THE WIND KEEPS THE CITY in motion. The pine trees grow sideways away from the peaks, bowed seaward by the southeasterly. It snaps you to attention, pushes you onward, opens your mind. If it’s not the wind, it’s the brandy or good Shiraz. Perched on barstools, the people seem to vibrate. The clouds pour over the mountains thick as cream and then shyly roll into themselves, the city a stovetop too hot to touch. The whole place has a sense of sway.
On pleasant afternoons, the twentysomethings run trails; in the evening they drink sundowners on Clifton Beach or in Church Street’s art galleries; by midnight they flock to Long Street bars and smoke in alleyways with dilated pupils. The port is restless, too, boats ushered in and departing like visiting bees. It’s not uncommon to have three friends emigrate in a month, and three others return. The European swallows and vaalie tourists from Johannesburg gather in summer, gone again before the end of lychee season. Protest, queer, and coffee cultures keep the city buzzed, change its aesthetics overnight.
The literary world is solid ground, a way to orient oneself in the din. After less than eighteen months, I know most publishers, writers, and critics by name and count many of them as friends. I can tell you how they prefer their tea, the marathons they’ve run, the names of their ex-husbands and children. They greet me barefoot at the door. Many of us mourned Elsa Joubert and Achmat Dangor as fans, yes, but as family, too. Clarke’s Bookshop is a testament to that intimacy, an indie that exclusively sells local authors—and yet, somehow, thrives.
NOD A TEMPORARY ADIEU to Table Mountain in the distance as you pass beneath the shop’s wooden portico. Wait for the buzz of the gate, the mourn of its hinges as you step inside, the quiet click behind you. “Hello” to Mervyn arranging shelves and Carmen at the till. Walk along the long window, a brief pause at the fiction table when you see that book your mother mentioned. Pick it up, carry it with you down the worn wooden stairs. Order a rooibos tea, settle into your favorite green chair, slide your hand across the book’s cover—breathe, begin. You’re in the Lounge.
For thirteen years, The Book Lounge has offered refuge amidst the bedlam of kombis, car horns, and crime of Cape Town’s downtown streets. The city’s beloved indie opened its doors in December 2007, renovated from an old gallery space and a basement that was nothing more than a “hole in the ground,” as Mervyn Sloman, the store’s owner, likes to say. The Book Lounge hosts more events in a week than most stores host in a month, from book launches to socials and Saturday Storytime for young readers. It is a store that fulfills its charge to provide readers and writers access to one another tenfold, a rendezvous point not just for Capetonians but for travelers, extraterrestrials, and the like.
A good bookstore is a space for the sharing and investigation of truths. As a curator of that space, a bookstore owner has both the privilege and responsibility of shaping its soul, a pairing that Mervyn assumes with great solemnity. In a dozen years and counting, the Book Lounge, whether wittingly or not, has become a hub for Cape Town’s young activist culture, a mengelmoes of black, white, LGBTQ+, and everyone else; a microcosm of a city and country in the midst of great change.
“By the smallest of one’s actions, one can restore some sense of order to the world.”—Amor Towles
Under lockdown with her four roommates in Cape Town, South Africa, SarahBelle Selig recalls all that a beloved novel taught her about living in isolation.
What do I read? How do I keep sane and prevent my life from becoming The Shining? And please, someone tell me--Do I pair the bottle of Rioja or the Mukuzani with my Latvian stew? If you’re like me, you’ve got a lot of questions about how to entertain yourself during the Covid-19 shutdown. But before you double down on another series and that second bowl of pasta, let me tell you a few things I learned from my pal Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the master of how not to feel isolated when you’re isolated.
Amor Towles’s 2016 novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, follows Count Rostov, an aristocrat under the Tsarist regime who in 1922 (in lieu of being shot—a cause for celebration, no doubt) is sentenced by his new Bolshevik comrades to spend the rest of his life under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. In the years that follow, Count Rostov learns a lot about living a big life in a small space, aided by a bizarre crew of maître d’s, chefs, tailors, and a clever nine-year-old hotel guest, Nina Kulikova, who is hell-bent on learning the secrets of the Metropol.