It is 2 pm in the afternoon, a day after the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter, and I am in Piazza with friends. After a morning of attempted errands post-Easter festivities (many businesses are still closed), we headed to Enrico’s for pastries. Although always busy, today’s queue outdid itself. Having endured 40 days of fasting with no dairy or meat, Orthodox Christians have come out to indulge, snaking around the counter and spilling out onto the street, waiting for their sweet treats.
Unlike at Enrico’s, Piazza’s usual commotion is somehow subdued. Parking, which on any other day would be a headache, is available across the street with no difficulty; although I would not have minded a longer walk on this breezy and cloudy Addis afternoon – rare for this time of year. After the months of brutal heat waves we had to deal with, any cool day is welcome. Plastic bags, sand and dust nudged by the breeze, roll and skid past us. We take in the cool air, now content with how our day is winding down.
We walk past Restaurant de Napoli, next door to Enrico’s, where people sit outside; dining, talking, and enjoying their macchiato. Vendors line the walkway, selling bathroom towels, kitchenware, corn, and fruits. Nestled between Enrico’s and Napoli’s, a three-layered wooden bookshelf with glass doors sits invitingly. The books are old and worn out, mostly on Ethiopian antiquity. I spot Donald Levine’s books when an excited voice startles me: “You like this? I have more!”
A man, who I would later know as Abdi Negash Hassen, looks at me with a smile. “Is this your stand?” I am taken aback by his enthusiastic outburst. “I have more books, a treasure chest,” he continues dangling keys in his hand, “let me show you.” He walks away from his bookstand. “Cake…Enrico,” I say running after him. “The cake has not come yet.” We head away from Enrico’s. He takes two yellow chips out of his pocket and hands them to a Napoli server without breaking pace. “Get in line for me” he orders the server. He has done this before.
“Oh we haven’t gotten in line” I realize, and turn to my friends, panicking. “You go get in the line,” I take out my wallet and hand one of my friends’ cash and jog after Abdi to catch up. We turn a corner and follow him down a narrower Piazza street. He tells us about all of the interesting people that have come to visit. We walk faster to catch up. I feel like I am on some great adventure. We stop abruptly at a gate and the keys he has been swinging around are put to use. Inside, we find an old government building. He leads us to a group of rooms in the back, typically used as service quarters.
He unlocks one of the rooms. Books, magazines, newsletters, records, and other souvenirs take up every inch of the room. It is breathtaking, at least for someone who loves books. He shows us an article written about him by a foreign magazine. An old record player sits by the entrance. He plays us music. The room is filled with the crackles of the old record. Ethio-jazz pours out from the player and fills up the room. “Mulatu Astatke – old song,” he shouts over the music. The smell of books and the sound of Ethiopian oldies are intoxicating.
Abdi’s stories of how his books, records, and all his ‘treasures” end up in his small space in Piazza are windows into the world of book dealers. The stories are as captivating as the age and content of what is inside the room. Abdi would later tell me what the items in his space and the people who owned them, sell them, buy them, or just come to enjoy them mean to him. He describes the process, from the second he makes a purchase until the time makes a sale, as a period filled with stories, laughter, and camaraderie. The people who contribute to these moments, the artists, the businessmen, the students, Ethiopians, foreigners, all those who have love for Ethiopian music and history, are fondly remembered.
Hailing from all walks of life, they come to his “storage,” as he calls it, to sit and discuss stories, exchange ideas, listen to records, and silently gaze at the pages of a magazine or book as the record plays an old tune.
There are some extraordinary moments for Abdi. For instance, when a customer with a personal relationship to a particular book walks through his door. A book written by a father or grandfather, and one they will find with Abdi after having almost given up hope of finding a copy. There are also times when books he has sold come back to him. “The person I sold the book to might have passed away, and one way or another, the book finds its way back to me,” he looks away as if remembering the exact moments.
I ask if he can think of stressful moments. It takes him a little time to answer, “ummm well….yes” he remembers, “after selling a book, the buyer who has gone overseas informs me that pages are missing,” which makes it physically impossible to fix. If the customer was in Addis, he could have easily exchanged the book or given back their money. Now, he makes sure to check before he sells. As far as financial benefits are concerned, he is quick to clarify that it is “not a job you get riches from.” It is a job that requires pleasure from the in-betweens, the spaces where there are no purchases or sales, pleasure from the company of “the people who stop by and spend their day there.” In fact, when he comes across a serious reader, he “won’t pressure him or her about money,” instead he tells “them to pay when they can.”
There have been cases where customers have left the country without paying him; “they will eventually come back to me,” he explains nonchalantly, some “have come back after a couple of years.” It is this laissez-faire business attitude that puts people at ease when visiting. I got that sense myself when he asked if I wanted to take something with me on my way out and told me not to worry about the payment for the time being. We are interrupted by a phone call on the status of our cake and out the door we went promising our return. For the next week all my thoughts were about Abdi and his books, and return I did. The intrigue for me is not just his collection, but the passion and knowledge with which he speaks when discussing it.
The following Saturday morning I am back in Piazza. It is a workday in the compound and the gate is open. This time around, it is full of people. Some sit by the gate, others, a group of women work in what looks like a kitchen. In front of Abdi’s room, men assemble furniture. A young man stands by Abdi’s door. Inside, an older man, who looks to be in his 60s, talks on his phone. I have another guest with me and Abdi signals for us to wait. After about 15 minutes, the man leaves the room with a book in hand. Abdi, who has recognized my guest, a writer, flashes his big smile, invites us in, and for the next hour goes into his frenzied story telling. He knows exactly where he has kept his books and records, and goes from one corner of the room to the other, pulling references, opening to the pages of books and papers that confirm his stories.
