Better English long read: Flipping books

Los Angeles Times

One man makes a living on the harsh city streets, selling precious books to those who really want them

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Sandile Mavimbela spends his life flipping through the pages of discarded books. Mostly he is looking for books by African writers: they are the hardest to find, but they are what his book-hungry customers want.

He spends his day on his knees, reverently [respectfully] arranging and rearranging his books on the plastic sheets that serve as his sidewalk [pavement] shop on a downtown bridge, as thoughtful as a fortuneteller turning over cards.

To Sandile Mavimbela, the books have more mystical [magical] pull than any deck of cards, and he believes in their power to change futures - including his own if he sells enough of them.

But they can also alter [change] the lives of his readers. The span [bridge] over a rail yard links two sides of a crowded, crime-racked [causing extreme pain] city, but to him this place is a bridge from curiosity to knowledge. "The concept [idea] is books are a bridge to a better life. I think you're selling the knowledge, being a middle person between the customer and the book," Mavimbela, 27, says.

The titles smile at the sky, willing readers to buy them. Unfair Dismissal by Andrew Levy, Nedbank’s Money Making Made Simple by Noel Whittaker, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Heat by George Monbiot, Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule, The Art of Negotiation by Michael Wheeler and Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad.

Customers bend over, browsing [sampling or looking at casually] under the hot afternoon sun. Someone asks for a book about Thabo Mbeki, a former South African president.

"Orders can be difficult,” Mavimbela says, but he notes the title and customer's name and phone number carefully in a large book. If he's lucky, he might stumble across [unexpectedly find] something the next time he visits one of the thrift [second-hand] shops where he prowls [hunts] for cheap books.

"One thing you almost always understand is that doing business on the street is never easy," he says. "You have to do it your way so you get things right." An avid [enthusiastic] reader, he keeps back the best books to take home to read before he lays them out on the sidewalk to sell. 

Sandile Mavimbela carts his trolley to thrift shops in Johannesburg. Sometimes he drags the heavy load up long steep hills, but on the downhill, he leaps onto his trolley like a surfer onto a board and flies down the road with only his foot for a brake.
Photo: Tribune News Services

Today has not been lucky. There was the letdown at his favourite library, usually a good place to pick up cheap books, but barren [showing no result] after a recent clean-out of old titles. All he got was one out-of-print medical textbook, a good find, but not the usual treasure trove [a hidden collection valuable things].

"It’s hard to get good books," he says.

He visits three thrift shops, where the volunteers meet him with patronising [talking down to someone] indifference [uncaring] or prickly [thorny] hostility [unfriendliness]. In the silence of a thrift shop in a wealthy suburb north of the city, Mavimbela groans in frustration as he looks through the titles.

His customers are always bugging [troubling] him for dictionaries. Easy enough to find for wealthy buyers in new-book stores, they are hard to find secondhand.

He finally unearths [finds] two of the beauties, with Oxford in big shiny letters, from a box in the back. A friendly white woman named Judy always sells him good books for a few cents at this shop. But she's away, and the elderly man in charge today is being, well, not so nice.

"Those books are for someone else," the man snaps.

"Judy should have been here," Mavimbela whispers, his face taut [tight] with disappointment. He leaves empty-handed [with nothing].

At his next stop, classical music tinkles [making a sound like bells] in the background as a row of murmuring black women sort through the secondhand clothing, surrounded by cricket bats, tennis rackets, suitcases, games, plates, curtains and shoes. Mavimbela runs a finger along the books, his eyes wistful [a sad longing for something]. There’s not much here.

There's an air of friendship at the book tables on a wintry July morning. The wind whistle past their backs, but they're engrossed in their books.There's talk of philosophy, Homer and the question of whether a book seller must educate his customers.
Photo: Tribune News Services

He asks the manager whether she has anything by American Christian novelist Francine Rivers.

"No, because they’re donated [given free of charge] books," she says. "We don’t have a buyer."

At another shop, where he has to pay 30 cents each for books people discard [throw away] for recycling at 2 cents for half a kilo, he hesitates [pauses] over a thick tome [big, heavy book] on civil engineering hydraulics [about liquid under pressure]. Will it sell? He ends up buying the book.

