The little town of Richmond lies in the middle of the Karoo of the Northern Cape, roughly four hours away from Bloemfontein, its slightly shaggy main street lined with period 19th century architecture, much of it restored, the upper reaches of which form a tunnel of book stores.
Richmond is a book town. The only one on the African continent. And a book town of note. If you are an avid book fan, my advice to you is that you set aside at least two days for a visit. And if you really want to indulge, time your visit with one of the annual book festivals.
From the N1 there seems nothing to the town. It appears to be little more than a rather small Caltex station that you use if you’re desperate for a full tank, are happy to eat the fare at Karma, or wish to stop at Meriman Meats, the butchery that lures the odd visitor for its biltong.
But, on turning the corner into town – for it manages to remain obscured from the national road by a bend in the road – my breath catches in my throat. Richmond is beautiful. Not Franschhoek beautiful, where tourism dominates to such an extent that the original character of the town is lost in the art of catering to the visitor, or Graaff-Reinet beautiful, or even Hanover beautiful.
But the type of small town beautiful that has become elusive, now that towns are being bought up and carved up. Richmond is little – if there are 200 residents in the main part of town, it’s a lot. An imposing church lies about halfway down the main drag in amongst a series of trees, said to have the highest pulpit in the country. Whilst the main road , Loop Street, is no longer sand, it may as well be. It’s slow in town, and donkey carts are commonplace.
Whilst I’m strolling down the already hot Loop street to get a feel for the place, a local rides past on his bicycle, a makeshift trailer attached to the back. He’s the local garden service and he nods in passing. The three or so restaurants vie for the attention of the few visitors in town at this time of year. And there is but one supermarket, it’s prices reflect the derth of competition.
Down the hill and over the strange wrought iron bridge is the other part of town so commonplace in South Africa. The locals obviously still refer to it as ‘the location’, as on strolling back, I hook up with a rather refinely dressed black woman, her hair in braids, her heels obviously impinging on her passage, who asks me where the Chinese supermarket is.
Whilst I’ve barely driven around town once, I do remember the shop she’s after, a block away and tell her, whilst she murmurs back that the bridge to ‘the location’ leads from there. I nod, with metaphorically raised eyebrows at the use of the apartheid entrenched term and we part after discussing why each of us is in town, or at least why I’m strolling through with a camera around my neck.
The book shops, it soon becomes apparent, are all interleading. The main entrance is across the road from the town’s museum, dedicated to the horse, on the corner just as you come into town. There are numerous cacti in pots on the pavement. Even they look parched.
Dalene greets us at the door. She’s the thoroughly laidback hippy type of country person one expects to meet in a place like this. Even if she is originally from Cape Town. Before we’ve reached the room of books in which I’m interested, she’s promised to write out a recipe for the polish she uses for her wooden floors, and she does. It’s now on my fridge door for the day I manage to mix it.
It’s fortuitous that the books that interest me lie right next to the children’s section. My six-year old is soon lost in the wooden shelves of mostly old children’s books and remains so for the better part of an hour, whilst I get to do similar. Every now and again he comes to express his dilemma at having to choose between a book on dragons and knights.
The books are incredibly reasonably priced. The smell in the tightly shut rooms (there isn’t a window open, is of slightly musty old books, but I find I like it. Whether the lack of a breeze is to protect the books or maintain the inner coolness, I’m not sure.
Our parched throats lead us down to the Supper Club where Johan and Michael are couple of consultants busy revamping the restaurant. The building is owned by Peter Baker, one of the original investors in property in Richmond, other than John Donaldson for whom we are grateful for the long line of houses (at least five of them) that are now the major book shops in town, and the website he keeps up to date all about Richmond.
Peter owns the building of the book shop next door to the Supper Club. Together with Darryl David (it gets confusing, there are no fewer than three main protagonists in the ‘book town’ story), Peter came up with the original idea of Richmond as a book town, based on a model of American towns doing similar. A fair amount of research later the duo launched the idea and began with the Boekbedonnerd Boeke Fees, now into it sixth year.
It’s obviously worked for Richmond, which has simply continued producing festival after festival. The success of the original book festival was followed close on the heels by the JM Coetzee Literary Festival, a more academic, but no less well received, annual book festival, that is now enjoying its fourth year. It’s a little more heavy going than the more widely attended Boekbedonnerd festival, and doesn’t necessarily appeal to as wide a public.
Which is why yet another festival emerged. There was a feeling in town, particularly among the artists, that things other than books deserved a platform. Known as the Groot Karoo Kunstefees, this festival is a mix of crafts and a selection of art that includes Gospel music, fine art, photography, talks, related films, stalls, music and song, including alternative Afrikaans music and a choir Festival. And more books.
We spend the afternoon exploring the old stable buildings behind the museum. These also belong to John Donaldson’s series of bookshops – the vinyl room and the children’s books room alone are worth half a day each. I bagged The Little Prince double record with Peter Ustinov narrating for R20.
Knowing we could have done with another couple of days before doing the books justice, and with plans to return come the festival – ah, but which one? – we left the following morning.
But you’ll be happy to know that you need little excuse to give Richmond the once over.
To see and do when you Visit Richmond:
- Visit the book shops
- Eat at one of four restaurants – Supper Club, Blue Lantern, Vetmuis Plaas (all on Loop Street), and the Kama, up at the Caltex garage just off the N1
- Visit the NG church on Loop Street to see the highest pulpit in the country
- Visit the museum that has a rare collection of equine artifacts
- Stroll down Loop Street and chat to the locals
- Visit MAP – a beautifully restored Edwardian homestead that is now the Modern Art Projects that includes exhibition space that usually hosts a number of painters, sculptors and designers (worth a visit)
- Climb Vegkop on the summit of which is an Anglo-Boer War fort
- Visit the Nama Karoo Foundation nursery on a farm outside of Richmond – the Karoo‘s first indigenous tree nursery
- Do the Richmond Ramble – pamphlet at Richmond’s info on 32 Loop Street, chat to either Louisa or Marthie, or phone them on +27 (0)53 693-0197