He has been in this business for a little over 25 years, and it shows. He knows his books, his records, his coins, his writers, and his buyers. His journey began at the Italian Bookstore, now de Napoli restaurant (the Bookstore has closed,) where he worked for 20 years. His observation of the relationship Italians had with their books would later serve as inspiration for his work: “Italians were heavy readers and I was always intrigued by that. A penniless Italian who I’d consider poor would purchase a 300 or 400 birr magazine or newspaper to read.” He describes how an individual claiming that he or she was in a big rush would sit around for hours to discuss History. This left a lasting impression on Abdi. He searched for items that would be of interest to the Italians so that he could bring it back to them. This exposure transformed him into an avid reader.
He read anything he could get his hands on just so he could go to work the next day and engage in discussions. More than any schooling he had in his life, he credits ‘those books’ as teaching him most of what he knows. The death of the owner led to the closure of the Italian Bookstore. Abdi went on to rent the space he currently occupies (a short walk from the place that stirred his passion for books.) His love for old things has also led to his appreciation for Ethiopia’s rich musical history, “I have a lot of records as well and am now known for my records,” he states proudly.
Records by Ethiopian music legends Tilahun Gesesse, Mohammed Ahmed, orchestra performances by forgotten Ethiopian groups, as well as English-speaking artists, sit by the record player. His personal favorites are records by the old Hagir Fiker Theatre and ones of Kassa Tessema and Alemayhu Eshete. In an old cardboard box on the ground are English records: Barbra Streisand, Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and many others. He told me he has more at home, hundreds more. Amongst his books and records are other little “treasures”: ancient coins and cups, some not so old foreign coins, and other miscellaneous finds. It is clear why he spends a lot of time in his “storage.” Surrounded by books, records, and trinkets, who wouldn’t?
What really excites him is finding “books with notes in their pages by the previous owner. There are special items, ones purchased from some special people who are very precious to me” he adds with an air of mystery. There have been times financial temptation has threatened to separate him from his “special items,” but he has not wavered: “I will never sell, nowadays even if I don’t have money, I’ll ask someone for a loan and keep my books.” His background has shaped his decisions. Born in Merkato’s 32 Kebele behind Fasil Pharmacy, Abdi’s childhood was no different from any child born in the area.
“Often, those of us in Merkato, the young ones, would do some type of business every day after school.”Abdi sold lottery tickets and foreign music cassettes. It is during that time in his life, still a young man, that he began running errands for the Italian Bookstore, subsequently landing him a job there. Unlike him, his eight siblings were “fortunate” to have finished their schooling. He gets up to adjust a record that is out of place, “they are my helpers,” he says, commenting on the love and support of his siblings. “Whenever I’m purchasing things, I ask them to lend me money if I need it, and they do.”
His humble beginnings give him an appreciation for what he does. If it was not for his books, without a formal education, he believes he could have been at a great disadvantage. Not only is he more knowledgeable, but has also met a number of interesting people because of it—people who he claims would not have even sat down with him if it were not for his books. “I’m a nobody,” he says modestly. “My work gives me more satisfaction than money,” he continues whimsically. Just as these books have enriched his life, he hopes they will do the same for his fellow Ethiopians. He believes that if more Ethiopians took interest, our stories would stay in Ethiopia, and be passed down to future generations.
“My love for my work increased when I started working with Ethiopians,” he explains. “When Ethiopians take interest in their history, they are startled by how much of their stories are told by foreigners.” They start asking why “outsiders” are narrating Ethiopian stories. The majority of the writers Abdi carries are foreigners: Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. He calls Donald Levine and others like him honorary Ethiopians. His advice is to not undermine foreign contribution in the preservation of Ethiopian history, instead, to use it to our advantage. He suggests, for starters, translating the books to Amharic and making them available to the community at large. His statement is a reminder of the dilemma we as a people, extremely proud of our independence from colonial powers, face when having to reference historical material written by foreigners in order to be taken seriously: a paradox.
In spite of the fact that old historic books written by Ethiopians are few in number, he reminds us to take note of Aleka Zeneb’s work, for example, which does exist in print, and to give attention to stories of heroism that have been preserved on Brana (ancient texts, usually in Geez, written on leather.) Abdi is confident that by “reading our history, we as a people can better understand who we were and where we are heading.” In saying this, he is not advocating the sole use of any one group of work, but to utilize both foreign and local ones. Nowadays, the number of readers who do not need translations are on the rise. “Books that were once only read by foreigners, now have Ethiopian audiences” fluent in the language of the original text. “Before, we’d take a book that was written in French and sell it to the French, now we can sell those same books to Ethiopians.”
Abdi personifies the passionate and patriotic Ethiopian spirit found in the hearts of millions. This passion gives books, which might have otherwise been sold to a neighborhood souk by the kilogram. It gives people like me, with no time to scout Addis for books or records, a place to come and marvel at items not generally found in other popular book stores that largely carry self-help and academic textbooks. His space is by no means a library or a big space which can accommodate more than a few people at a time, but one can only hope that maybe, just maybe, it will get there. His journey from a Merkato lottery and cassette seller, to a book dealer and expert on old Ethiopian books, is inspiration to anyone who wants to pursue their interests. Without sounding preachy, the key lesson any Ethiopian would take away after a visit to Abdi’s, is the significance of supporting Abdi and those like him, whose incomes are dependent on our purchase of their items. They will be able to continue what they do and in the process preserve some of our “treasures’.