Clarke’s was founded by Anthony Clarke; we recently did a lot of research into when and we think it was around November 1957. It started off as a second hand bookshop. Anthony was a British man who came out to South Africa after the Second World War; looking into his history, he seems to have been quite a popular person in Cape Town society and knew a lot of important people. He was often seen climbing Lion’s Head with his little dog, which in some stories is a Labrador and in others is a Jack Russell.
After Anthony’s death in 1981, Henrietta Dax took over the shop with Paul Mills; then in 1998 when Paul went in a different direction with antiquarian auctions Henrietta took it over, moving more and more towards new books. In the beginning it started out with a shelf of new books on South Africa or published in South Africa and now that’s the main focus. This shop is a two storey building, downstairs are new books either published in South Africa, written by South Africans or about South Africa and upstairs it’s a second hand mix of general stuff – not just about South Africa. The second hand books move very quickly and we go out buying books the whole time. We have a room of antiquarian books, so that is still a focus for us. It’s an fascinating part of the shop because the interest in antiquarian books changes. There’s always going to be interest in classic travel books like Francois le Vaillant, Campbell and Barrow, but there is more and more demand for books written during apartheid or banned during apartheid. Usually they’re tatty paperbacks that we’ve kept aside because they’re still really sought after.
We’re in the centre of town on Long Street, which is a big tourist destination so we have a lot of interesting tourists coming in – who are not just looking for Shantaram – but are interested in South Africa generally. We feature in quite a lot of guide books so people know we focus on South Africa and come in looking for really good South African fiction to read while they’re on holiday or really good biographies of The Struggle heroes. We’re round the corner from the High Court and a lot of lawyer’s offices, so the lawyers often come in. We are also quite close to parliament so we have a lot of politicians coming in which is really nice. We get all sorts of people really, young people who are interested in reading and looking for classics, customers who have been coming for years and years and people who trek in from the suburbs just to visit us on Saturdays, a huge mix of people. We also get lots of academics. We supply 14 libraries in the US including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian but we also service the local University libraries, The University of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch University and The University of the Western Cape (UWC). We also supply the Western Cape provincial and City libraries. Clarke’s sells books at various different academic conferences around Cape Town, and further afield if we can manage it, which is always a wonderful thing to do as the academics often don’t realise that there is such an array of books on South Africa, about the very specific subjects that they are interested in.
I think what helps is that we’re so specialised, especially with the libraries and we try really hard to get the books out to as many people as possible. I feel like it’s really important that people are reading books about South Africa and by South Africans, especially in South Africa. This year I went with Henrietta to the African Studies Association Conference in Washington and you realise how important the work that librarians are doing is in gathering information about what is going on now and they have specific African Studies departments to do this. Gathering all of this now so that people will have it in the future and keeping a good representation of South African books in libraries is really important.
In terms of challenges, and how hard it is to get all the books, it’s generally quite difficult to get hold of books on South Africa which are published outside of the country, so we do just want to add how helpful it is to be able to work with companies like Combined Academic Publishers so that we can get hold of all of the university publications from one place. Our job is definitely not easy and it’s a lot of work. One challenge is that books are expensive here, which is an issue. They’re expensive as print runs are short because the reading market is quite small and we’re also taxed on books. I think what would be so nice in South Africa would be to have a version of Penguin Classics, where you have important works by South Africans published really cheaply so they’re accessible to everyone. That’s the difficulty – we get lots of interesting people coming in wanting books who can’t always afford them. Dealing with that is hard. Luckily in South Africa online book sales haven’t really taken off yet, getting books from Amazon is difficult here so people still go to bookshops. But so many have closed down. It helps that we are specialised so people know to come to us. It’s also challenging balancing all the different customers, the library supply and walk in customers, and stocking the shop. People always say ‘it must be so nice to work in a bookshop, you get to read all the time’ but it’s impossible because you’re always running around and there’s no moment of rest. People don’t realise that if you’re reading all the time you’re not selling books! We try to keep in stock every book that is published in South Africa and that is still in print. That involves trying to find all the small independent publishers along with the more interesting self-published books. There is a lot of self-publishing in South Africa, especially memoirs. An interesting one we recently discovered in a roundabout way is ‘Exodus Down South‘ by Oswald Kucherera about a Zimbabwean refugee and his travels down to South Africa. There are also a lot of people who write romance novels and self publish, they’re quite interesting because they’re written for South Africans by South Africans. The authors usually have quite a big following on social media but the books are quite hard to get hold of, especially if they’re in Joburg. A lot of our work goes into trying to find interesting books that you won’t find anywhere else.
Something really important that we do is release a catalogue every year that lists every book we got in during the year. Releasing a catalogue of new books that come out every year in South Africa is really important because it serves as a history of publishing in South Africa and we have been doing it since the founding of the shop. It’s a really good archive of the publishing in South Africa but it’s a lot of work and people do ask me why we do it and if it’s worth it, but the amount of information contained in it I feel is incredibly important for keeping track of the book industry in South Africa.
One of the big focuses of our shop is South African and African Art, and it’s good for us to be able to showcase the huge amount of publications which focus on art from our continent. This includes publications on the bigger names like William Kentridge, who seems to have an endless stream of books on his works, to smaller catalogues produced by local galleries. It’s also just really nice to be part of the fairs which are really important for promoting art from the continent. We have a booth at both the FNB Joburg Art Fair, and the Cape Town Art Fair, which each happen once a year.
I’ve been reading a lot of African fiction from outside South Africa, and something I’m warmly recommending now is Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing”, it’s incredible. She’s a Ghanaian author and the book tracks through from the early foundations of slavery from Ghana to America and each chapter is a new generation and it goes all the way to the present day. The Black Lives Matter movement is being brought up here in a way, especially within the current student protests. It made me think about the differences in the struggles of black people in America and those in South Africa; black people were taken to America to be used as property but here the white people invaded South Africa.
One of our bestselling books is Steve Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like’ and we always keep it in stock. It’s a really important collection of his writings from when he was a student and later during the black consciousness movement. Right now in South Africa there are a lot of protests at Universities about bringing the fees down and making education accessible to everyone. One of the promises of the new government was that there would be free education and South Africans aren’t happy as this has not happened and it’s been almost 25 years now. A lot of the rhetoric is from black consciousness ideas and Steve Biko is being quoted a lot. We have a whole shelf of political philosophy with Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe, Franz Fanon and Mahmood Mamdani and we keep the stocks quite high. These are the books we sell the most but also that go missing the most! Another of our bestsellers, mainly because it’s one of my favourite South African books, is ‘Country of My Skull’ by Antjie Krog. It is an incredible book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I recommend it to every tourist who comes in who wants to know about the history of South Africa. It gives such a good overview of how terrible apartheid was and it’s very personal and very emotional. Also being a white Afrikaans woman, she gives a lot of reflection on what it means to be Afrikaans in a country where ‘your’ people were the perpetrators of apartheid. Where do you fit in now and was it you who did this? She is also a poet and the writing is really beautiful.
We spoke to bookseller Andre Sales.
Address: Clarke’s Bookshop, 199 Long Street, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa
Tel: +27(0)21 423 5739