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African Flavour Books
Just in case it was still necessary to explode the myth that black people have an uncanny relationship with the written word, let’s hasten to add that they not only read, they write books and, as the Helepi couple will attest, make an honest living out of selling them.
Fortiscue and Nokuthula Helepi own the African Flavour Books which they run out of a small shopping complex in Vanderbijlpark, south of Johannesburg.
AFB has sustained its memento as flavour of the moment and the couple is confident enough to open a second shop in Braamfontein in August.
Their catchy slogan is “where Africa meets” and indeed the reader will be hard pressed to find another place where so many African authors abound under one roof. Think of any African writer and AFB is sure to have a copy.
The emphasis on African literature is deliberate, says the husband, who says he was pained by the dearth of the continent’s plethora of literature in his search for reading material “by our own”.
This painstaking research for three years, travelling the length and breadth of the country - from 2011, culminated in the opening of the store in 2015.
So far, they have hosted the likes of poet Don Mattera and trumpeter Hugh Masekela: “That’s how we sell books,” says wife Nokuthula, the business’ chief executive officer.
This is a far cry from the launch opening of the store where they had about 15 people, “mostly our friends”.
Fast forward to 12 February 2016 when they had acclaimed author Zakes Mda to launch his book, Little Suns: “We had about 200 people.”
Fortiscue says: “The primary reason we established the business was that we were struggling to get African literature. We thought we couldn’t be blaming other people; we needed to take up the cudgels ourselves. We travelled across the country to get the books we wanted.”
As they travelled to every nook and cranny in the country looking to source African books to sell, it was around the time Exclusive Books outlets were closing. Friends were cautioning them against the idea of setting up a bookstore.
”You will never know unless you take risks. There were never any guarantees that this would succeed,” says Fortiscue who is against the notion of bookshops succeeding only in big cities “like Sandton or Hyde Park. Why not here?”
Husband and wife concur they would have chosen differently if all they wanted was a way to make a quick buck: We are here to build a legacy, not make money.
They share the same sentiment that “we want to build a company that will go on for 100 years, long after we’re gone”.
“This is not a fashionable business, like a chisa nyama. Whether we make money or not doesn’t matter. We are about leaving a legacy for our kids.”
Fortiscue uses the Sesotho idiom to make the point that “we are digging this well. We may not be the ones drinking from it, but future generations certainly will”.
He says the numbers they are generating tell them people are hungry for knowledge. “We now have people who come in religiously every month, looking for new books.”
He adds: “During Apartheid we were not allowed to read certain books. Our people must now know that they have access to those books.”
The wife and mother has found a novel way to deal with the demands of her own children: “How do I get my kids to read? I can’t beat them into reading. If they come to me asking for a shoe, I give them a big book, and say ‘read this and then you can get your new shoes’.”
It works, she beams with pride.
She deals just as warmly with her customers, especially new readers. “It all starts here. Our people have to feel that you care, not pretend. They then recommend that you come to their churches and other places. We now do story readings.”
“People must not be made to feel small. You take them through the books. Teach them what they can take out of the book. AFB survives because we go beyond just selling the book.”
There were doubts initially, yes, she concurs; “But closing down was never an option.”
If we can start it here and build a market, then it can work anywhere, the duo chorus.
Fortiscue is appreciative of the support they get from the people in his hometown. “Vaal is not known for its culture of literature. We started right out of nowhere. But we are still here.”
“We have people that travel from Johannesburg, but the Vaalies support us more.”
A reader from the Eastern Cape came here and found a book about his hometown that he never knew existed, Fortiscue recalls happily.
His philosophy is this: “Start people where they are. Not everyone will read big books. Some will come looking for a book on personal finance, then we teach them about other book titles. Introduce them to new authors.”
Personal interactions with authors seems to work like a charm, the bookshop owners say: “The more people interact with the author, the more they buy books. If they see who wrote it, they relate better.”
“People don’t have a lot of disposable income. When they buy a book, it is something they really wanted to have, to read. They know exactly what to buy when they come in. Most of them will not spend more than 30 minutes in the shop. They get their book and out they go.”
Their love for books began when they met, she as a second year student at the Secunda satellite campus of the then Vaal Technikon and he in his first year as a worker for Sasol.
When they talked, it soon became apparent that they loved the same things “books included”.
A few years down the line, it bothered them both that people in the Vaal could not get a copy of Chika Onyeani’s seminal book Capitalist Nigger anywhere in the bookshops around them.
Further enquiries told them “people are hungry for knowledge” and that “our people are looking for these books, but they are not available”.
Simply, Fortiscue told his wife: “Let’s try find out which other books they want, and supply them.”
Toady they know a lot about reader needs, like that Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like remains the most popular buy.
She says they have looked at ways to “decolonise the book” as people complained that they did not read because they found the language in books too high-brow.
Now they service all types of readers; from the new entrant, to tertiary students at the three institutions of higher learning in the Vaal to the tourist keen on something new out of Africa.
“We are a culture centre,” says Fortiscue. “We need to have more stores. We are planning to be in every small town in this country. Knowledge must not be confined to big cities.”
Watch out for an outlet near you soon.
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