Love, nostalgia and a compulsion to read have attracted people to second-hand books for many a year. Some have turned their fascination into profitable business and beautiful gifts.

WORDS Jacques Marais PHOTOGRAPHS Colin Stephenson

“There’s a smell of vanilla to old books that actually makes you happy,” says Nikki Jones. She is referring to lignin, a polymer present in wood-based paper closely related to vanillin, which gives old books a faint vanilla scent when the lignin breaks down – and creates a sense of calm and fond remembrance.

“I’ve loved that smell since I was a little girl and started rummaging through second-hand bookshops with my dad. When we moved to Sedgefield from Zimbabwe in 2005, I realised I needed to support my habit of collecting old books. I began buying almost every book I could with the thought of selling them on.”

Developing the skill of spotting rare books, Nikki began collecting and selling books relating to South Africa – from its natural history to its people. “I’ve become very interested in genealogy and family histories. I find it fascinating to find a book that references a family and to then track members of that family down.”

Nikki recently restored a family Bible, dating to the 1800s, to a descendent of its original owner. “This Bible contained family trees and newspaper clippings recording deaths and funerals, which helped considerably in tracing members of the family. I also cross-referenced information I found with information on various genealogy websites. I took a lot of joy from personally returning this piece of family history, but I have learned to put a price on not only a particular book, but also on the time and research involved in locating the eventual buyers.

“Mostly I find my buyers by researching the familial connections to a specific book, but I also have clients that commission me to find certain prints. And, of course, I sell books at online auctions. I’m not going to get rich doing this, but it is a nice nest egg born out of love.”

Selling on online auctions is not necessarily easy money, and requires extensive research to ensure a book reaches the right buyer. “It is very important to correctly represent what you are selling by including photographs and detailing flaws. This is the only way to build a clientele that trusts you and the books you are selling.”

Nikki discovers her finds online, at market stalls, second-hand bookshops and book exchanges such as the Blue Forest Bookshop & Collectables in George. This homely shop with a welcoming atmosphere offers one of the widest ranges of books, from every genre, on the Garden Route as well as old records and stamps, and a camaraderie inspired by a love of books.

Owner Wolfgang Schrader was born in Windhoek but grew up in the forests of the Outeniqua Mountains. “I had a second-hand furniture shop in Limpopo but returned to George where my personal passion for and addiction to books, reading and knowledge led to the opening of my shop 18 years ago.”

Many rare first editions grace the bookshelves, along with a variety of antiquarian and Africana books. The oldest book Wolfgang has in stock is a biography of Lord Nelson, which has survived 210 years since being printed in 1806. “We source books by buying from and trading with the public, which often leads to discoveries of photos, letters and other odds and ends inside the pages. We always leave these where we find them when reselling the books – I believe it adds to the rich personal history of each book’s journey. If a rare book that I’m uncertain about comes in, I’ll visit a website like to get an idea of its value, but I’ve built my knowledge on what items are worth after nearly two decades in the business.”

Knysna-based Sharon and Ryan Kensley use the covers of old books and rebind them with blank newsprint to make inspiring upcycled journals. Each beautiful handmade book features a drawing, designed by Sharon, etched onto the front cover and matched to an inspiring quote inside.

The journals found an international niche market and sell online, at 15 retailers across South Africa, and two outlets abroad – including the Chopra Centre in California.

Ryan, a qualified marine officer who has worked in environmentalism and recycling, says their project gives new life to the unwanted books they source mostly from charity shops. “The old inner pages are responsibly recycled, and the new newsprint is mostly recycled too.”

The couple now employ Julie Jacobs to hand-bind the journals. “Book binding is an incredible art and Julie has become a master craftsman who pours her love and energy into each book.

“Our idea of happiness is being able to do what we love and having the freedom to be with our children, Kingston and Ariella. In the past our attention was focused on creating what we thought would sell. When we began creating these journals it seemed to correspond with our own awakening – we felt guided to create something that embodied our own path to rediscovering our true nature.”

Trading at the Sedgefield Mosaic Market for nearly eight years are Tony O’Hagan and Antonio Fiori – partners and owners of Déjà Vu Antiques, Collectables and Books in Knysna’s Woodmill Lane Centre. While Antonio sells a selection of antiques at the market, Tony trades with their books. “I have been a book lover for as long as I can remember,” says Tony. “We opened our first antique shop in Cape Town’s Long Street in 1987 and opened Déjà Vu when we moved to Knysna in 2001. I try to stock a variety of books on various subjects to suit all tastes as I sell to basically anyone who reads.” Clients include book lovers, other dealers and collectors.

“One of the most interesting books that has passed through my hands was a very large, leather-bound English Bible dated 1617. I eventually sold it at an auction in the United Kingdom. “I used to find it hard to part with certain books, but space is becoming a major problem. So, nowadays, once a book has been read, I am happy to see it go. It helps being an avid reader, because I can recommend certain books to certain people. It’s great talking books to other book lovers,” says Tony.

Nikki Jones: 072 198 1175 [email protected]
Blue Forest Bookshop: & Collectables: Market Street Centre, George 074 465 5050
Wake up and Dream: 082 853 9584
Déjà Vu Antiques,Collectables and Books: Woodmill Lane Centre, Knysna 073 220 6015