Any dedicated bibliophile can attest to the fact that there is something precious about finding a bookstore that makes your heart sing. Johannesburg is richly endowed with independent bookstores – for both new and second hand books – that will renew your faith in the beauty and longevity of ink-and-paper – it’s simply a question of deciding which of these literary oases you’ll love the most.
1. COLLECTOR’S TREASURY
Although it’s my personal favourite, Collector’s Treasury is not for the faint of heart. It’s a self-contained, multi-storeyed labyrinth of chaos, wherein second-hand books are literally piled waist-high on the floor, with no discernible system of logic whatsoever. The books themselves, though, are typically in great condition, and you are more likely to find a rare title in amidst the chaos here than you are anywhere else in Johannesburg. Perversely, the blatant disarray contributes to a truly immersive browsing experience, because, in attempting to navigate it, it becomes essential to sideline other thoughts and focus wholeheartedly on extracting gems from the staggering towers of tomes.
2. L’ELEPHANT TERRIBLE
The unassuming façade of 44 Stanley Avenue’s resident bookstore conceals an attractively archaic, well-organised little alcove, replete with that almost resinous smell that emanates so deliciously from aged books. L’Elephant’s configuration, as well as its diminutive dimensions (ironic, given its namesake), engender an unusually relaxed browsing experience. Whereas I typically find myself dashing about, fatalistically hoping that something will eventually catch my eye, at L’Elephant I always take my time, succumbing to the subduing influence of the classical music that always plays in the background. The best thing about this bookstore, as far as I am concerned, is that it is reliably stocked with wonderful classics, as well as some excellent contemporary titles, and it never takes me long to find something exciting to read. They also stock Africana, nonfiction, and two generously endowed shelves of records. There is almost nothing nicer than bumbling around here lethargically with a full stomach after lunch.
3. BOOKDEALERS OF MELVILLE
There are several “Bookdealers” stores scattered around suburban Johannesburg, but by all accounts, the Melville branch takes the proverbial cake. There’s a great deal to recommend this bookstore. They have a truly comprehensive fiction selection, as well as sections dedicated to poetry, classic literature (for your Homer enthusiast) and Shakespeare. Not only is there a well-stocked crime section, there are even two or three shelves dedicated exclusively to ‘true crime’, which bespeaks this bookshop’s meticulous attention to detail. It’s also worth mentioning that, compared to the other second-hand bookstores I’ve mentioned, the prices here are astonishingly reasonable; and the store’s situation on Melville’s bustling 7th avenue means that you can take your new acquisitions to one of the many cafés along the sidewalk and settle in to read for a few, blissful hours.
4. LOVE BOOKS
Love Books has been around since I was a teenager, and has garnered a dedicated following over the past almost-decade. Unlike the other bookstores I’ve featured on this list, Love Books doesn’t traffic in second-hand books; but its lovingly curated wares impart the same sense of intimacy that second-hand bookstores always manage to exude: as though you were perusing the personal library of somebody’s grandparent. There are only ever a few copies of each title available, which facilitates a liberatingly methodical browsing experience; and I always leave desperately coveting one of the beautifully illustrated books from their children’s section.