Celebrating Ike’s — a literary landmark

Posted on September 21, 2018

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First published in City Press, South Africa

A special, and very South African, anniversary passed without much notice in August: the 30th birthday of Ike’s bookshop in Durban or, to give it its full nomenclature: Ike’s Bookshop and Collectables. Here, up a narrow staircase of an historic building in Durban’s increasingly trendy Florida Road, is a literary oasis perhaps without parallel.

It carries the name of a working class intellectual who loved books and who refused, despite the obvious advantages, to compromise with the racist laws of apartheid. As such, Ike’s was the first antiquarian bookshop in South Africa owned and run by a “non-white”.

The name of Joseph Daniel “Ike” Mayet remains embedded in the folklore of Durban. Light in complexion and of Irish, Scottish and Indian descent, he could, as did so many others, have chosen a “white” identity when apartheid’s race classification became official. He refused, insisting that he was “Black/Indian”.

It is perhaps difficult today to understand what that decision meant, but it was a fantastic gesture. And Ike Mayet, a boilermaker by trade, was an extremely erudite man. His readings, especially after spending three years in hospital until he was 16, suffering from a rare bone disease, osteomyetlitis, had honed his critical faculties. When the colour bar confronted him, he refused to jump it.

But it was only toward the turbulent 1980s that he moved fully into books, learning the craft of book binding and then starting to restore old texts and volumes. His work can still be seen in the rare books held by the Gandhi Library in Durban.

In 1981, at the age of 62, and having had to retire because of ill health, he started Ike’s in the multi-class and cultural kaleidescope of Durban’s Overport, with its shebeens, shacks and modern high rise buildings. Trade unionists such as Jay Naidoo and radicals destined to become cabinet ministers were regular visitors.

By the time of the democratic transition, Ike’s had become a literary base of critical thinking, a place of discussion, debate — and an invaluable source of books covering almost every topic on earth. Ike soldiered on, but, by the age of 80, was keen to step down. A way out was offered by two academics who established Ike’s in its present premises. It was an indication of the regard that Ike’s had achieved that the new premises were formally opened by Nobel literature laureate, JM Coetzee.

He presented Ike’s with a signed photograph to commemorate the event. And so was born the idea of having authors sign the walls. Ike, although ailing, remained a regular feature at the “new, old store” in those early months. He died in 2002.

In the 18 years since moving to Florida Road, the pale walls have been festooned with the inky scrawls or neat printing of writers ranging from Dennis Brutus and Arundati Roy to Phillip Tobias, Lewis Nkosi and John Pilger. There are hundreds, the names of writers who have visited and those who have had their books launched or celebrated, usually in functions staged on the wrap-around first floor balcony.

The young bibliophile recruited by professors Vishnu Padayachee and Julian May in 2000 to manage the store was post graduate student Jo Rushby who initially intended to stay on for “a year or two”. Eighteen years later, she is still there and now owns Ike’s, Vishnu Padayachee sold his shares to Julian May who passed on the ownership to Jo who has kept the spirit of Ike’s and of Ike Mayet alive.

Although nominally a secondhand bookshop, Ike’s has featured, in collaboration with another, older legendary store, Adams (founded in 1865), numerous launches of the latest books by South African authors. “It has been said that if you can’t find a book anywhere else, you’ll find it at Ike’s,” notes author, academic and social activist, Ashwin Desai.

And, in recent years, says Jo Rushby, there has been a marked change in the majority of the browsers who call in to read and to buy: the greying student radicals of the 1980s and earlier, are increasingly being joined by secondary school and young university students seeking to find answers in an increasingly uncertain world; a new generation seems to be treading the path laid out by Ike Mayet and so carefully maintained by Jo Rushby