Interview with a Bookstore: Cape Town’s Book Lounge
In Which Bookstore Patrons Apprehend an Escaped Prisoner
Book Lounge has been named the best independent bookstore in South Africa for three years running and has developed a cult following not only in Cape Town, but around South Africa as well. We spoke with Book Lounge’s Mervyn Sloman about the store.
What’s your favorite section of the store?
Generally fiction because that’s what I read most, but on a Saturday morning at 11 am it’s our kids section: we host a story time for littles ones every Saturday and that makes me happy.
What would you say is your bookstore’s specialty?
Good books, good service and good coffee.
What’s your favorite book to handsell?
It varies from week to week. I’m reading Brother by David Chariandy at the moment, partially because he is one of the authors coming out to the Open Book Festival that we run in September each year. It is phenomenal, so will really enjoy putting that in the hands of customers. Feminism Is… is a wonderful South African compilation of reflections on feminism from mostly young writers, which is one of my favorite books of the year thus far, so that is a constant handsell.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Would love to just have more space to accommodate crowds for our bigger launches and events in the shop. Just space. That’s all.
Who’s your favorite regular?
Apart from the ones who rock up at most of our events just to have some free food and a glass of wine or three… someone whose name I won’t mention who is retired and reads about four or five books a week and is constantly asking for recommendations. She’s opinionated and doesn’t hesitate to tell me if she hates something she’s started reading but she’s always so gracious and thankful when I mention something that I’ve read that I think she would like.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
We’ve had quite a few over the years. We’re situated very close to Parliament and so have witnessed hundreds of protest marches at close quarters over the years. About a year ago, there was a large police presence just outside our shop and one of the heavily armed police people (we’re talking shotgun plus pistol) comes into the shop and asks us to keep his iPad safe for him. Talk about levels of irony.
Staying with the policing theme, years ago we launched a memoir by a police reservist and during the event, someone who had escaped from police cells down the road ran past the shop in handcuffs. Three of the author’s colleagues jumped into their police van and chased the guy, caught him and returned him to the police station down the road where the officers on duty didn’t know he’d escaped.
But just about every day brings a new selection of weirdness.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
The unending piles of bloody admin.
Tell us about your most memorable author event.
We’ve been fortunate to have so many wonderful events—in terms of the last year, I think perhaps the launch of Redi Tlhabi’s book Khwezi in November last year was pretty special. A very important book which interrogates power and patriarchy in South Africa. It was one of the very few events in our history where we had to stop people coming in to the store for safety reasons. Needless to say we had some very angry customers, but it was a special evening to mark the launch of a special book.
How do you use the bookstore to build community?
A bookshop is a place that sells books, but it is also a space for discussion, for debate for the exchange of ideas. Our extensive program of events here reflects that understanding. Part of what events do is provide access for readers to writers and vice versa. But what our events also do is provide a space for engagement, a space in which people can come together and talk about what’s going on in our country. As a result of our colonial and apartheid history, we live in a criminally divided city (and country) and providing a space in which a range of voices can be heard is an incredibly important part of what we do.
What’s a children’s book that made you cry, or that you think all adults should read?
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens was fabulous, and it’s great that it’s reaching a wider audience because of the movie.