The marvellous medicine of pre-loved books

Theres not a used bookstore that hasnt, at some point, delivered an unexpected surprise.

It was the little blue bookshop on Cape Road that did it. That was the beginning.

An iconic landmark on one of Port Elizabeth’s busiest streets, that bookshop became a mecca for my 10-year-old self, recently acquainted (read: infatuated) with the life-changing and irreverent works of Roald Dahl.

My collection was growing, but not quickly enough, and so one day my mom suggested it might be worth paying a visit to second-hand bookshops to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

There was one book that played on my mind constantly. George’s Marvellous Medicine had become the itch I couldn’t scratch, a must-have that haunted my dreams and day-dreaming in school. At an age when social etiquettes and respect for one’s elders were drummed into you like the times table, the idea of a young man breaking all taboos by concocting a potion to wreak havoc with a particularly disagreeable adult was one that appealed immensely.

It was the quest for this masterpiece that led me to the little blue bookshop.

Upon entering, I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell. The Kilimanjaros of books, haphazardly arranged into beautiful organised chaos, gave off a remarkable ancient odour, as if all the world’s knowledge had been bottled and corked, just for me.

Had my determination to find the Dahl book not been so powerful, I would have been happy to lie down and slip away peacefully, content that I had lived the best life I could.

Forsaking my mom’s offer to ask the store owner whether George’s Marvellous Medicine was in stock, preferring to tackle the task at hand with treasure-hunt gusto, my eyes darted around the shelves, desperately intent on finding the children’s section as soon as possible.

The back-left corner of the shop was to sate my desires. There it was, my Holy Grail, among the Enid Blytons and picture books about whales. Tatty, yellowing and fraying at the binding but perfect in every way. George’s Marvellous Medicine, the elixir for a curious mind.

The book was everything I hoped for. With illustrations by the irrepressible Quentin Blake, a man who shared Dahl’s love of the absurd, I read and re-read the passages, painstakingly studying George’s journey from frustration to hatching a plan to “deal” with his nasty grandmother.

I loved my own family, of course, but I was certain there would be people in my life who could do with a shot of George’s medicine, if only to bring them down a peg or two.

Inspired, I was soon nagging my mother for old jam jars and spare dish-washing liquid or bicarbonate of soda or cocoa, basically anything that could pass for a magical brew. Obviously, I had no intention of administering my mixture to anyone, given that I knew prison to be a not-so-nice place, but, boy, was it fun to pretend.

While my idolatry of George’s shenanigans eventually passed, I was to return many times to the little blue bookshop in the years to come, either to top up my Dahl collection or discover new authors recommended to me by my friends.

So began a life-long passion for second-hand bookshops, one that has taken me to dangerous corners in Johannesburg, fragrant backstreets in Southeast Asia and bustling markets in Mozambique.

Now a resident of Cape Town, the city has catered to my every bookish whim. There’s not a used bookstore that hasn’t, at some point, delivered an unexpected surprise (including signed first editions), although I confess I do have my favourites.

The Help the Rural Child Charity Bookshop in Mowbray is a wonderland, filled to the brim with biographies, old and newish novels and an intriguing history section. The charming creaking wooden stairs and floors imbue you with a sense that you are undertaking an exploratory expedition in a timeless age, the purpose of which is to find that rare gem that will make your weekend just a little more special.

Recently, I have developed an interest in the classics, in particular the works of Graham Greene. Greene’s The Quiet American was adapted into one of my favourite films, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, and I was keen to learn more about the text that inspired such a riveting picture.

As so often happens, it was immediately apparent why books so often are deemed more favourable than movies.

Perfectly capturing the mood of Vietnam in the last days of the French and the years preceding the arrival of the Americans, the free-flowing dialogue provides a thoughtful, almost analytical, context to one of history’s most contentious periods.

Yet Greene was also a profound storyteller, and the book is never short of the kind of tension that keeps readers’ bedside lights on well into the small hours.

Buying books second-hand cre-
ates memory associations, frequently because the stores in which they are housed exhibit their own unique characters. In my mind, Graham Greene is Vietnam and the Help the Rural Child bookshop.

For cricket books and biographies, another favoured personal genre, the Cafda Book Shop in Sea Point is the destination of choice. For older hardback biographies, the second-hand book and bric-a-brac shop at St George’s Cathedral is the first port of call.

Of course, I do buy new books from the chain stores and online as well, but, for me at least, a used bookshop will always represent something more meaningful.