When you walk up to The Book Lounge at 71 Roeland Street in the Eastern Precinct of Cape Town, you won’t see a flashy sign. You won’t see a welcoming entrance with big glass doors. You probably won’t even see it the first time you try to find it and you’ll likely walk right past it. You might, however, see a man or two who shouldn’t be there loitering outside, perhaps a blanket hoisted over his shoulders if its cold, or maybe a dog he has befriended sitting beside him. On the other hand, you might not.
What you will see, for certain, is a 19th century historic building, three stories tall, salmon-colored, with white awnings and columns, in a precinct of town that is known as both an arts district and a district many people prefer to leave off of their itineraries. That’s the way it is with many art districts, isn’t it? Places equally gritty and tough, uncompromising. The door to the book store is sandwiched into the corner of the building, three grey concrete steps leading up to two imposing, wooden doors. If the bookstore is open when you arrive, the two doors will be swung open to reveal a glowing chandelier hanging from the ceiling inside; but even still, because it’s South Africa, because it’s in an arts district, because there might be that man loitering around outside, the store will still be cut off by a wrought-iron gate, its two sides locked firmly together. The gate’s iron bars are mostly black, but in places where the iron has corroded from wear and weather, they are grey. Sometimes white. Three words in bronze letters–The Book Lounge–are affixed to the top of the wooden doorframe, and you’ll be able to see stacks and stacks of books inside.
You can press the lock on the gate and, if its latched but unlocked, it will pop open.
Once inside, there will be a table full of books in stacks; the table will be so full of them, in fact, that most of the books will be slightly dangling off the edges of the table in jagged rows. Some will be fatter than others; some will be made of those wonderful ragged-edge pages; some will be stacked ten high; some will only have two or three left. These are the books the bookstore wants you to see first, the books that are most highly valued because of their sales, their marketability, their popularity.
The moment I stepped in, these books were the ones I couldn’t wait to see.
Truth be told, I’d been waiting to visit Cape Town’s most popular independent bookstore for the entire time I’d been in South Africa. In passing conversations, I’d heard about bookstores that had closed or that were always closed when we happened to walk by them, national bookstore chains that offer little difference from our own Barnes & Noble back home, bookstores that specialize in African history books, bookstores that feature rare and hard-to-find books, and bookstores that only carry children’s books. These all interested me, of course, but what I really wanted to see was a common, everyday, ordinary independent bookstore–and to see how the story of South Africa–and its complicated history with racial diversity, ethnicity, and languages–might unfold like the pages in one of its thousands of books.
Over the past two weeks, my small group of professors, staff, and administrators at the liberal arts college where I work had been exploring issues of race, diversity, and inclusion in modern South Africa, paying special attention to the areas of education, literacy, sustainability, entrepreneurship, history, theater, and art. As a writer, I couldn’t resist the lure of finding a local book store (after all, it’s something I always do when I travel!) and seeing for myself how the issues of language diversity and inclusion play out, spatially and in terms of consumer interest, in books. When we teach writing, we teach our students to read closely; to study, carefully and thoughtfully, the way a text is put together and the messages it sends (whether these messages are explicit and carefully curated or implicit). Why not do the same thing here?
The table in the front offered a great starting place. Not surprisingly, some of the best-selling popular books in English were there—Paula Hawkins’ pop thriller Into the Water and Colson Whitehead’s dark novel Underground Railroad—as well as some lesser-known American and British writers’ works. What was interesting to note, though, was that I didn’t recognize any of the writers on the entire first row, names like Qarnita Loxton, Ken Barris, Sindwe Magona, Marita van der Vyver. Names I’d never, ever heard of—names that wouldn’t ever be included on the tables of the remaining bookstores back in my home country.
I turned a few over and read the back covers. “What’s good?” I asked the pale-skinned, dark-haired, skinny guy filing some books back on the shelves. “I’m looking for local South African writers.” I told him I’d heard that Nadine Gordimer was pretty famous but I didn’t see her anywhere.
He shrugged. “Well, I guess if you like that kind of old-fashioned stuff,” he said, pointing to a row of books on the bottom row of a shelf against the wall.
“You want something more contemporary, like written recently?”
I shrugged. Did I even know what I wanted?
He handed me one of the books in the first row on the front table. “All of these books are by South Africans,” he said, “but here, try this one.” I read the title, in cursive. Sweet Medicine. A novel by Panashe Chigumadzi.
“I haven’t actually read it yet,” he admitted, shrugging, “but everybody around here says it’s the best. It’s about young women growing up in the townships and there’s a lot of important feminist stuff in it. Ask any of my colleagues–it’s supposed to be an amazing story.”
Townships? Important feminist stuff? Amazing story? Done. To my stack, I added two more books: an anthology of poems about Africa, written by authors as diverse as Nobel prize winners to the homeless, and a children’s book for my best friend’s kids about the many different ways to say hello in South Africa (there are 11 national languages here….and plenty of non-national ones).
I still hadn’t seen anything written in a language other than English, but as I started walking through the rest of the store, I began to see that many of the shelves had interspersed English books with Afrikaans ones. No Xhosa, one of the Bantu languages with click sounds for consonants and the language spoken by approximately 8 million people in South Africa. (That’s nearly 20% of their population, by the way). Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom was prominently displayed on multiple shelves, all 1,000 pages of it. It’s one of the fattest books I’ve ever seen. How did he ever write all of that–two versions, no less–in prison?
I walked downstairs. There, I ordered a cappuccino from the little cafe and looked at the rows of children’s books there. Sindwe Magona, again. Her books in three rows, translated into all eleven national languages, including English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. Other languages, too, that I hadn’t even heard of, stood between these three, all on the same shelves, together. And families and kids were sitting, some even on the floor, and reading together.
I knew, at that moment, that I had a lot more to learn about South Africa.
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. Special thanks to The Book Lounge for letting me hang out all day! Their hours are: M-F: 8:30am-7:30pm; Saturday: 9am-5pm; Sunday: 10am-4pm and they’re located at the corner of 71 Roeland Street in Cape Town.