• Under Alert Level 4 regulations retailers may sell "stationery and educational books" from Friday.
  • Lobbying efforts to have all books declared essential items – so they will remain on sale if SA goes back to Level 5 – failed.
  • But independent bookstores and the Exclusive Books chain both say somewhere between all and the vast majority of books are inherently educational – so they'll be selling just about every kind of book.
  • And they're not making provision for what happens if the police disagree, because they can't imagine anyone would.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Under Alert Level 4 – which kicks in on Friday – "stationery and educational books" are among the new items that may be sold as South Africa's Covid-19 lockdown is relaxed just a bit.

But that wording was not broadened to include all books, despite determined lobbying, including efforts to have books declared vital enough that their sale would be permitted even if SA moves back to Level 5.

See also | ‘SA could lose its book industry.' Top authors urge Ramaphosa to allow trade

Even so, customers who visit the many bookstores that have confirmed they are opening on 1 May will not be presented with a paltry handful of textbooks and dictionaries. Some stores have vowed to sell everything that was on their shelves before the initial hard lockdown, others say the vast majority of their books will be on sale.

Exclusive Books will be opening all its South African stores other than those at airports on Friday morning, CEO Grattan Kirk told Business Insider South Africa, a total of 36 outlets. He estimates shelves will be about 80% full.

"We are of the view, and have confirmed with all parties including the SA Booksellers Association and publishers, that books are, in terms of the definition of 'stationery and educational books", in fact educational in nature," he said.

Exclusive Books branches will be removing some of its non-book wares, such as gifts, from racks, said Kirk, but as branches work through their books to see which are not educational they will "probably err towards argument that every book irrespective of what it is" could be educational.

Even if some are reading those same books only for pleasure.

"One person’s education is another person’s recreation," he said.

Unless it is crap, 'every book is educational'

In Cape Town at least one independent bookseller will not even be trying to make a theoretical distinction between educational and non-educational books.

"There isn’t a recognised category within the trade of something called 'educational books'," Mervyn Sloman, the owner of Cape Town's Book Lounge and director of the Open Book Festival told Business InsiderSA.

If you were to use a narrow definition – that only books used by educational institutions are educational – then set-work novels and poetry bundles would still be included, said Sloman. On top of that all kids' books ("unless they are complete crap") educate in some way, he says. 

But even novels, he holds, are fundamentally educational.

"Fiction builds empathy. If I read a book written by somebody featuring characters completely different to me, with different life experiences, that enables me to understand a little bit of that context in which people are living. It enables me to build empathy for people other than myself."

So when his store opens it will be selling every book on shelf, Sloman said.

And if the police come knocking?

"I am not preparing for confrontation with the police," he said. "We're not expecting trouble. We're not breaking the law."

At CNA, staff may decide what books you can and can't buy

Some branches of CNA – which has fallen from grace as a seller of books – have been open throughout lockdown to sell the stationery that essential businesses needed, CEO Benjamin Trisk told Business Insider SA.

See also | The former CEO of Exclusive Books now owns part of CNA – here’s how he wants to change the shops

On Friday morning all its remaining branches will open, and their limited supply of books will all be on shelf, though not necessarily available to buy.

"It will be up to the individual bookseller whether to sell [any individual title] or not," he said. 

Trisk does not believe all thrillers could be classified as educational, but believes non-fiction can be, even if it is not used in an educational institution. So decisions will be made at a branch level, depending on the needs of the customer, he says.

At the same time he has "huge sympathy with the general trade" in books and its argument that all books are educational, he said. 

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