50, up from about 25 just a few years ago.
But used books are not always cheaper.
Unpacking hand-me-down books inside his shop, Doron Locketz says that despite the poor economy, some South Africans spend “big money” on rare second hand titles.
“We sold a first edition of Long Walk to Freedom, and the big thing about it was that it was signed, pre the release date, by Mandela. It went to one of our collectors,” he said.
Locketz sold the autographed copy of Nelson Mandela’s bestseller for almost 80,000 rand ... more than $6,000 US.
But he says the collectible book market is very small, and he mostly sells used books to a general audience.
“I am delighted to increasingly see more black customers, younger ones, who really have, many of them, a passion for books,” he said.
Economists are predicting a bleak outlook for South Africa for the next few years. So second hand book dealers like Locketz expect sales to rise even further in the near future.