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Saving the corner bookstore
Bruck Ayalew and Tesfaye Adal at the Gandhi Hospital area book store

Saving the corner bookstore

Tribute to city’s oldest book vendor

Tesfaye Adal sits in his small bookstore, waiting for customers, guarding his books. If a customer walks into his closet sized store, he is likely to engage in a conversation for over an hour, entirely about books. People that pass by without visiting the store do not walk by without greeting Tesfaye –he is a staple of the Ambassador area.

His store, previously covered in beautiful vines and flowers has been significantly reduced in the recent street-widening efforts of the city municipality. Even worse, the store set against the backdrop of the 7th Day Adventist Church had to be demolished and Tesfaye did not know what to do. Thanks to a corrugated iron shelter built in its stead by local youth Tesfaye has been sleeping there for the past five months, afraid of thieves or bad weather. The once beautifully green space welcoming every passerby to spend a few hours in conversation with Tesfaye in its bamboo-coated interior has now been reduced to storage space for his treasured books.

Students and professionals have been coming to his store for years, eager to purchase new and old books alike. Tesfaye especially recalls students from Nazareth School that would visit his store searching for romance books. Harlequin novels (under the imprint Mills & Boon) still dominate most of his stock. At the time, Tesfaye opted to loan books, a choice he still makes over permanently selling them. Tesfaye is highly attached to his books. He’s been known to refuse to sell a certain book or argue over how many he was willing to lend at a time. Profit, he says, was never his goal.

He has been an owner of this shop since the 1960s. After selling newspapers and magazines around the city at the young age of 15, Tesfaye upgraded to books during the Haile Selassie era. He distinctly recalls going to the parliament during session and members of the parliament asking for the latest Abe Gubegna novel or the day’s newspaper. “In those days, it was allowed to sell in the parliment. They ask how much it costs, I say 2.50 birr and they buy it.” He believes the volume of books published during that period met the large demand for books. “The way cellphones are fashionable now, carrying books was fashionable then. All young people read.”

In the period before the socialist revolution in 1974, the demand for revolutionary and communist books rose, he remembers. The massive burning of books that glorified imperialism and the deposed king marked the Derg era that followed. During this time, Tesfaye salvaged books from schools and still has a few in his possession.

Several authors, artists and professionals have frequented Tesfaye’s bookstore over the years. Former mayor Zewde Gebre-Hiwot, Michael Birru, Yidnekachew Tessema, Kebede Michael, Alemayehu Gelagay, Zenebe Wola, Endalk Getahun, the list goes on.  He recalls Sebhat Gebreghiabher sitting in his store as a customer comes in and asks for a book recommendation. Sebhat promptly pointed to all the books in the store and told the man to read it. Tesfaye also remembers how Mamo Wudineh helped release him from jail after he was arrested along with other street vendors selling kolo and lemons. He was jailed at the 6th police precinct along with his large stack of books for 15 days. Mamo, who was then editor of Police Ena Ermijaw magazine, walked in and noticed the books. Appalled when he found out the reason, Mamo urged the commissioner to release booksellers immediately, warning them not to carry inflammatory political pamphlets popular during the Red Terror.

The demand for socialist/communist books had cooled in the 80’s and Tesfaye began holding romance novels from then on. ‘Mother readers’ and ‘sister readers’, as he refers to them, began to frequent his store and he has formed lifelong relationships with them. The recent community effort to rebuild his once beautiful store was initiated by Hawani Debebe and Bruck Ayalew. Hawani had first met Tesfaye at the age of 14 when she was a student at Nazareth school. She has visited his store frequently to talk for hours, bringing along her friends. Bruck had also met Tesfaye as a teenager and says he developed his taste in books through Tesfaye’s recommendations. “We’ve been together during joy and during sorrow,” he says.

Their interpersonal and social media efforts to rebuild Tesfaye’s store led to 1,800 books being donated and 80 percent of the 60,000 birr needed has been raised in book sales. The book drive, held at the National Theater Gallery not far from Tesfaye’s store, attracted hundreds in just three days. Local bookstores like Jaffar, Maruf, Littman and Ewket-Ber as well as authors like Endalegeta Kebede and Daniel Kibret donated books for the drive. Tesfaye is looking forward to this transformation of his beloved store.

“Books are my first children. Then comes Ethiopia’s children. I have many children from here to the US and Europe that have read from my store.” Unmarried and without children, Tesfaye has dedicated his life to books. “I couldn’t have had so many children if I worked any other job. I have no regrets,” he says.

While a lot has changed in the past 5 decades in the publishing world and the reading public, Tesfaye is determined to remain a constant. “Books are not the same. Most people are long gone. Me and this door remain,” he says referring to the only remaining element of his original store. “I remember a customer telling me I was very lucky. You are received by books as you come in and greeted by flowers as you leave. You are more blessed than Jan-Hoy, he told me,” he says laughing.