What starts off in fairly regular interview mode – me seated in a comfortable armchair facing Richard Welch, my notebook at the ready, soon shifts shape. It’s as if the four walls beneath the double-volume ceiling of Kalahari Books contain within them some mysterious force that makes a joke of time and exerts competing gravitational pull. Surrounded by thousands (around 70 000 in all, Welch estimates) of books spanning more than a century we flit from shelf to shelf like magpies. We move from titles by JG Ballard to George Bernard Shaw picking the books out, then discarding them for the next attraction. There is poetry and playwriting, Greek epics and tomes on trains, collectables and curiosities and fiction, heaps and heaps of fiction.
“I am interested in popular fiction of the past,” says Welch, making me feel at home. I am a fan of fiction. While my reading tastes run to literary non-fiction and biography I believe fiction is the highest form of writing art, and great fiction makes meaning of everything. C.S.Lewis wrote “We read to know that we are not alone”. Through fiction we are allowed to inhabit the lives of others and to learn empathy, without which we would be trapped by our own reflection, and some have even suggested our own psychopathy. But it’s also how we learn to be alone. Jonathan Franzen remarked on the “solitary attentiveness” that a novel requires.
Back at Kalahari Books I am between shelves when I tell Welch I have lost my cup of coffee, having rested it somewhere between the distractions that are Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, an Edwidge Danticat and a first edition of Graham Greene’s 1958 novel Our Man in Havana. The shop’s staff are marshalled into locating the cup. I am told it happens often, and it does, twice more. “Lucky it wasn’t your car keys,” says Welch.
Welch owns Kalahari Books specialising in used, hard-to-find and out-of-print editions. Ask, and he shall find. Before the local internet mega-book brand Kalahari.com there was Kalahari Books, a name he says came to him in a dream. When Kalahari set up their internet shop he says he informed them that he owned the name. The letter was ignored and years later he received one in return from their lawyers. As the original owner of the name Welch was unphased.
The business is now 27 years old, having moved two years ago from premises in Houghton – a double garage – to the second floor of a block in Orange Grove. “We are getting better at finding things”, he says. All that’s visible from the street is a hand-painted sign saying Kalahari Books with a large black painted arrow indicating a path up a concrete ramp. I had seen the sign a few weeks earlier from across the street, while eating a late lunch [of delicious peri-peri chicken and very salty but good beef espetada] at the neighbourhood bar, Tonino’s.
The “shop” is part of what was a series of storage rooms on top of a car mechanic’s workshop. The conversation is punctuated by these sounds, over that of what sounds like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet sounds. Distracted by the books, I forget to ask. Winter sunlight streams into the small windows along the length of one wall. On every other wall there are books, shelves running up to the ceiling with narrow wooden platforms. A fixed ladder on one side gives you access to the topmost parts. Once you are up there it’s like walking the ramparts of a book castle.
Welch appears to blend in among the coloured spines, with his striped shirt and flamboyantly patchworked waistcoat. He says: “When I first went into the book business everyone said you’ve got to have a focus. Our focus is that we don’t really have a focus.” He laughs… “I am interested in building up collections,” he says, pulling out a selection of books on the Wild West.
He had offered me coffee the first time I visited the store, and was just browsing the shelves. It’s how he treats his customers who mostly arrive with a specific title in mind and leave with a large pile of books. Unlike the chain bookstores Welch likes to collect an author’s oeuvre so you won’t get disappointed after, say, discovering Kurt Vonnegut and wanting to read all he has written. We talk about ebooks and the move to digital books and he says: “While they must have a profound impact… when instant coffee was discovered it didn’t mean the end of the coffee shop. Like coffee books have a strong social element.”
It’s the social element that seems most attractive to him. He mentions on Saturdays people come around to chat. Two armchairs and many places to lean make for a cosy space in what should be a cavernous room. But as he points out: “Books do furnish a room, they warm it up.” For 20 years he kept a stall at Rosebank’s rooftop Sunday Market – now closed as The Rosebank Mall undergoes renovation. He says it was always hard work to set up and take down each week but “it was like having a dinner party every week.”
We talk about the provenance of used books. “I don’t know what will happen to the new book trade but second-hand and old books have an ethos that no one wants to give up,” he says. I ask him about a series of black and white photographs of a suave-looking man posing with his 1950s-style car that are tacked up along a bookshelf near his desk. He says the photos were recovered from a lot that he bought. He is touched by the photos. “When you buy books you are buying the shadow of a person and that brings very powerful emotions. It takes time to work through something like that. When people die their books get dispersed. I hate that, so even if it’s just a core of books kept to reflect their personality … I still think I have to go light a candle for him. It’s creating respect for somebody’s life collection of books.”
We discuss the price of the Graham Greene first edition (it’s R250) and he says: “I always ask what would someone be willing to pay. None of my prices go over the top. I am more keen to get as many different people into my shop. The book business is not much fun if it’s about a spider in the web waiting for someone to get closer…” Over the years he has sold some high-value collectibles but he says “Generally if I get them in I sell them quickly.” The highest price he received was for a science fiction book valued by CS Lewis and others of his circle – R30 000, sold through Swann, a family-owned New York Auction House. He seems most proud that he received a letter from Swann, saying “Thank you very much for livening up our auction.”
While we chat a customer arrives looking for works by Homer. I had spotted The Odyssey and The Illiad earlier and point it out while Welch disappears and reappears with some curiously named academic essay titles on classical civilization – among them “Goddeses, whores, wives and slaves”, a feminist treatment of women in the ancient world. The man takes all of them and Welch tells him he doesn’t want cash. He says he will SMS his banking details instead. It’s a business based on trust and Welch says it has always worked well for him.
It’s such a different world from the shopping centre bookstore with its clinical transactions, staff who barely know the shelves and loyalty bought with a plastic card. I think Borges who “imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” would be happy here. And that makes me happy too.
* Kalahari Books is at 2 Dunottar Street, Orange Grove and open Tuesdays to Saturdays. kalaharibooks.co.za