ANTIQUARIAN book dealer John Donaldson is laying a trail of 2,000 books in the shape of a worm on the pavement outside part of his 22-roomed Richmond Books and Prints. They are there for the taking. It’s his contribution to BoekBedonnerd (Book Crazy), the Booktown Richmond literary festival. It is held at the end of each year in the dusty Karoo town halfway between Joburg and Cape Town.
If that doesn’t ring a bell, you may remember that Richmond blinked in countrywide fame this year when thick snow closed the national road, causing chaos. It also resulted in its only supermarket "opening for the first time in living memory on a Sunday". Donaldson mutters this deadpan, while a leather cowboy hat does its best to hide his rugged good looks.
The bibliophile has more than 70,000 books on 1.85km of shelving. His bookshop is contained in several houses and converted stables, which he joins together with book-lined passageways.
"Can’t you speak to someone else?" he suggests, as I hover over his bent, rangy form. Of course I can’t. He personifies the town’s new direction. In we go.
I spend hours salivating in Donaldson’s quirky, floor-to-ceiling book-filled rooms. In one, there’s a Singer sewing machine, while in another, tennis racquets hang from the ceiling, a giraffe’s head looms large at the end of a corridor, and somewhere a vinyl LP is playing jazz. A trumpet blares, a saxophone sighs as I look at Africana books on hunters, explorers, missionaries, fauna and flora. General titles range from aviation to cuisine, sport, English fiction, psychology, astronomy, children’s books, religion, architecture and railways. That’s for starters.
Donaldson and two other characters, Darryl David, the only Indian lecturing on Afrikaans at a South African university, and Peter Baker, a Canadian vet who practises in Joburg’s northern suburbs and passionately loves our country, have turned Richmond into a "Book Town". This is an internationally recognised term for a small rural town or village in which second-hand or antique books are concentrated. There is even the IOB — International Organisation of Book Towns.
There are fewer than 20 of them worldwide, with Hay-on-Wye near Wales being the most famous. They are usually situated in places of historic or scenic interest.
The story of Booktown Richmond begins with Darryl David’s PhD research, which focused on literary tourism, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Stimulated by the idea of creating the only Book Town in Africa, he decides on the Karoo, "and a town with nothing going for it". Once he had motored the Karoo flat, he made a phone call. Peter Baker, who loves Richmond so much that he now owns a home, restaurant, bookshop and art gallery there, answered David with a yell: "That’s a whale of an idea."
That was six years ago and the visionary David and action-man Baker let rip.
"As luck would have it, John Donaldson had just moved here, and when he heard of Book Town he bought up nearly the whole main street," says David.
Soon, others began to grasp the concept. The privately run Information Centre is in a houseful of books. Restaurants now line the town’s main street and, at Baker’s Supper Klub, patrons vie with books for space in the bar, lounge and dining areas. The Horse Museum — Richmond was famous for its horse breeding and hosted shows that people travelled to from all over the country — has an 18th-century wagon, Anglo-Boer War guns, a superb collection of antiques and a plethora of equine-related artefacts. Naturally, it contains many glorious books on horses.
"But we needed an event that would bring people to the town," says David, who conceived the BoekBedonnerd literary festival, a name that has stuck in spite of early criticism.
That was five years ago and, while the festival is still small, making it pleasingly friendly and intimate, author and audience numbers are growing.
Internationally acclaimed crime writer Deon Meyer is passionate about the Karoo and chose it (and BoekBedonnerd) to launch his latest book, Seven Days.
Other writers include retired judge Chris Nicholson discussing his book on the sexually depraved Adolf Hitler’s obsession with the anti-Semite Richard Wagner and his music. Photographer Paul Weinberg shows us images from his book, Dear Edward, and chats about his "boere-Jood" family’s Karoo history. Nico Moolman shocks many with stories from his Boer Whore book and Sydda Essop delights with her exquisite Karoo Kitchen’s food and culture.
It’s a hugely diverse, eclectic choice of writers. That’s the intention of David, who likes to shine a light on more than the mainstream books.
Three days slip by too fast as I nip in and out of talks, climb a little hill to Vegkop Fort for some Anglo-Boer War history and sundowners, eat braaied boerewors at the NG Kerk’s fête, and sip coffee and cocktails on verandahs with book pals and authors.
Bright red Richmond BoekBedonnerd T-shirts light up the town, while "Don’t Frack with our Karoo" black ones add a sombre note.
David Kramer finishes the festival with a flourish, strumming his guitar while he sings from his Karoo Kitaar Blues and pounds out Meisie Sonder Sokkies.
Children from across the Ongers River that divides Richmond’s privileged from the less-so, mouth every word Kramer sings, rapt eyes following his every move.
Before Richmond became a Book Town, it was a sad town with little going for it. Today, Baker’s rich American friends are pouring millions into food, literacy, soccer and bed-and-breakfasts, to name some initiatives that help the townsfolk. There’s a newly opened library: "We’ve lent out 2,000 books so far to the kids," says Baker.
"We don’t have a system, we just say, ‘please bring them back’. They do. We’ve only lost one book so far."
That sums up the book-mad vibe in Richmond.