Collectors Treasury is more than just a vessel for millions of books, it’s a time capsule of the stories that make Johannesburg.

The curious thing about Johannesburg is that everyone remembers it differently. Memory can be a fragile thing – written and rewritten, erased and re-framed, cherry-picked blossoms of history that become frustratingly unreliable.

Jo’burg is never the same through the lens of the people who know it, but to really know this city you have to search for the most precious archives of memory it has – museums, libraries, antique stores. Collectors Treasury masquerades as all three, a catacomb of all the stories of Joburg and beyond, a thousand dimensions in one eight-storey building.

If you didn’t know it was there, you would miss it.

Like most of the surreal treasures buried deep in the iconic Commissioner Street, if you are not just the slightest bit perceptive, you’ll walk right past it – all the estimated 2 000 000 books, 500 000 vinyl records, and thousands more trinkets stacked inside. The only piece of reality tethering this fantasy world to the outside is a gated door. A click later and it’s a different universe, right on Joburg’s doorstep.

Forget Dewey decimal systems and manicured shelves, Collectors Treasury is a towering castle of page-peeling books and whimsical ornaments in every crevice – spilling over each other on the staircases, stacked in boxes, crammed in cabinets, gushing from the shelves and bursting from the hallways. It is so shut away from the air pollution of the metropolis outside that you could hear a page turn from deep within the bowels of the floors filled with books, with only the faint hum of fluorescent lights buzzing overhead.

You have to see it to believe – how does one catalogue and condense decades of volumes of stuff into a formula for finding what you want, similarly to locating a book in the sterility of an Exclusive Books?

“You don’t,” says Jonathan Klass, co-owner of Collectors Treasury.

“You cannot see this shop through modern eyes because if you do, you won’t survive. That’s the problem with people now, they are too interested in controlling what they’ve got but they only control a very little bit of it,” he says.

Geoffrey Klass, the other half of this dynamic duo, claims it is the largest second-hand bookstore and rare collectibles trader this side of the Equator. It’s a factoid told to him personally 20 years ago by Colin Steele, a librarian at the Australian National University in Canberra. It’s not hard to see why this urban legend has spun into fact.

How exactly do you describe the Collectors Treasury? Is it a library? Is it a bookstore? Is it an antique shop? Geoffrey considers the shop a mausoleum of memory and a home that trades in history.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business that tries to preserve the documents of the past,” says Geoffrey.

“I always believed that a book seller is in a unique position in society because a book seller determines how that society develops in terms of what they are exposed to and so if the books of the past are not available, the whole trail of history disappears.”

The art of preservation

Part of the Collectors Treasury’s enduring cultural legacy is because it is dedicated to preservation, an unusual mechanism of recording memory that has managed to carve a niche for people who love to get lost and come out the other side finding more than cultural artefacts. Some exit the store knowing a little bit more about themselves, too. This menagerie of second-hand books and quirky curio officially started in 1974 and has been making its way across Joburg ever since.

The brothers first started in Milpark, situated in the slice of middle-class bohemia that today is known as 44 Stanley. As South African history unfolded around them, the bookstore went to Pritchard Street and onto Rissik Street, moving to its current space in 1991.

“We’ve been collecting since we could walk. We grew up in a house with thousands of books and objects,” says Geoffrey.

The idea to start an archive of forgotten things that have intrinsic value germinated like seed one day in their family room in Yeoville. The brothers and their late mother Maisie Klass, a preschool teacher, started the second-hand store and the rest, as the adage goes, is history.

Not unlike Commissioner Street itself, the city seems to expand and mould around the Collectors Treasury, changing but somehow staying the same, a time capsule of the past sealed in the present. You only have to look at the gentrified pipedream of Maboneng Precinct around the corner amidst the raw grime of the heart of town where Collectors Treasury is sandwiched between the old and the new to know the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do we ever really know the cities we live in?

Did I know Johannesburg, this city of gold, a little more intimately than before I took the stairway to collectors’ heaven? It’s hard to ever really know the cities we live in. Memory is a fickle thing – too many stories to tell and in a city like Joburg, you never stand still quite long enough to hear them all. While we all have our own memories, Collectors Treasury is one of those whimsical places that doesn’t sugarcoat Joburg in a gentrified fantasy but captures it just as it is.

FEATURED IMAGE: Collectors Treasury is located on the iconic slice of real-estate on the main, one-way artery of Johannesburg, 244 Commissioner Street. Photo: Busang Senne