Sunday, 11 March 2007

Books Worth Every Penny

Bookshops in and around Cape Town are very social places. On week-ends it seems that the book store in the mall is the place to go with the family: mum and dad with the kids, grandparents and grandchildren, couples - they're all there.

One reason for their popularity may be that the shops are very user friendly places: no hushed tones, books piled high on tables, several places to sit, no raised eyebrows when a customer seems to be reading cover to cover. In the larger stores there's even a café to round off the experience.

But it's the second hand bookshops that I'm addicted to. Every village sports one and towns often have several: books in South Africa are very expensive and so there's a healthy respect for second hand books. Used paperback fiction is cheap but anything collectable – military history, the beloved classics of childhood or that denoted 'Africana' - can fetch a good price.

Whenever I'm in Cape Town I make straight for Long Street to see what's new in the quality bookshops before I allow myself to become immersed in all the second hand book stores. It's from shops such as these that I've found much of my most useful research material.

Internet research is all very well but it's only the book shop or library that comes up with the very thing that you didn't know you wanted. Odd books about plants, landscape or language, for instance, or novels of the period that I'm researching, their covers faded with age, that might help me generate the correct sense of time or place.

Another favourite haunt is Kalk Bay, just south of CT: it's an arty place in a time warp (think Southwold in Suffolk, Haight Ashbury in San Francisco or St Kilda in Melbourne) full of antique and junk shops, second hand bookshops, dark cafes and retro stores. And there's a super book shop there now, catering for the cognoscenti.

An antiquarian bookshop (it has a new sister shop in Stellenbosch) is a must because hidden in the musty interior may well be that elusive tome that will fill in the blanks. And the emporium – with its parrot and its old polished counter – never fails to turn up some small piece of memorabilia for me to get excited about.

But, this visit, it was a second hand bookshop in Somerset West that amused me the most: from the outside it looks ordinary enough but step over the portal and it's an Aladdin's cave. I have never seen so many used books in one shop: one room leads onto another and just when you think it must be the end another room leads off that.

Books cover every surface: remaindered books are piled up on the floor; books are sorted under headings on tables; alphabetically on shelves in narrow passageways. More valuable books are displayed in glass cases, children's books have a room to themselves, as do comics, and educational books reach to the ceiling: books, books, books and more books.

Think of any category and there's a place for it there. Even the path to the loo is paved with piles of books. Eventually you sight the exit – you're through to the shop next door – stagger to the counter and pay: an experience worth every penny.

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