The magic bookshop

Well, it has been granted a stay of execution for now, but the block has been sold and soon it will be torn down so that someone can rebuild it for rich people, and then the magic bookshop will be no more.

The magic bookshop is the heart of my neighbourhood. I walk twenty minutes each day from my house to stand on the sidewalk where the fat guy used to sell cigarettes and chips, and where the skinny guy from East Africa now sells sunglasses and leatherish handbags, and I peer through the window-front to see what’s new since yesterday and to see what signs and serendipities the universe is sending me now.

The magic bookshop is my tealeaves and my crystal ball. I’m not superstitious in any other way but the magic bookstore is my means of divination. It has a knack. The magic bookshop loves you and wants you to be happy. If you have questions, it wants to answer them.

I have made life decisions and career decisions and love decisions based on what I’ve seen in the window.When I was trying to decide where to go on honeymoon I deliberately walked to the bookshop and the first book I saw was called “Paris, Obviously”.

It’s a charity bookshop so the people who work there are volunteers. There was an old man in a shabby houndstooth sports coat with an occasional carnation in its lapel who would guide me to books that he thought I might like. One was the first in the series of spy novels by Alan Furst, without which I now cannot imagine how I would ever travel. Another was an ancient compendium of handy household hints, really a book of arcane Victorian advice, first compiled in the 1850s and updated all the way through to the 1970s, covering such valuable topics as how to play croquet, the symptoms of various poisonings, how to variously set the table for intimates, casual acquaintances or people with whom you’re doing business, how to take stains out of anything or dance the slow fox-trot, what your legal options are if you rent out a property to someone who runs it as a brothel. It is called “Enquire Within Upon Everything”, and has there ever been a more splendid invitation, a prouder boast, a more magical philosophy of life?

The old gentleman once told me a story about the time his father was an ocean liner with the famous murderer Doctor Crippen, and another story about the time his sister sneezed on a Matisse. He told me about the sea-facing flat in the apartment block behind the store where the travel writer Lawrence Greene once lived, and once while on an ill-fated date I went there late at night to try to find it. One day I noticed the old gentleman wasn’t there any more. I’d never learnt his name.

There is a traffic policeman who looks like a 60-year-old Paul Newman who is often in the bookshop, deep in conversation about matters literary with the woman who works there who looks like a 40-year-old Shaleen Surtie-Richards. He only seems to find his deep bibliophilia on days when she’s working there, but I see no reason no question his passion.

I have seen two schoolkids sitting cross-legged on the floor at the Classics shelf, day after day, reading Lord of the Flies over each other’s shoulders, even though the book only cost R7. Once when they were leaving one of them said, “You’re Piggy”, and the other one replied, “No, you’re Piggy”, and they went down the sidewalk punching each other and calling each other Piggy, which I thought was very funny.

I once made friends again with an old girlfriend because I bumped into her there, where she was looking for crime novels in the wall of paperbacks at the back. We hadn’t spoken for several months. She looked up and saw me and said, “Damn it.”

“If you don’t want to see me,” I said, “you should hang out at gym.”

I’m not one of those who believe that all of life is in a book, but I’m pretty close to believing that the best of life is in that bookshop: a world of generosity and discovery, of serendipity and chance connections, of love and stories. Soon it will be gone, there will be an apartment block or a shopping centre or a swanky hotel on which the shingle shall be hung: “Enquire Within Upon Nothing”.

The Times – 30 November 2017