To be wholly transported into a silent sanctuary, where the whisper of turning pages signifies entire worlds at your fingertips, nothing beats a second-hand book shop.
With its origin in a 1970s-style comic and book exchange, The Bookworm in Fish Hoek is an example of olde world charm and modern convenience.
The 48-year-old corner shop, the second oldest book store in the city, after Clarke’s in Cape Town, is owned by collector of antiques, Schalk Vorster, whose childhood was absorbed in the sheer wonder of reading.
“I grew up reading Afrikaans books and then The Hardy Boys and by the time I was 13, I was delving into my mother’s collection of books, including all the classics,” says Schalk, who describes himself as a custodian of books.
“I don’t believe in censorship: I don’t believe in deciding what people have access to or not. So, I have books that I may not necessarily agree with – but it is not for me to decide what people want to read. So I stock them,” he says.
He points out books on ancient rites; some espousing our origin from distant planets; some shelves are dedicated to spirituality, others to religion.
“The Bibles I keep in the front because people just steal them,” he said.
The shop is a reader’s dream. Floor to ceiling, there are previously loved books numbering thousands.
Local, international, popular fiction by the hundreds – cooking and art and collections that are truly unique.
He shows off a shelf of books detailing 18th and 19th Century British ceramics.
In a storeroom, Schalk reveals boxes of books as yet unpacked. “You wouldn’t believe what’s in there. In this box alone is about 120 books on gay and lesbian romance,” he said. He is making space to put them out.
Schalk admits it is difficult for him to turn down books in good condition.
“If I have three or four copies of that book already, I will have to. but I am always looking for gems that no-one else has. I want to offer the best variety – and therefore value – possible,” he says.
His answer to why is simple. To make the joy – and mind enhancing benefits – of reading available to everyone. “We are surrounded by schools and colleges. Nothing makes me happier than to see local and international youth browsing the classics, taking books from the philosophy section. I love knowing that they have the opportunity to read books that the price (if bought new) may have prohibited them from. We get new books in with the price tag still on them, barely a month old, and instead of R270 our customers are at most paying R120 for top authors’ brand new books. I know the authors no longer get royalties: but we are introducing swathes of new readers to these authors. That is important,” Schalk said.
“Most of our books are are accessible to everyone. There are also a lot of retirement homes whose residents visit us often,” he said.
Schalk has a penchant for high end art, military information and memorabilia. He buys war medals, then researches the soldier’s names, and over time, he puts together biographies of these men’s lives and service. “I often get the grandchildren or great grandchildren writing to thank me for the information I find. These are the life-stories of these men, and their families have often never heard them before. That gives me great satisfaction,” he said.
Schalk is proud to stock the books of St James author Michael Walker who pens the history of the immediate surrounds. He believes that Fish Hoek should host a tourism information centre – to draw in at least some of the visitors that thunder past in buses headed to Cape Point or Boulders Beach. “Do you know 800 000 people visited just Boulder’s Beach last year?” he said.
“We have so much to offer local and international visitors: we just need to find a way to encourage them to stop here,” he said.
The children’s section of The Bookworm is a particular joy to Schalk who has – since he took over the shop in 2016 – replaced all the frayed and broken-spine books and replenished the section with carefully considered choices.
It now reflects the delight in books that Schalk has nurtured since his own young days. He knows this is where the love of reading takes hold.
As a child, I was once so lost in a book that I was actually locked into a bookstore at the close of the day. I would probably have been left there overnight if I hadn’t coughed just as the cashiers were on their way out to lock up. As an adult, I would willingly overnight in The Bookworm, sunk into one of the armchairs in utter, invisible bliss. Here, stately pieces of furniture stand their ground, refined art adorns the walls. Adding to the texture, a stained glass lamp, a sumptuous Moroccan-style throw – complete with muffled footfalls in adjacent rooms – and books to last a lifetime. Today, I would be sure not to cough as Schalk locks up for the night.