South Africa is not a nation of readers.Low education levels and poor access to books have played a major role increating a non-reading society. It hardly seems to make sense, therefore, toopen an independent bookstore in Newtown, Johannesburg, the heartof the old city.
But that is exactly what June Josephs-Langaand her business partner Khanyiso Mguni did, their goal being to promote areading culture and to provide access to African literature.Xarra Books, the name comes from the Sanlanguage /Xam and means “united in diversity”, opened its doors in August 2005,having been three years in the making. As part of their research into the bookbuying market, the two spent four months sitting outside bookshops andrecording customers’ buying habits.Josephs-Langa, who has a master’s degree indiplomacy from the University of Westminster, and 10 years’ experience in internationalrelations, says a passion for reading, a love of books and a belief in themarketability of African literature drove her and Mguni to take a risk that fewothers would.“We spent three years researching the bookproduction, publishing and retail value chain,” she says. “On one side thepublic was saying there was nowhere to buy African books, and on the otherpublishers were saying there was no demand for them.”They decided they were best placed to makean intervention at retail level. The result is an ultra-modern, lively andengaging space – shared with a Kaldi’s Coffee shop – where people can buy theliterature, art and music of Africa.“We chose not to go the library or NGOroute, because I believe you value what you pay for,” says Josephs-Langa,calling herself a social entrepreneur. It’s an apt label: social entrepreneursseize opportunities others miss to address social problems and create newsolutions that change society for the better.
But she is also a pragmatist who knew thatadvocacy on its own was not going to create a book-buying public. In tandemwith the launch of the store, they developed the Reading Nation campaign, whichaims to grow the reading market at three levels: for adults, the store hostsregular book launches, readings and discussions; for the young adult market,Saturday afternoon poetry readings and chill out sessions have become astandard; and for children, regular storytelling events are held to inculcate alove for books.“This forms the basis of our marketingstrategy,” explains Josephs-Langa. “Xarra Books has become a compellingdestination; people come here to participate in events, they see our books andthey buy them. It was vital for us to find a way to bring customers here, givenour location. We also take the longer-term view that by contributing to thecreation of readers, we are growing our own future market.” To illustrate her point, Josephs-Langanotes that teenagers are buying books from the store on lay-by, kids arenagging their parents for more stories, and adult readers come from as far asPretoria to find what they are looking for.The two applied to a number of banks andempowerment financiers for funding but were turned down by all because theconcept was new and untested. Finance was eventually secured from Absa’sIncubator Fund, which put up the cash and will remain a minority shareholder inthe business until it is paid off. The store reached breakeven this year. AXarra Books loyalty card has been launched, and discussions are now underwayfor a second store in Cape Town. The website, which went live in December 2005,will soon have online shopping functionality.
The business has experienced steady growthsince its inception, enabling the negotiation of more favourable terms with publishers.“That’s been a key enabler for our development, and it’s also helped us tomanage our cash flow better. Publishers are now confident that we are here tostay and that we can service our accounts.” To cement the store’s future, the partnersare also developing vertical markets and have secured the contract to supplyGauteng’s libraries with African literature. Jospehs-Langa sources not only Africanbooks, but also international bestsellers, business titles, and books onalternative lifestyles, philosophy, history, and current affairs. She is alsoproud of the selection of children’s books on offer. “Asmuch as we are a niche store, we have also had to take into account the needsof the broader market to keep the traffic coming,” says June-Josephs.In terms of location, she likes to seeherself as a pioneer. “We believe in the revival of the inner city, and it’sexciting to see how many businesses are moving in.” Contact: +27 11 832 3069; www.xarrabooks.com
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