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The Biggest, Most Chaotic Used Bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere

Ozy logo Ozy 8/12/2018 Nick Dall

With two million books, 500,000 vinyls and a 45-year history, this ramshackle family bookstore business has to be seen to be believed.

“You’d be amazed at how much standard stuff we don’t have. Someone phoned looking for Barnaby Rudge the other day,” says Jonathan Klass, owner (with his brother Geoff) of Collectors Treasury in the scruffy heart of Johannesburg. “Two million books isn’t actually that much.”

If you say so. Lined up end-to-end, the books would stretch 310 miles to the coastal city of Durban.

If size matters to you, the eight-story (three floors are closed to the public) Collectors Treasury is the largest used bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve definitely seen bigger collections of books in my life — the British Library has 25 million — but I’ve never been so overwhelmed by the presence of books. They’re piled behind the front door (Jonathan had to give it a kick to open it), on the stairs and even in the loo. Dig hard enough and you’ll also unearth maps, documents, half a million records (fifth floor) and other collectibles like vases and lamps (first-floor mezzanine).  

“How do you find what you’re looking for?” I ask. “By reading what’s written on the spine,” says Jonathan.

Chaotic though it may appear, the books are categorized according to topic (there’s an entire room of first editions and an excellent collection of Africana and Boer War volumes) and arranged alphabetically — “unless a customer’s put something back in the wrong place.” I found a biography of the vastly underrated French author André Gide and a book of Jack Kerouac’s paintings. Look long enough and you’ll also find a book you absolutely have to have. Paperbacks start at R60 ($5), but don’t necessarily expect bargain prices. The “excessively scarce true first edition” of John Fowles’ The Collector (great book, if you haven’t read it) will set you back $10,000. And it’s not even their most expensive book.

a tall building in a library: Img 2821 © Provided by Ozy Img 2821
   

(Top) The eight-story Collectors Treasury is the largest used bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere. (Bottom) Just some of the two million books in the building.

Source Nick Dall for OZY

The Klasses have been in business 45 years and in their current premises, a yellow-facing brick high-rise, since 1991. When they moved in, big business had abandoned the inner city to pimps and drug dealers and property was cheap. That all changed 10 years ago when a developer bought up buildings by the block and created the ultra-hip Maboneng Precinct — named after the Sesotho word for “place of light.”

Strangely, the brothers’ accidental location — now a block-and-a-half away from Jozi’s vibiest hipster enclave — hasn’t translated into hordes of customers. Although people are “less afraid to stick their necks out the car window” these days, says Jonathan, many of their most loyal customers have either emigrated or — being older — died. That said, many youngsters “who weren’t even born when we started” are now customers, says Geoff, before gleefully informing me that more real books were printed in 2017 than at any time since the invention of the Gutenberg Press.

a person standing next to a book shelf filled with books: Img 2830 © Provided by Ozy Img 2830

Jonathan Klass knows where everything is — unless it’s been moved by a customer!

Source Nick Dall for OZY

The only rule to staying in business so long, continues Geoff, is that “there are no rules.” Their biggest purchase ever was a lot of 36,000 books from a deceased’s estate, but they’ll also entertain walk-ins looking to flog a single paperback. In terms of volume they buy far more than they sell, but when viewed in monetary terms the equation is flipped on its head. “One is in business to make a profit,” says Geoff.

This may be true, but spend a few hours getting lost in their tower of dust and paper, and you’ll realize that their life’s work is about more than just balancing (the) books.

Collector’s Treasury stairway chaos

GO THERE: COLLECTORS TREASURY

  • Where: 244 Commissioner Street, about 30 minutes from Sandton; it looks a bit dicey but is safe during the day. An Uber will set you back around $13. Map.
  • When: The shop is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
  • Contact: Phone the brothers at +27 11 334 6556 or browse the mere 85,000 titles in their online inventory.
  • Hot tip: Arts on Main, a thriving hub of design stores, artists’ studios (like William Kentridge) and eateries, is only a three-minute walk away.

© Photographs by Nick Dall for OZY
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