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Cape Town CBD's best bookish haunts

by Simangele Mzizi 31 Jul 2023
FAIR Library

There’s a lot on offer for bookish types and avid readers in the Cape Town CBD, from iconic, destination book shops to novel venues promoting literacy and a love of the written word. Here we give you our pick of the crop.


Love to read but can’t afford to buy a brand-new book? Welcome to FAIR, a new pop-up lending library-with-a-difference that’s found a home in trendy Bree Street at the Neighbourgood Bree Street Workspace.

The brainchild of Cayleigh Bright – a freelance copywriter, editor, and novelist – and Katie Barry – an investor and entrepreneur – the venue opened its doors at the end of June 2023 and was inspired by the literacy-minded duo’s motto, which is “getting together for social justice through libraries, learning, and literacy”.

At FAIR, anyone can access the books, and it doesn’t always involve money. Bright explains: “Books are costly, and Cape Town is a notoriously expensive city, so we operate on a ‘pay what you can, when you can’ basis.” Each book is stamped with details advising readers of FAIR’s payment options, making it easy to “read now and pay later” with Yoco or SnapScan.

FAIR Library
Cayleigh Bright and Katie Barry, co-founders of FAIR.

FAIR is not only based in town but has libraries at Park Café (Greenpoint), Against the Grain (Bo-Kaap) and Neighbourgood Newlands, which launched on the same day as the Bree Street library.

“It’s been interesting to see how well it has been received and how keen people are to get involved. I’ve been amazed at how little stocking of shelves we’ve had to do,” says Bright.

If you have piles of books lying around, FAIR welcomes pre-loved books and can arrange collections for big batches.

129 Bree St | Instagram: @fairsocial

Clarkes's Bookshop
Clarke's Bookshop.


Something of an institution in Long Street, renowned Clarke’s Bookshop, founded by Anthony Clarke as a second-hand bookshop in 1957, is incongruously surrounded by restaurants and bars. Nothing like its neighbours, this refined inner-city gem is a bookworm’s paradise.

The characterful double-storey bookshop is known far and wide for its Africana collection, which it launched in the 1970s, and which has grown substantially to include books on Africa with a special focus on southern Africa. There are second-hand books, too, on all subjects as well as old maps and old prints. It also supplies some libraries in the Western Cape and abroad.

Stepping inside is magical. The downstairs area has new South African books on a wide range of subjects, including art, philosophy, history, film, biography, music, fiction and non-fiction. There is a small section focusing on Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and then a more comprehensive section on books from Africa as a whole. There is also a section downstairs which houses the secondhand books before they go upstairs – where all secondhand books live in different rooms. One room upstairs is filled with the shop’s valuable books under lock and key.

Presiding over all of this is Henrietta Dax, Clarke’s famous proprietor, who took over the business when Anthony Clarke died in 1981. It’s been a challenging journey, she admits, but she loves every minute of it. “I like everything to do with it. I’m like a farmer, it goes up and down,” she says.

Henrietta Dax
Henrietta Dax.

Having been in business for over 60 years, Dax has seen customers grow up before her very eyes. Every so often, a customer will enter the shop and she’ll remember them as a child. “Their parents used to bring them in, and, in turn, they bring in their own children … it’s a generational thing.”

Until 1990, most of Clarke’s customers were locals. Now there are lots of international visitors. “We have lots and lots of tourists coming in,” she says. The shop’s customers also comprise the legal fraternity who work in nearby Keerom Street, as well as politicians and academics. Even author Graeme Green was a patron".

So, what’s the secret of this enduring store’s success? “I think we are a treasure,” says Dax. “We are consistent in what we do. Our speciality in selling books on southern Africa, and a mixture of old and new books, is unique. There is no other bookshop that does that,” she says.

199 Long St| 021 423 5739 |

The Book Lounge
The Book Lounge.


This East City indie bookshop in the CBD’s creative hub specialises in author events and offers a wide selection of books in various genres. The downstairs area is a treasure trove with books for children, non-fiction and a coffee shop. This is also where free Storytime for Kids of all ages takes place every Saturday at 11h00.

