Ike’s story is a good one, and well worth a read. At its core is the pain of our recent past, and he remains the stuff of legend in Durban today. His habit of giving books out for free to those with the motivation, but not the money is not easily forgotten. Though no longer with us, his legacy is this space, where all are welcome to browse our shelves.
INNER HINGES & LOOSE COVERS: THE STORY OF IKE'S
Ike Mayet was the founder and previous owner of Ike’s Books and Collectables in Durban. This is more than just a story of the first “person of colour” to open an Africana bookshop in South Africa, but the story of a man of principle, who made a conscious decision to remain true to his roots.
Ike was the quintessential bookman: he read books, everything from the comics to the classics at the same time, from an early age. He acquired books through various means: buying them, borrowing them, liberating them. He collected books, especially South African history and local cooking. Later he restored books, including as a sub-contractor to Adams Bookshop and for the Gandhi Library at 140 Queen Street. He sold books when finally in 1988 he opened Ike’s Bookshop in Chapel Street.
JOSEPH DAVID (IKE) MAYET opened the doors of “Ike’s Bookshop” in Chapel Street, Durban, on the 8th day of the 8th month, 1988. In so doing, he became the first South African “Africana and antiquarian” book-dealer of colour. The new South Africa was yet to be born, but the struggles that would make it a reality were to be found all around Durban, as they were in many other parts of South Africa.
His life, in many ways, represents the trials and ironies of Twentieth Century South Africa. His father had inherited what was then a small fortune – his grandfather, Ahmed “Paraffin” Mayet, accumulated his wealth from the sale of paraffin fuel to poor, mainly black South Africans – but by 1926, when Ike was born, nothing was left of the “family silver”.
In 1939, Ike contracted osteomyelitis. Penicillin was not readily available in South Africa at the time, and he spent nearly three years at St Aidan’s Hospital. It was there that his love of books and reading developed. In 1941, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawarahal Nehru (India’s first post-independence Prime Minister) and herself a future Prime Minister of India, stopped in Durban on her way to England. She was taken by some progressive members of the former Natal Indian Congress to visit St Aidan’s Hospital, where much to her surprise, she found a youngster reading Homer. That young man was Ike Mayet.
In 1948, the Nationalist Party won the general election and began to put in place the strategy of “grand apartheid”, imposing a rigid racial classification that would henceforth determine all aspects of life for every South Africa, black or white. Ike was faced with a choice, one he made effortlessly in the end. In appearance, Ike could easily have passed as white. His maternal grandparents, an Irish-Scottish alliance, came from St Helena, an island made famous by Napoleon’s incarceration in the 19th Century. Ike’s paternal grandfather, Ahmed Mayet, was a native of Kathor in the Surat District of western India. The villages in this district were the prime source of the flows of Indian trading and merchant families who came to Natal from about 1872.
When he finally retired from formal work in 1981, Ike decided to try his hand at bookbinding. In this venture, he had the support and encouragement of Durban’s “grand old man” of books – Mr Ernest Rabjohn of Adam’s Books. In the mid-1980s, Ike undertook the major task of restoring a vast quantity of rare books in the Gandhi Library at 140 Queen Street, in the heart of Durban’s “Indian Quarter”, where Mahatma Gandhi had worked as a lawyer and activist 100 years earlier. There, Ike honed his skills as a binder, and rapidly moved from simple binding work to specialist restoration and preservation of books.
Ike Mayet lived in an era in South African history when ‘identity’ was everything: how you were classified, what identity you were given, made all the difference, sometimes even about whether you lived or died. For most South Africans this identity and the trajectory and possibilities of one’s life were simply given to you. Few South Africans had much choice over this all important matter of how you were identified, what identity you had to carry, where you lived, who you married, what bench you could sit on, what bus to catch. Ike Mayet was among the few who could have chosen his identity. So he had a heavy personal and political choice by staying ‘Indian’, by choosing disenfranchisement, by choosing the hard road, while many of his family had themselves successfully reclassified white and took their German grandmothers surname. While he looked like a white man, his fellow bus passengers often wondered aloud why a white man was travelling on a ‘black’ bus and not on a white bus. He was arrested by the police on one occasion for sitting on a park bench marked ‘Non-Europeans Only’! As apartheid laws begun to tighten after 1948, he chose to go to the Non-european canteen at his place of work, he chose to ride in a third class black train compartment.
