Big changes in store as historic CNA chain goes to ambitious new owner

Retail group Edcon has sold stationery retailer CNA to a consortium majority owned by JSE-listed Astoria Investments. Photo:

A focus on African literature and books written in the vernacular will be part of the turnaround strategy for the CNA chain of stationery and book stores. The chain was bought this week from the struggling Edcon retail group by a consortium that includes former Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk.

According to Trisk, there will be a focus on books that cater to people in their own African languages, as well as on books about Africa and its people.

He pointed to his previous experience at Exclusive Books, where an African literature section became the fastest-growing genre.

South Africans must receive the books they need

“We already have a huge reading public. But we need to give South Africans what they need. Books about Hansel and Gretel in the Austrian Alps are no good, they don’t work here. We have a dearth of books in the vernacular,” Trisk said in an interview with Business Insider SA.

“I have a very clear vision of what I want CNA to be. “It has to be the first port of call for the mother who is concerned about whether her child is coping with maths. I want it to be a store that has a sensitivity for what a young black child in grade one or two is going through.”

Part of the new strategy will also be to give individual stores the autonomy to differentiate themselves by stocking products appropriate to their local customer base. 

CNA deal was 18 months in the making

Trisk, who is known to have a passion for books, had been working on a deal to buy CNA for around 18 months and becomes its new CEO. 

He and CNA’s new management team will own 40% of the business. The remaining 60% is owned by Astoria Investments, a JSE-listed investment firm controlled by the asset manager RECM and Calibre Limited (RAC). The terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

Trisk did caution that some stores will likely be closed, but details have not been disclosed.

Part of the SA retail landscape since 1896

The 167-store CNA brand has been part of the South African retail landscape since 1896, but has endured difficult times due to factors such as changing customer tastes, a general decline in leisure reading, limited investment, and a diversified and sometimes inappropriate product range.

It became part of the Edcon group in 2002, but more recently has been considered a non-core asset and was for sale for some time. Edcon’s core business is now Edgars, Jet and Thank U, a digital financial services and loyalty business. 

Edcon is deep in debt and was saved in May 2019 by a R2.7 billion refinancing deal. It has already closed its non-performing Boardmans and Red Square retail chains.

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