Booktown Richmond

Richmond is not a destination, it's a way of life...

About Booktown 


 BOOKTOWN RICHMOND SOUTH AFRICA

In the popular imagination of South Africans brought up on a sumptuous smorgasbord of country towns dished up by tourist publications like Country Life, Getaway, Village Life and Weg Magazines, the names of small towns like Clarens, Dullstroom, Prince Albert, Montagu, Howick and McGregor, to mention only a few,no doubt spring to mind as their choice for the honour of Booktown. In fact, if you were to ask twenty people for their choice of town for the honour of Booktown, you would most probably get 20 different towns. Thankfully, the International Organization of Booktowns (I.O.B) is approximately 20 members strong, and a wealth of research exists as to the criteria they used to choose their Booktowns.

According to Prof. Anthony Seaton, there are various factors one should consider when choosing between towns for the honour of Booktown:

1)Existing book expertise
2)Scenic appeal of town
3)Historic / Cultural attractions of town
4)Property availability
5)Tourism infrastructure
6)Economic importance of Booktown to region
7)Leadership
8)Organisation and speed of implementation

As you can see from the list above, there are numerous towns which will satisfy some of these criteria .So where did I start?Being a man of books, I was guided by undoubtedly the most popular South African writer, Alan Paton,who described the then Transvaal as a land without mountain and sea .And so I excluded everything north of KZN, even though Limpopo and Mpumalanga are beautiful provinces. I also excluded the Western Cape and KwaZulu- Natal, because Iknew that they were the 2 most popular provinces with tourists, and the goal of a Booktown is to kick- start the economy of a dying region.

My research also showed that the Cinderella provinces as far as tourism was concerned were the Free State, the Eastern Cape and the Northern Cape.
But I am a child of the Karoo, and I believed there was a lot of upside potential in this region. For here lies the heartland of South African literature. Mention the Karoo, and the likes of Olive Schreiner, Sir Laurens van der Post, Atholl Fugard, Karel Schoeman and CJ Langenhoven titillate the literary imagination.Therefore, I tried to find one Karoo town from each province.

From my travels, and my cyber - travel of the Pam Golding website, I narrowed my search down to the following Karoo towns which most importantly had to have inexpensive property. Three towns featured almost unanimously in the tourist publications .and hence, almost picked themselves:
Aberdeen in the Eastern Cape; Philippolis in the Free State; Hanover in the Northern Cape. At the time, I also considered the following towns as having an outside chance of becoming our national Booktown: Philipstown, in the Northern Cape; Richmond in the Northern Cape and a town that has not hit the radar yet- Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape. Of the latter three towns, I soon came to realize that only Richmond had the staying power for a project of such gigantic proportions. Hofmeyr and Phillipstown are both beautiful towns- lovely architecture, not too far from the main highways, close to other tourist attractions, but they lacked the necessary tourism infrastructure, and they lacked that network of people that would drive the process, because people were only just beginning to buy into these towns.

It must be said that Philippolis has the strongest credentials for a Booktown. I would say that of all the towns, it has the finest architecture. Moreover, it is the only town in South Africa; I believe that has re-invented itself on the back of literary tourism, having successfully marketed itself as the birthplace of Sir Laurens van der Post. Of all the towns, it also has the most developed tourism infrastructure, with hardly a weekend going by without their guesthouses being fully booked. Of all the towns, it also has the finest bookstore housed in Oom Japie Se Huis, and run by Richard Proctor-Simms. In this man, you also have the rock of the town, around whom the entire tourism scene revolves. And a strong individual/s is a plus for a Booktown, which requires decisive leadership.Philippolis is blessed, because it also has Jens Friis, who was instrumental in putting the Laurens van der Post Museum on the map. These two individuals complement each other, because Richard is the doyen of the English press, and Jens promotes Philippolis through the Afrikaans media.
Historically, it has impeccable credentials, having associations with Emily Hobhouse, and Adam Kok, leader of the Griqua people.

Hanover has long been the darling (excuse the pun but couldn't resist!) of the tourism industry, featured numerous times in all the tourism magazines, and on Pasella, which most of the towns on my list have also pulled off. It is also home to Mark Banks, one of the country's leading comedians, along with a host of other prominent artists. It also has a fairly reasonable tourism infrastructure. Another positive is that one of the many Karoo homes of Olive Schreiner is to be found in town. (And it is up for sale!!!)But what drew me to Hanover was the church square. Here, undoubtedly lies one of the great attractions of the town. In the middle you have this beautiful church, and all around lovely Karoo houses. Enough to want to send me running to church early on a Sunday, such is the beauty of this landscape. Of all the towns, here lies the best townscape for a Booktown, I believe.

