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Dear Readers,

Booksellers are the curators of our local community’s primary knowledge resources. This is more of a calling than a job. It is not for the faint-hearted nor those averse to risk. In fact, as with our compatriots on the front-lines of the war against Covid-19 in medical care casualty wards, few in this profession would be practising for the sake of self-enrichment. It is a higher desire than profit to educate our young, inspire our adults and exercise the minds of our aged.

Our doctors depend on books, so too every facet of our lives is influenced by readership. If it were not so, every post-apocalyptic scenario would not depict freedom of speech and information as being essential to be attacked, manipulated or controlled. In Fahrenheit 451, in Animal Farm, in the very hieroglyphs at Giza we see the power of communicating thoughts. In early evidence of human activity, whether recording life on a cave wall, stone tablet or paper, this was indeed the expression of people relaying thought to others coming after them. Posterity is written into our genetic code. Whereas authorship is contestable, the result is evident. Books are essential to who we are as a species. The discourse is often occluded by the message. However, since medium and methodology are interdependent, it is only natural that communication as our proof of humanity’s existence is similarly alleged to be interdependent.

In the absurd calculus of a pandemic, we see this more than ever before. Some underestimate the necessity of books and by Lockdown extension, the necessity of Booksellers. Of course these nay-sayers are woefully undereducated. Articles in this newsletter introduce some current remedial interventions. (Letter from SABA: Books as essential services; Letter from PASA: Lockdown and education)

Humanity faces crisis events at notable times in recorded history. Each time, books were banned, burned or bastardised because such is the power of the written word. As the SA Booksellers Association, we have worked continually throughout this period to safeguard our Booksellers members’ interests and in so doing the continuity of this noble community’s curatorship role. We have engaged with various role-players throughout the bookselling value chain in order to ensure the public continues to have a secure book ecosystem for all readers in South Africa both online and offline.

Books are essential. They will continue to be, even beyond the current Covid-19 containment restrictions. Booksellers are encouraged to continue in their vocation for the literacy of all our people. Reading is an overwhelmingly accessible and efficient transmission of concepts. It is therefore a prerequisite for health, civic and community activism, active citizenry, national development, law and order, intergenerational wealth, socialisation, safety and security. Let us not shrink from our responsibility, this is a time to show our commitment as agents of positive change.

Last year at London Book Fair, I was fortunate to have met Trevor Goul-Wheeker, Chair of Blackwell’s. In the discussion and subsequent visits to their bookstores, it was clear that the business of books is irrepressible. Booksellers will adapt and survive accordingly. The challenges Booksellers face regarding declining sales trends have been well articulated in the past however there are some tips relating to Covid-19 available in this newsletter.

I urge Booksellers and others in the value-chain to consider implementing enhanced measures for public safety. Gearing up now will pay off in the future as more viruses pop up and our customers become more circumspect and select brands that are actively involved in protecting humanity’s health. Some revolutionary measures taken by Blackwell’s well before this pandemic were simply good business decisions to future-proof the business and have paid strategic dividends in hindsight where Corona was not the primary concern. Spacing of fixtures on retail floor was maximised, one copy per title on a shelf to limit Customer handling, clear signage regarding minimal staff assistance on the sales floor but monitored and serviced by a bigger back office with more employee ownership and exposure to operations. Efficient use of entry and exits, sanitizer standards, limiting people in stores and marketing at-home delivery of books. All these put Blackwell’s in a better position to cope with health emergencies, well in advance.

In short, a good business can survive the test of time by thinking ahead in fulfilling essential needs. It is these businesses that are ultimately successful in the long run. If you don’t believe me, then best believe this is in fact the investment strategy of the Oracle of Omaha – Warren Buffet – and he has done quite well at that. Books are essential and they fulfil an essential need. Let us stand, socially-distant but united in our endeavours to fulfil the essential role our communities have entrusted in us.

See you in a bookshop soon!


Melvin Kaabwe

SABA President

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