Bookstore owner Mervyn Sloman is in the midst of organising an exciting new literary festival to be held in Cape Town in September. Picture: STEVE KRETZMANN
Bookstore owner Mervyn Sloman is in the midst of organising an exciting new literary festival to be held in Cape Town in September. Picture: STEVE KRETZMANN

Spanish writer and literary critic Jorge Carrión thinks The Book Lounge is "the best bookshop in Cape Town". He might not be the only foreign writer to think so.

Rock star American writer Jay McInerney spent an evening there in November last year and British arts and literary journalist Boyd Tonkin, who chaired the judging panel of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, spent an evening there in December.

The 2016 Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty will be at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September.

The annual literary festival was started seven years ago by Mervyn Sloman, founder and owner of The Book Lounge.

Sloman began his bookshop career as a student working part-time in bookstores. "It was a good place to be", he says. He eventually realised that the only jobs he had ever enjoyed were those at bookstores. A five-year stint at Exclusive Books enabled him to learn how the book trade worked and to build contacts with publishers.

In 2007, he opened The Book Lounge in the east of the CBD.

"We’re a retail space and we sell books, but it’s also a lot more than that," Sloman says.

"The action of reading and writing is solitary, but there’s something special and important about messing around with that solitariness and creating that space for interactions — providing access for readers to writers and vice versa."

Ken Barris acknowledged this connection at the June launch of his short-story collection. "Thanks to The Book Lounge for keeping Cape Town writing so alive," he said.

McInerney was in town to discuss Bright, Precious Days – the third book in his Bright trilogy. In an e-mail from New York City, he wrote: "I was happily surprised by my experience at The Book Lounge. Not knowing what to expect, I was delighted to see that the place was packed. While I would like to take this entirely as a tribute to my work, I know from talking to locals that the store has an extensive programme of readings and talks, which has a great following. The audience was attentive and the questions were serious. I hope to return soon."

Carrión is not sure how he found out about The Book Lounge — probably on the internet, he says. "I spent four days in Cape Town and I tried to visit the most historical and beautiful and dynamic bookstores. Anyway, it was the best bookshop I visited there, probably because of the familiarity with other international bookstores, with the same good taste for decoration and the same kind of wood: La Central (Barcelona), City Lights (San Francisco), Robinson Crusoe (Istanbul) and Eterna Cadencia (Buenos Aires).

"I’ve been travelling for 20 years, but I’ve never counted the cities.… I have visited hundreds of bookshops, but my book [Bookshops] is not a guide, but a literary work, it means that I had to choose very well why a bookshop or a city was included or not in a chapter.

It was the best bookshop I visited there, probably because of the familiarity with other international bookstores

"Every chapter is like a short story; the book is like a novel. You have to choose very well the spaces and the characters in a fictional work, it happens the same in a nonfiction book."

Judging from the weekly Book Lounge newsletters that list what Sloman and his long-serving staff are reading, it’s clear they are people who read a lot and widely.

Sloman reads mostly South African nonfiction and has "straight, slightly boring tastes" in fiction. That he might write a book is unlikely, as he doesn’t think he can write something good enough to impress himself. "What I do here, frustrating as it is and as much as I love it, it takes up that space. It’s family and it’s this. A good book is a reflection of the human being who wrote it and there’s nothing out there that could have been written by me."

Book Lounge customers are mostly looking for "good books". It’s the kind of clientele small bookshops attract where straight commercial stuff such as James Patterson and Danielle Steel can’t be given away. Whatever the genre, though, cost remains the primary obstacle to bookselling in SA.

"I get quite irritable with the generalisations that get trotted out about our reading culture," Sloman says. He acknowledges, though, that there are challenges with literacy and education, and access and the availability of books. Many people do not distinguish when talking about a reading culture between book buying and book reading. "Those are two different things," he says. "Books are horribly expensive and that narrows the net for people who can afford books."

I don’t think black people need to read more books by whites. White people need to read more books by blacks

He relays a story told to him by author Niq Mhlongo, who said that one copy of his short-story collection Affluenza had been read by 37 people.

Sloman also becomes quite irritated with the notion some people hold that poor people don’t care about reading. He advises such people to go to a library in a township and see what’s going on. A problem is the types of books published: the same sort of books for the same sort of people will not yield new buyers. "There are very few young black publishers. That has to change," Sloman says. "A lot of young black people are only interested in, or far more interested in, reading books by young black people. A lot of white people are only interested in reading books by white people. Some of them may not even be conscious of it."

He adds that many young black readers aren’t interested in what people older than 35 have to say — black or white — which he attributes to a general hardening of generational lines and less engagement, expressed in the student protests of 2016.

"I don’t think black people need to read more books by whites. White people need to read more books by blacks," Sloman says.

"This is a gross generalisation, but there are a lot of white people who need to do a lot more showing up and listening. One form of showing up and listening is reading."

The Open Book Festival in Cape Town runs from September 6-10.

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