“We Want Readers to Approach the Book as a Necessity”

Jafer Shifa on running his bookshop in Addis Ababa

Jafer Books. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 2021
Photos by Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky

Jafer Shifa (ጃዕፋር ሽፋ) is the owner of Jafer Books—one of the largest bookstores in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His store is a busy place with a lively atmosphere—Jafer works there with three employees but it feels that, despite working in four, they do not quite cope with the flow of customers. Active sales are surprisingly accompanied with friendly talks and book-related discussions. On his recent visit to Ethiopia, anthropologist Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky met Jafer to ask him a few questions about the origin of his interest in the book trade and what inspired him to develop the business.

Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky: Where were you born? 

Jafer Shifa: I was born in 1982 in Addis Ababa in the neighborhood of ​​MasalemyiaMasalemyiaA tradeful area between the bus station and the Al-Anwar Mosque. In Addis Ababa many associate it with the birthplace of famous football players., also widely known as Kuas Meda (“football field”). 

NSK: What childhood memories do you have? What kind of family did you grow up in? 

JS:My family was poor. There were eight of us: four boys and four girls. Dad worked as an assistant and my mother earned money by doing laundry. They were not born in Addis Ababa, but came here from the Gurage ZoneGurage ZoneA Zone in the Ethiopian Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region. This zone is named for the Gurage people, whose homeland lies in this zone.

NSK:Didn’t many people who came from the Gurage Zone to Addis Ababa take up trade and looked for wage labor? I heard that famous Gurage such as, for example musician Mahmoud AhmedMahmoud AhmedOne of the most famous Ethiopian performers. He was born in 1941 in Addis Ababa and started his singing career in 1962, when he joined the Imperial Bodyguard Band of Haile Selassie I. and art critic Seyoum WoldeSeyoum Wolde(1944-1995) Artist, art critic, the founder of Ethiopian Artists Union. In 1969-1975, studied in Moscow. worked from a very young age.

JS:They did! Although I did not clean shoes like Mahmoud Ahmed, I did work as a courier for different people and washed cars. I had to rush around and do all this because our family was in need and there was no one to support us. I had to earn the living for them. 

NSK:And school? 

JS:I am a high school graduate!

NSK:Did you manage to combine your studies and work? 

JS:I did. And you know why? Despite not having had a chance to attend school, my mother highly appreciated education. She gave all her children an opportunity to finish school. If someone had not taken up studies, she would not have let them on the doorstep! 

NSK:And how old were you when you started your book trade? 

JS:Right after leaving school, in 2000. 

NSK:But how did you come to choose this very business? 

JS:You see, after finishing school, I had free time, which I spent with my friends in the neighborhood. My mother did not like it, she was afraid it might affect me in a bad way. She had done so much to give all of us education and did not want it all to be in vain. Have you heard about the writer Awgichew Terefe? 

NSK:I do. Is he the author of the novel Lunatic

JS:Yes. We are neighbors. So, my mother asked him to do something for me—to prevent me from idling around. Since Awgichew TerefeAwgichew TerefeThe pen name of writer Hiruy Minas (1951-2019). He worked as an editor and translator at the Kuraz Publishers. was in the book trade himself when he was young, he found a way to find a job there for me as well.

First, I was standing with my books on an oilcloth on a street in the area around ​​the National TheaterNational TheaterThe National Theater was founded in 1955 to mark the 25th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I. It was focused on the development of national music and theater. The surrounding area got associated with various cultural activities and became one of Addis Ababa tourist landmarks.—the same way books are sold now in Arat KiloArat KiloA round square with an obelisk built for Atse Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930. Arat Kilo can be described as a students’ neighborhood and one of the most popular meeting places.. Awgichew introduced me to the businessman Takle, who owned a bookstore in Kolfe. I bought seventeen books from him—something to start my own business with. There were days I couldn't sell anything. This is how I traded for five years. 

NSK:Did you read the books you were selling? 

JS:Of course! Then I had a lot of free time. Almost all of the books I read were fiction. There were almost no historical ones. I remember being an avid reader. 

Jafer Shifa at Jafer Books. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 2021
Photos by Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky

NSK:A friend of mine told me that he knew you back in those days. And he said that he gave away some of his books to you. Were people doing that often? 

JS:Yes, sometimes. When the trade got better many people liked seeing me busy, and they tried to cheer me up. 

NSK:How did you decide on prices? Were they always indicated on the cover? 

JS:Yes, always. Then it was not so high: fifteen, twenty, and twenty five Ethiopian birrs—maximum. We bought them at a 25% discount and sold at a discount too, but a smaller one. I got 5-10% of the book price. 

NSK:And how did you end up starting your own shop

JS:When I started the business, I immediately realized I needed to expand. If the turnover grew, I would not have to remain a street vendor. And if there were a shop, then maybe there would also be more clients? They would get to know me better and bring their acquaintances along. I got help in finding a small space next to the National Theater. But then the stall was demolished: I had no documents and it was built without permission, so I had to trade on the street again. Then someone helped me with another space—I started working there and got permission. My trade was going well, but seven years later the stall was also demolished: the area was bought out for the construction of a multi-storey building. I found myself in big trouble and had no idea of what to do next. I began checking out about the place where we are sitting now, whether it was possible to rent it. I said I needed to move as soon as possible to preserve the books. In the end, they told me the price and I accepted the terms. I was the first person to start a book store in a multi-storey building, it is a big risk if one knows our book market.

