A gargantuan eight-storey second-hand bookstore in the heart of downtown Johannesburg, not far from the city’s hipster havens, has for over four decades stocked nostalgia and hidden treasures on its shelves. FORBES AFRICA stepped into the time capsule that is the Collectors Treasury.
In the mid-1970s, Rissik Street in downtown Johannesburg was a tranquil road featuring an important landmark – a second-hand bookstore that offered an escape from the city’s orchestrated chaos. It was a true literary world in a period devoid of the sensory overload of today’s technology.
Books were the only source of knowledge for the young intellectuals in bell-bottoms and halter dresses that trickled in to spend hours pouring over the treasures in this bookstore called Collectors Treasury.
It has since moved shop from Rissik Street, and today, 45 years on, a little over a kilometer away, the same wonders, and much, much more can be found at 223 Commissioner Street. The 3,000 books, records and antiques collected since 1974 have now grown to over two million items.
All the vintage collectables are housed in an eight-storey building bursting at the seams with the sheer volume of material in it.
Brothers Geoffrey and Jonathan Klass, the co-owners of Collectors Treasury, have come to this realization, that the books are literally everywhere. From the entrance to the office where the men have to walk around them with caution, and from there, to the elevator, the staircase, the passages and even the restroom that has been turned into an impromptu storage space.
“People are definitely reading, and they are reading more.,” offers Geoffrey.
“We are at a stage where reading is not for pleasure. Reading is for utilitarian purposes because it is something that we seek to learn, something we have to know in order to advance.”
Also a recording engineer and musician, his brother Jonathan remarks that growing up with a doctor for a father, and a mother who collected antiques, inspired them to start the business.
Jonathan shies away from talking about his own personal collection of antiques because people always end up bargaining for him to sell it.
Their upbringing taught the men the value of history. This is the backbone of their business.
“Whenever we get anything into the shop, the first thing we want to know is what its origins are and where it comes from,” Jonathan says.
“You can’t know where you are or who you are in a particular context unless you know what has come before you. It is becoming part of a culture amongst the youngsters now, the so-called ‘hipsters’; they are the population coming in a lot.”
Young, inquisitive minds, in search of a deeper understanding of the world, feed their curiosity here while others walk in to simply explore the massive bookstore. Jonathan says it provides a much-needed alternative and relief to today’s smartphone-obsessed world.
“People are stuck in an electronic loop and they can’t get out of it. They haven’t studied the people who are the masters of their craft to know where they should go. I absorbed as much material as I could, and I still do it all the time.
“That is what our shop is about. You can’t come in here for five minutes and expect to absorb what is in here.
“It doesn’t matter what you read, so long as you read because ultimately the book is the theater of the mind.”
Geoffrey argues that despite the vast amount of information shared on the internet, it won’t ever replace the simplicity of a book.
“People’s knowledge is not as in-depth as it used to be, which is why this particular generation of youngsters is more enthusiastic about older stuff than the generation that came 15 years ago,” he says.
Books on African history are the top-sellers at the store because people are looking to make sense of their place in society.
By preserving what is often discarded, the store can become a repository of tradition while it allows the bookseller to determine what to sell.
“If I banned half the books, I’d be cutting out half the cultural influencers that someone could be exposed to. We cast our net widely, and limit it simply because of the volume of material there is. We make our own choices,” Geoffrey says.
Although digital innovations continue to grow in popularity, the culture of reading for the brothers will never be substituted for the sensory experience provided by a book.
“The world does not stand still. What we often think is the beginning of the revolution is the end. I think in a lot of ways the digital experience is in the decline. It goes back to the hipsters wanting to know what came before because they want to be hands-on. They want to feel, touch and see it.
“They don’t want the black box effect. Nobody is going to come in here with something the size of a cellphone with 7,000 books loaded on it and say, ‘I want to sell my library’. No one else will buy it,” Geoffrey says.
Jonathan says the shop has hidden treasures in the form of collectables that aren’t sold by regular retailers.
“As a toy collector, when I see the tin toys I used to have and played with as a child, it just brings back all those memories.”
“Nostalgia is a big part of it. So many times when I am in a market stall [selling goods], somebody will come along and say, ‘this is so nice, I remember it from when I was five years old’. It may be a vase or a piece of furniture or a gramophone. It could be anything and people will remember it,” Jonathan says.
Going out on Sundays for window-shopping at any time of the day is an activity the brothers certainly miss.
Since the early 1990s, the inner city changed from being an upmarket commercial space to an area rife with crime and dilapidated buildings. But the high levels of crime and population density have not hindered the brothers’ love for the inner city and the time capsule they step into daily.
When asked how the business survived the advent of the internet, an excited Jonathan explains the exclusivity of the store and its organic growth that few can imitate.
“Nobody can start Collectors Treasury if they wanted to. It developed on its own like a chemical reaction. We started collecting some stuff and it developed into what it is now, rather like a volcano. You can’t create a volcano,” he says.
A unique passion for selling second-hand books and understanding collectables is needed to stand the test of time. For Jonathan, the online model is not feasible because it is expensive on the one side, and on the other, it minimizes the effort it takes to acquire knowledge or a skill.
“It has got to be an educated thing. There are people trading from their homes, making it look easy. The same way people who write a book using spellcheck, or musicians using apps to write music who think they are musicians and they are not.
“The online experience is that anybody who can use a computer can become an instant ‘expert’, at times, they steal descriptions off the net, they steal inventory and market it. They do this to make out more than they know. They sound like they have a bookshop where, in fact, they have a garden shed,” Jonathan explains.
Understanding how the internet works helps buyers and sellers spot scammers from a mile away. With about 85,000 books up for sale on the internet, the brothers have expert knowledge on how to identify a legitimate seller.
Over the years, the few dealers and buyers have increased to over a million since the duo began selling online.
“You need to build a business, and not just sell. We buy what people want, and sometimes we reject books. People usually ask why we reject, but we need to check the market and know what they will buy,” Jonathan adds.
Geoffrey shares a different sentiment about their business model.
“There is a model; it is going with the flow. If someone wants to make money, they need to do something else. It is for the passion; as long as you are making enough to eat, the rest doesn’t matter. The stock is appreciating. If you sell it, you make money. It appreciates in value if you buy correctly,” he says.
He argues that people need to avoid the get-rich-quick syndrome as businesses differ.
“If I made a million, and I write a book on it, how many millionaires would there be? If Warren Buffet made a million, it is because the conditions at that particular time, plus his input, added up to making a million. You could give somebody the same amount of information now but time has passed and the river has flowed.
“You are not the same person that you were at the time that you made the million. I don’t think Bill Gates could make a million today because it was [under] different circumstances,” Geoffrey says.
The store houses items that are priceless from a bygone era. The brothers sell porcelain and antique figures from the early 1900s’ fashionable movement; items rarely sold by local dealers.
“The markets for the antique porcelains have dropped so much. The classical antiques that were fashionable 50 years ago are not wanted by the modern collectors to the same extent as the generation before,” Geoffrey says. “In a way, the subsequent generation tends to concentrate on buying back their youth. They buy the things that they couldn’t afford when they were younger and didn’t have any money.
“Collecting fashions shift so much. Modern collectors look for different things, but pretty is out!” The rustier and older the item, the more people want it. And they don’t mind stepping into a bookstore bursting with nostalgia and with motifs and messages from an era that has been long gone.