"Sometimes you get a nice book like this," he says, picking up The Naked Chef  by Jamie Oliver, like a fisherman hauling [pulling] out a particularly [very] fat trout [a kind of fish]. He’ll charge $2.50, a handsome profit.

Whenever the bookseller sees a book he likes, he taps the cover excitedly with his fingers and unconsciously [without thinking about it] huffs with exhilaration [excitement], tossing the book carefully onto a growing pile at his feet.

When the manager harangues [scolds] him for searching through the boxes of discards [throwaways], Mavimbela, studiously [very carefully] polite, avoids eye contact and flips through more.

Flip, flip flip. Tap, tap, huff.

Mavimbela pays $8.25 for his haul, and is careful to depart [leave] on good terms.

"They still have that mentality [way of thinking] about blacks," he says, "but I know what I'm looking for. I just choose to be quiet.

He ends the day outside the thrift shop, as African street entrepreneurs [business people just starting out] sometimes do, sifting through the trash. "They always throw the good books out," he says.

He pulls out book after book, flipping through the pages with slender fingers.

Saved by books

If it weren't for books, Mavimbela's life would have been an orphan's path of crime, violence, alcohol and drugs. His mother taught him: "Get up early, get a bath, look smart, be positive, do unto others as you would have them do to you." By the time he was 6, he was selling steel wool pads in their small rural [out of town] village on the border of Swaziland, where she was born. "I knew I could sell things."

But when he was 9, his father died of HIV/AIDS. His mother was ejected [thrown out] from the family home and returned to her homeland, leaving him to live with an aunt.

Mavimbela spent his days lying on his narrow bed, under which he had a pile of books and magazines he'd been given by the guards at a nearby border post.

"I guess I was depressed. I would not even go out to play," he says. "I was so bored, I’d read anything."

He went back to school the next year, but he was lonely and alienated [feeling as if he didn't belong] and would drink several beers before class. He was drawn into cross-border drug smuggling, the area's only real trade, and wound up [ended up] in Soweto selling drugs to dealers.

Sandile Mavimbela trawls thrift shops and trash bins for the thing his South African buyers are hungry for: Books. He wants dictionaries, self help books, religious books, school books and hardest to find, books by African authors.

"I didn’t have parents. It was only my own rule. I did what I wanted. Most of the time I'd hang out with the guys outside at night. Then the next morning, somebody was injured, somebody was stabbed [violently cut with a knife], somebody was arrested.

"I realised I was the one destroying myself."

He was sleeping rough [living without a home] on boxes in downtown Johannesburg before he met a man by chance who taught him the secondhand book trade. It reminded him of the childhood days. He found he had a talent for finding and selling the books people wanted to read.

He invests [puts his money into] his earnings back into buying more books. Though he struggles financially, he makes enough for food and rent, and his customers promise to keep supporting his endeavor [his attempts at business].

Acts of hope

Buying a book is an act of hope, and Mavimbela understands his customers' dreams: The school mothers looking for cheap textbooks for their children. The serious young people looking for motivational [something which encourages you to do something] books on how to get rich. The older people seeking uplifting religious works. All his readers crave [really really want] the one thing he has very little of: books by African authors.

Two young women wander by sheltering from the sun under an umbrella. Not far away, a team of shoe cleaners does a brisk trade. A man trundles [to move a wheeled object, e.g. a train] past with a shopping cart, selling stuff he has "found." A beggar, who smells as though he hasn't washed in weeks, approaches Mavimbela, hand extended, and the book man reaches into his pocket for a bank note.

An old man leafs through [pages through] one of Mavimbela’s books. A white tourist wanders by, taking photos of the skyline with his phone. Mavimbela purses [pulls up] his lips, afraid the visitor will fall victim to thieves. Locals typically stop such naive [lacking exerience or judgment] passersby, gently warning that there are "bad people" around and they’ll steal your camera or your phone for sure.

"Have you got dictionaries?" an earnest-looking mother of schoolchildren asks. Mavimbela hops nimbly [lightly, easily] from one end of his pavement shop to the other, grabbing books, proffering [putting forward/holding out] suggestions.

"The way I do it, I have to persuade [talk someone into doing something], not in a persuading manner but a convincing manner," he says."I say this is just like what you are looking for. He wasn't intending [meaning] to buy that book, but he buys it anyway.”