NSK:Why had no one taken the risk before? 

JS:The rent is very high. In such locations it’s more customary to open a bank. As for me, I decided to try —well, we shall see if I manage not to go bankrupt. But still—I was confident that everything would work out. So, in 2015 we opened a store here and immediately began to actively advertise ourselves, to talk about the books we were selling, and the number of our clients grew. I don’t stick to any principle when choosing books. We sell a wide variety of books, even religious ones, by authors of different confessions—because I don't know who can come here. Maybe someone who needs psychology, or fiction, or philosophy, or poetry. I believe that there should be maximum variety. In our country, a book is not the same as other goods. If, for example, you need clothes, you can find them in many places. This is not the case with books, so I try to keep the store as varied as possible. We want readers to approach the book as a necessity. We promote reading. People love what we recommend to them and I hope that one day buying a book will be as compulsory as buying clothes. It's my goal.

My goal is one day to see everyone reading. There is little use in talks, while you can always learn from the book at least something. You don’t think about something bad or plan wars—you go straight home to finish the book as soon as possible

NSK:But to be able to give advice, you also need to read a lot yourself? 

JS:Sure! I read on Sundays. Sunday is a day off, so I do sports, play with my kids, and read. And on all other days I am in the store from 7 AM to 10 PM. 

NSK:Don't you feel bored? 

JS:Not at all! Different people come to the shop, so it's always interesting. Famous people and very well-read ones also show up. I am constantly getting to know someone and finding out what they want and what they read. I always try to be attentive to visitors and not to upset anyone. I am inspired by the idea of ​​making reading more popular in our country. We sell books at a discount to support our readers. In our country, not so many people read. Sometimes you see people sitting in a cafe, talking about something, and someone would be drinking tea and reading. Or on the bus, most people talk, but a few would be holding books. My goal is one day to see everyone on the bus reading. There is little use in talks, while you can always learn from the book at least something. You don’t think about something bad or plan wars—you go straight home to finish the book as soon as possible. Those who like to gossip don't go there.

NSK:What books do you personally like? 

JS:Now I like reading biographies most and I used to read fiction. Well, sometimes I might read a book about business to have a fresh look at my own. 

NSK:Don’t you already have a publishing house, too? 

JS:Not yet, but I am considering such an opportunity. 

NSK:I saw your stamp on some books. What does it mean? 

JS:This is not a publisher’s stamp, it is our store’s ad. When people see it, they understand that the book can be found here at a good price. I took this kind of idea from books on business—to make my name as visible as possible. If books were sold without this stamp, then people would not know where they came from. But now they see it and go to Jafer. Moreover, they do it willingly because we always give discounts.

NSK:Really? Always? Even if I buy only one book? 

JS:Exactly! We do it to support our readers. Books are selling very quickly here. 

NSK:What about other stores? What do they think about it? It is called dumping, isn’t it? 

JS:In a way, yes. But look, if I want to sell you two books for 190 birrs, you might hesitate, but if I offer 100 birrs, you’ll take both! 

NSK:Another direction is your Telegram channel. When did you start it? Now you have a lot of subscribers. I like the information that you publish there myself. 

JS:I sometimes run the channel, but mostly it is Saifedin’s task, he is one of the store’s employees. He's great! Clients like it and they often check the channel to see what new books have come out and then come for something specific.

At Jafer Books. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 2021
Photos by Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky

NSK:And another important question—how has the coronavirus affected your work? I have just seen a message on your channel asking people to wear masks and be careful. And when I came here and wanted to shake your employee’s hand, he reminded me about the limitations. But how was the trade going? Did you have clients? And how did you warn the visitors? 

JS:We were constantly warning them about the virus and having explanatory talks at the entrance. We put a washstand outside and used a sanitizer inside and asked everyone to put on masks. This is important not only for those who come, but also for ourselves, for my family. Surprisingly, there were a lot of clients in that period. When there were rumors that everything would be closed for a fortnight, people started coming and buying bags of books! Probably thinking how they would resist for fifteen days. It was really so! I myself was surprised. People were coming by cars to buy books. Of course, you can watch a movie or do sports in your free time, but it gets boring. And books, of course, can also make you get bored, but many still prefer reading. 

NSK:One more question about books. Do you really think that all books are good? Aren't there books that you don't want to sell? 

JS:Yes, of course there are such books. If there are some bad ideas in the book, I myself will not read it, and I will not give it to you, but still there are also some in the store. People might stick to different viewpoints, but as for me—I just won't offer such a book to my client.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

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Jafer Shifa
Book seller from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He is a founder of one of the biggest book stores in the city called Jafer Books.
Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy
Specialist in African studies. He studied the Amharic language at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at Saint Petersburg State University and sociolinguistics at the Faculty of Anthropology at European University in Saint-Petersburg. He is interested in contemporary Ethiopian culture and is currently working on his thesis dedicated to labor migration in Ethiopia, as well as studying African collections at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera).