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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book shop labels from Rhodesia

I've had a draft of this post sitting in the hopper for a week or so, but feel compelled to finish it now because of something posted about this site in the Fine Books & Collections blog. Exile Bibliophile referenced this site for the book shop labels that have appeared here before. It's been infrequent of late (thanks, though, for the mention), but I found several recently in a batch of books originally sold in Africa.

Scouting for books a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an intriguing 1950s/60s collection of hardcovers from Rhodesia and Central Africa: Bryant's Abridged English-Zulu Word Book, Zulu Bibles with titles like Ibhayibheli Elingcwele and Itestamente Elitsha (New Testament), Baptist Hymnals compiled in Shona, Ndebele, and Chewa, and The Standard Shona Dictionary, to name several.


These titles, along with certain inscriptions by the previous owner, indicated they belonged to a missionary working there 40 to 50 years ago. There were other generic titles dealing with religion, horticulture, and geography that bore the same owner's name.

Scattered among these books were several book shop labels representing the country of Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. These labels provide an historical record of bookstores that once pioneered the literate landscape in that African country's culture. My interest and reason for collecting these minuscule artifacts of book trade ephemera have everything to do with the tiny clues they often provide in my own discovery of history and other cultures.




Injecting just a snapshot bit of history of Rhodesia... Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), founded the country named after him in 1889, when he obtained a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria, to explore and develop the area. Actually, there was already a confluence of settlement in the area about that time with factions of the Zulu nation having recently arrived before the white explorers. The Shona, wandering tribesmen from the north and east had also migrated to this area and had forcibly removed the native inhabitants, Kung San, better known as the Bushmen. I mention this background because of its relationship to the books I found. These dictionaries, reference books, Bibles, and informational texts primarily dealt with the Shona and Zulu people of the area.

The British pioneers brought their ideals and standards, and surely bookstores and related businesses were a direct outgrowth of the settlers' desire to import their culture into their new home in Africa. Booksellers, publishers, and printers set up shop soon after British colonization of the area began. Indeed, the labels above unveil history and insight into a society's values because the trades they advertise were established early in the country's settlement. A civilized society must have books!

More about the labels now:

The first label is for Philpott & Collins, whose history in Rhodesia dates back to 1902 with its establishment in Bulawayo as a bookseller and stationer. As this 1950s label indicates, the business eventually opened bookstores in Salisbury (capital) and Gwelo. Business grew and the company went public in 1956. Twenty years later in 1976, they were purchased by Phoenix Brushware. Today, after mergers, growth, and more acquisitions, this turn-of-the-century colonial Africa bookseller still exists as a business dealing in stationery and office products and furniture. They are now part of the Apex Corporation, a manufacturing and trade concern.

Kingston Ltd appears to still be in the business of selling books, but I can't find any information about their history. I have found mention of Kingstons published books as far back as the 1950s and of a Kingston's (with apostrophe) Bookshop there in the 1920s.

Ellis Allen, however, appears to have been a pioneering bookseller, publisher, and printer in Rhodesia based on the few related books I can find. The earliest instance is an 1896 publication by Ellis Allen. As Rhodes and British settlers arrived a short seven years before, Allen surely was one of the first book tradesmen to hang up his shingle in that part of the world. As for Willoughby's Buildings, I believe that is a physical address, in lieu of a street number. I have found mention of another business at Willoughby's Buildings in 1909.

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