Ike and most of his family could have applied successfully to be classified white – a wise move, given the privileges this would have bestowed upon them during the era of apartheid in South Africa. However, they insisted on retaining their Indian/black identity, and went through the next 40 years on the “wrong” side of the racial tracks, suffering all the pain and indignity that apartheid could throw at black people all the time. Despite training generations of younger white men in the engineering trade that he entered in the mid-1940s, Ike was never able to make the kind of progress that most, often less capable, whites were able to achieve, and many soared past him through the occupational hierarchy.
So, at the age of 62, it was in the Chapel Street area of Durban that Ike set up shop, not more than 100 yards from his two-bedroomed flat.
Chapel Street is a small back-alley in Overport, Durban, and at that time, in terms of the Group Areas Act, was an area designated as reserved for South Africans of Indian origin. Yet, by the late 1980s, a rich mix of South Africans of all colours and classes lived around the bookstore. Small, old-world dukawallah shops, wood-and-iron shacks, new post-modern homes, crumbling buildings, high-rise apartment blocks, shebeens and brothels all competed for space and favour. The area was home to a group of politically active people, many of whom became influential in the first democratic government. The first sales book is a testimony to the people who supported Ike during the early years – Jay Naidoo, Omar Badsha, the honourable Judge Chris Nicholson.
So, did Ike’s begin as an Africana bookshop. Well, yes – rather by accident than with specific intent. The first stock of books came from Ike’s own collection, and was largely comprised of books on Natal history etc. But he also sold Mills and boons, which were like bread and butter. The left-leaning bibliophiles in the neighbourhood were so caught up with resisting apartheid, and plotting its downfall, that they were looking for an escape from Marxist and Leninist theory, and wanted to read fiction.
The irony is that now we have many people, old and young, who are interested in this type of literature; the works of Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, and in a way, Ike’s has now become again the place to access these books. We are also now in a position where these books are now more available for us to buy, and we have a market for them. Previously, everyone was hanging onto them.
I have worked at Ike’s now for 10 years. My personal journey there began in 1997 when I came on holiday to Durban. As always, I looked up the bookshops in the city first, and found Ike’s Bookshop listed. The bookshop was then located in Windermere road, tucked away in the corner of an antique shop and I never found it. A couple of years later, I returned to Durban to study for a Masters degree, and discovered that my lecturers were looking for someone to work in their bookshop. And so it was that I came full circle, and found myself working at Ike’s. I truly feel that there is a link that binds me to this place. Most of the people I have become close to and met over the 10 years I’ve been in Durban have frequented Ike’s at some point in their lives. It is an institution.
For me, it is home from home, a place of calm and tranquility, a place where people come to talk, debate, sit or browse quietly, escape. Most importantly, it is a unique environment, an alternative to the sanitized and soulless shopping malls of South Africa. I truly feel that we are continuing Ike’s legacy of debate and openness, and to engender this, we host regular book launches on subjects as diverse as the city we inhabit.
It was Ike’s indomitable spirit, his steely determination, his uncompromisingly principled stand against the brutality of the apartheid system, his adventurous nature, his unmatched sense of humour, along with his immense stature as a font of historical information and urban trivia that informed the establishment and character of the original Ike’s Bookshop. Just as Ike Mayet’s life and work represented shared paradigms and perceptions, so his legacy charts for us an exciting journey into the new South Africa.
The new venue was officially opened on the 18th January 2001 by the acclaimed South African author Professor J M Coetzee, who in 2003 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ike Mayet died on 31st January 2002.