By Sarah Beningfield
Grahamstown boasts a surprising array of bookstores for a town that could adequately be described as tiny. These stores each have a unique aspect that allows them to stay open despite the somewhat limited number of customers. The owners of each store are incredibly different from each other, yet they all share a passion for books.
Red Café, located at 127a High Street, is technically not a bookstore. It is, as the name suggests, a café. However, the café is alluring and well-known for its adventurous and delicious milkshakes as well as its incredible carrot cake. It is an atmospheric room, with a jumble of wooden tables and deep red walls; sunlight streams through the windows in the afternoon and leaves the room with a mildly sleepy ambiance. There is a looming bookshelf against one of the walls that is filled with an array of books, and holds signs proclaiming cheap prices. The books in the café are constantly changing and anyone looking for something different to read will not be disappointed after a browse through the Red Café bookshelves. Heavily-accented waiter Julian Arenzon chirpily spoke about his favourite book, which is The English Assassin by Daniel Silva. “I like intrigue and mystery. I enjoy the type of story that involves solving murders,” he explained. He flicked through the book, seemingly lost in thought as he spoke about the murder mystery genre.
Fables Bookshop can be found tucked neatly into High Street, just a few doors down from Red Café. However, it is not quite as orderly inside as it is from the street. An electric security gate bars the door and it is necessary to sufficiently pass the scrutiny of Azola Noqayi, the book stocker who sits behind the desk, as she decides who is worthy of entering the shop. Inside, bookshelves line the walls and create narrow passageways through the tiny store. Books of all shapes and sizes occupy the shelves and there is not a single open space to allow for any new arrivals. The owner of the store is Ian Balchin, an elderly man who, when asked if he would be open to having his photo taken, said that it was no problem but politely stated that he would first have to run to his flat behind the shop to put in his teeth. Once he returned, he posed in front of his favourite shelf of books. He explained that he had a love for books about the Africa of his youth. He passionately spoke about Percy FitzPatrick’s Jock of the Bushveld. “I love it. It’s Africa as I thought it would be. I grew up on books about Africa, about the Boer War and hunting lions,” Balchin explained. His love for Africa shone clearly through his words, and so did his love for books. Fables has been open for nearly 25 years, quietly going about its business as the bustling High Street transformed around it. Fables is the perfect bookshop for students who are looking to buy set work books at lowered prices, but they also stock a variety of other books, which are almost entirely second hand.
Bargain Books in Pepper Grove Mall is technically a more commercial store, stocking all of the books that a chain store may be expected to contain. However, there was a clear love for books in the attitude of Bargain Books employee Sharon Grant. She spoke for minutes on end about her favourite book, Sky Burial by Xinran. She described every occurrence in the book, with clear amazement at the fact that it is a true story. She said, “It is one of my favourites; I believe other people would be interested in it. It was fascinating to find out how the people live in the mountains in this cold, vast, dry and extremely rural area”. She had a clear passion for books and knew the exact location of every book that came to her mind. The store itself is very clinical, with fluorescent lights and massive white shelves, all the books neatly stocked in even rows. Grant was not affected by the cool atmosphere of the rooms and was clearly in her element; completely at home in the store that she loves.
The Sunflower Hospice Shop is located at 67 Bathurst Street and is also not technically a bookstore. However, the shop stocks a number of books that are donations from the community. The narrow door leads to a wide, friendly room with bookshelves along three of the four the walls. The shelves are sparsely stocked with sad-looking books that appear to be falling apart at the seams. These books are sold at ridiculously low prices, depending on the age and quality, and all of the proceeds go towards the patients within the actual Hospice. There was a bulging shelf that contained books going for R5 each and a large bin on the floor that had books priced at 10 books for R10. The shelves that are not holding books are stocked with everyday items, such as lamps or baby car seats, amongst other items of furniture. The floor space in the middle of the room is filled with racks of clothes, also all donated to the shop. Jennifer Linklater is in charge of anything book-related within the shop. When asked what her favourite book was, Linklater did not pause to consider the question, she immediately replied with, “What is your favourite book? Mine is the Bible!” Shop manager Carl-Heinz Queisser was in agreement and he immediately headed to the back room in search of his personal, well-worn Bible. It was clear that Linklater and Queisser are strongly influenced by their religion and are truly big-hearted people who simply wish to help the community.