Humble bookstore fills cultural void


SOWETO, South Africa -- Though until the last few years commercial activity was discouraged in this, the largest of South Africa's black townships, you can find nearly everything for sale.

A transient welder on the streets will put a muffler on your car while you wait; a barber with a portable generator powering the ** clippers will provide a haircut; there are clothes and complete meals, from sweet potatoes to live chickens. You could buy almost anything in Soweto -- except books.

Now, this township of 3 million people has its first bookstore.

It's called Imfundo-Thudo -- the Zulu and Sotho words for learning -- and it is more than a business enterprise: Solomon Sikakane, the proprietor, sees it as an important block in building what he calls a culture of reading in Soweto.

His shop is in the Dobsonville Mall, a year-old upscale shopping center that features a wide-aisled supermarket, clothing and jewelry stores and Soweto's first multiplex cinema. But the country's bookstore chains didn't move in.

Imfundo-Thudo is a far cry from a big bookstore. Of the few books on its shelves, most are either samples that are not for sale or used volumes donated by residents of Johannesburg. Stationery and newspapers account for most of Mr. Sikakane's sales.

But that is how he planned it. With limited capital, he didn't want to buy a lot of books that wouldn't sell. So his first step is, in effect, market research.

"I have just taken an order from these gentlemen," he explains, showing a list of titles that went from church hymnals to Nelson Mandela's autobiography. "I will order three of each and see if the others sell."

The publishers' samples will be shown to customers to gauge their interests. A group of young adults has already asked for more books by African authors.

For now, though, Mr. Sikakane seems to take his greatest delight in reducing the price of some of the used children's books from 35 cents -- beyond the affordable for most Soweto households -- to 5 or 10 cents when a child shows interest.

"I just ask them to come back in the next day and tell me something about what they read," he says.

Soweto houses a few families in luxury homes and thousands in matchbox shanties and tin shacks. It is home for blacks who, for decades, were prohibited from living in Johannesburg, the city of factories and offices and wealth, and where most of them commuted to work.

It is also where schools were caught in the political cross-fire between apartheid and liberation movements. Many of the school buildings lie in ruins from vandalism and violence, and the country's new black-led government has had neither time nor money to repair them.

So Imfundo-Thudo is serving as both shop and library. It is a retirement project for the 68-year-old Mr. Sikakane. A lifelong educator, his time in Soweto as a teacher and administrator saw him through the years when schools were a political battleground, when the cry was "Liberation before education."

"I felt for our children," he says. "They were labeled a lost generation. They were hurting because they lacked quite a lot. So I'm not looking at this as just a business, I'm looking at it as something for the empowerment and upliftment of my people."

Mr. Sikakane points out that just down the way is a store that rents televisions while, at the other end of the mall, Soweto's first gun store has opened.

"I think we are in a war against television," he says.

"We have to teach our children so that they choose reading over watching TV, they choose books over bullets."

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