The Book Lounge has something of a cult following with loyal customers. Owner Mervyn Sloman believes his book launches set his store apart from mall bookstores, as well as the unique selection of stock he carries. The secret to success, he says, is “providing the best service we can, stocking good books and having knowledgeable book lovers working here”.

Sloman worked in the book trade for about five years before opening The Book Lounge. “I felt there were things we could do differently ... It has been very hard work, and very difficult at times. But it’s a privilege to spend your working hours doing something that you love and are passionate about,” he says.

The Book Lounge
Mervyn Sloman.

The fact that the store turns 16 this December shows that Sloman and his team have stood the test of time. “Every day brings new challenges, and you have to constantly think of different ways of doing things. There are a lot of loyal readers in Cape Town who have given us tremendous support over the years, and have allowed us to keep our doors open,” says Sloman.

With the demographic of Cape Town and the inner city changing over the years, his customers have changed, too. He explains: “We still live in an unequal society and sell books that most people cannot afford. When we started, there was a sense in the industry that publishers were publishing books for a certain readership. I think that it’s an ongoing challenge, but there have been shifts in the kinds of books that are being put out there so that they are relevant to a different, broader demographic.”

Sloman is also the co-founder of the Open Book Festival, taking place from 8-10 September 2023 at the District Six Homecoming Centre. The line-up will be announced in early August.

71 Roeland St | 021 462 2425 |

Central Library
Cape Town Central Library.


The Central Library in town is one of only two public art libraries in South Africa – the other is in Johannesburg.

The space has three floors with all types of book genres and collections, including foreign, Western and all South African official languages. There is a fully-fledged art library, a music library, a public access area with computers and a children’s library in the basement with a range of educational programmes and storytimes.

The library’s offering also includes DVDs, CDs, videos, old newspapers and magazines about Cape Town, audiobooks, encyclopaedias, musical scores and music tutorials. There are also study areas, discussion rooms, exhibitions every two months, book launches and book clubs. Orientation tours are also offered. Currently, there is a Cape Town Lesbians book club that meets every month in the exhibition space above the Art Library section. One of the library’s staff members is also in the process of starting a teen book club.

It is not just the wealth of information that’s remarkable, it is the staffers too. Art Librarian Elsa Von Ballmoos has been at Central Library for 34 years while Deirdre Milne, a librarian in the main section, has been at there for 45 years. They know the place like the back of their hands and their passion shines through.

“I love what I do. I love being able to help people find what they need. I love to be able to give people stuff they would have never thought of when they came in. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and if you want to do something, be good at it. That’s my philosophy,” says Von Ballmoos.

She says what makes the space unique is the scope and volume of what’s offered and that it’s free for all library card holders. Patrons are mostly Capetonians from all walks of life, and they also get tourists who love the building and enjoy the foreign collections available.

Central Library
Elsa Von Ballmoos.

As an art librarian, Von Ballmoos focuses on fine arts. “I specialise, where possible, in Africa and South Africa because that is where we are. I try to give people something they are not readily going to see. There is a lot of effort in everything. You won’t find collections like ours in the suburban branches. I encourage people to come to the library. They will be amazed at what we have,” says Von Ballmoos.

The public facility was relocated from its City Hall premises to the Drill Hall next door and transformed into an information centre of excellence in 2006 in a project which reportedly cost approximately R44 million. The current home of the library was known as Volunteer Drill Hall and was used for military purposes in the 1880s. It almost feels like an injustice that the entrance of the building is a little obscure from the public, considering the history of the building, its design and what’s inside. This is a place everyone should visit at least once and where you are bound to find something that resonates with you. People who want to apply for a library card must provide an ID, proof of address and two references of people they do not live with.

1 Parade St | 021 444 0983 |


The inner city is also home to The Centre for the Book, an outreach unit of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA). The organisation advocates for the importance of reading, writing and publishing through its book-related activities nationally and internationally.

62 Queen Victoria St | 021 424 6320 |

IMAGES: CCID, Fair Library