Like for many countries around the world, it’s time for the Covid-19 induced lockdown in South Africa to be eased a little. And book stored will be among the first to be allowed to open – but only for selected titles.

As pretty much everywhere else in the world, the attempts by South African publishers and booksellers to elevate books to the coronavirus economic holy grail that is “essential goods” status fell on deaf ears.

As argued here at TNPS, the idea that books are essential to anyone but publishers and booksellers is undermined first and foremost by the fact that digital books availability has not been limited by any government lockdowns, and secondly that we run the danger of being seen to put profit before health and safety by arguing books are on par with food and medications in the essential goods stakes.

But as of May 1 the Alert Level in South Africa was reduced to 4, from 5, and some shops were allowed to open. Among them book stores. But only to sell ”educational” books.

There is no official definition of what “educational” books area, and while academic and school text books clearly fall within the Level 4 permissible goods category, there is room for creative thinking for those booksellers eager to risk their and their customers’ lives by opening sooner rather than later.

Stores that are opening sooner have taken the approach that they may as well be hug for a sheep as a lamb, and will be making their full stock available.

Exclusive Books, one of South Africa’s leading bookstore chains, opened 36 outlets (not including airport stores) and per a Business Insider South Africa report CEO Grattan Kirk says about 80% of stock will be accessible, just removing or covering non-book stock.

We are of the view, and have confirmed with all parties including the SA Booksellers Association and publishers, that books are, in terms of the definition of ‘stationery and educational books’, in fact educational in nature (and we will) probably err towards argument that every book irrespective of what it is could be educational. One person’s education is another person’s recreation.

Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the independent bookstore Book Lounge in Cape Town, likewise was had no time for segregating books by educational value.

There isn’t a recognised category within the trade of something called ‘educational books’.

As paraphrased by Business Insider Sloman added,

If you were to use a narrow definition – that only books used by educational institutions are educational – then set-work novels and poetry bundles would still be included. On top of that all kids’ books (“unless they are complete crap”) educate in some way.

Asked if he anticipated any legal comeback for trying to stretch the Level 4 reopening conditions, Sloman said,

I am not preparing for confrontation with the police. We’re not expecting trouble. We’re not breaking the law.

As this post goes live, South Africa has over 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 128 dead, making it the hardest hit country in Africa by infection rate, although behind Algeria, Egypt and Morocco in the fatalities ranking. So far, that is.

Too soon yet to get any news about how the public are responding to the book stores reopening. If anyone knows better, do drop me a line.