Aberdeen is not really as popular as the previous two towns. But it is a beautiful town. I have visions of retiring to this beautifully preservedtown with its Victorian/Karoo character. Like the other two towns, some of the streets are still not tarred. And like the other two towns, the church is the focal point. But Aberdeen's church is unique. Here we have South Africa's very own Tower of Pisa. Go and look for yourself. That spire, the tallest in the country, is skew!!! Unlike Hanover and Philippolis, however, it does not have a well developed tourism infrastructure, or that strong individual to keep the town in the public eye, but it has an excellent position. While it is not on the N1, it is close enough to Graaff-Reinet, which must be a huge plus; moreover it is in relatively close proximity to Nieu-Bethesda, undoubtedly the "Road to Mecca" for literary pilgrims.

Richmond, a mere 70 kilometres from Hanover, is the dark horse in the equation. In my opinion, it is not as beautiful as the other 3 towns. For instance, it lacks the charm of untarredroads. It has a reasonably developed tourism infrastructure and has good guesthouses and restaurants. It is a town with beautifularchitecture, an imposing churchwhich is said to be home to the highest pulpit in South Africa. Of all the towns, it has the romance of donkey carts, that icon of die karretjiemense (see September edition of Weg). Richmond is also home to only one of 2 horses - museums in the world. (The other is in Kentucky)And like most of the Booktowns I visited in Europe, Richmond also has an old age home that used to be the towns hotel! But its biggest strength is its position right on the N1. No other town has this direct accessibility.
And the town has a strong tourism committee, which is why Richmond is so much in the news. All thanks to the inspiration and money of Peter Baker, a Canadian vet who fell in love with Richmond on his numerous journey's to Stellenbosch to visit his children.

So which town did I end upchoosing?Every fibre in my body said Philippolis. BUT…the property boom took that dream away. Cheap property is the cornerstone of a Booktown, and Philippolis just does not have much below R400 000. When I first dreamt of the idea 3 years earlier, property was going for R100 000. Estate agents were begging you to buy. But like a beautiful girl (or boy) who knows that she is gorgeous, it went to the townspeople's heads and they became greedy. With a broken heart, it dawned on me that no bookseller would be able to survive in Philippolis, unless everyone in town became booksellers!!!
The same reasoning also nudged Hanover out of the equation. Propertywas just too expensive. Don't get me wrong- by city standards, house prices in the Karoo are dirt cheap. But most booksellers would not move to the Karoo until they were sure they could make a decent living. So they would still have to employ someone in their shops, and a high bond would only drive up operating costs. Moreover, Hanover lacked a charismatic leader.

That left me with Aberdeen and Richmond. My heart said it must be Aberdeen. It has a beauty reminiscent of some of the beautiful Western Cape towns I excluded. But property was also not cheap in Aberdeen, with prices being pushed up by speculators. Like Hanover, it also lacked leadership, I believe. But crucially, it's position a mere 40 kilometres away from Graaff- Reinet, which I once thought was its strength, also could be interpreted in another way colleagues in Europe warned me. Because it is so close to Graaff- Reinet and Nieu- Bethesda, what is stopping the tourist from just stopping by the bookshops for an hour or two, and then heading off for the night to Nieu- Bethesda, for example?

Of course, all of this is mere conjecture. Any of these towns could easily become Booktowns. But Richmond wanted it the most. After all, a Booktown needs booksellers, and as fate would have it, I began to hear murmurings that a few people interested in books had bought homes in Richmond. That was the catalyst for exploring Richmond. And the rest, as they say, is history. Here, for the first time in 3 years, I had a captive audience. I was preaching to the converted who graspedthe concept which even my wife had doubted all those years. But like Farmer Hoggit from Babe, I knew that 'little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away, should never be ignored, for in them lie the seeds of destiny'.
And so the idea of Booktown Richmond was born. All because a Canadian vet Peter Baker, upon hearing my idea, uttered the words that no one else had uttered in 3 lonely years- 'that's a whale of an idea.' And sometimes in life, encouragement, more than any academic banter, is all we need.

And when the curtain goes down on the last night of Patrick Mynhardt's show, ( Patrick Mynhardt will open our Booktown with 2 shows on the 21st and 22nd of September at Die RichmondSupper Klub ),and the curtain opens on Booktown Richmond, I will no doubt hear Farmer Hoggit's immortal words :

"That'll do pig, that'll do!"

I dedicate Booktown Richmond to Henry Mkhize, my gardener, painter, house- sitter, but most of all, a member of my family for the last 20 years, who passed away unexpectedly on the morning that I boarded my return flight from Amsterdam after completing my research on Booktowns.Without you, I would never have had the peace of mind to leave home on my numerous journeys to the Karoo. We miss you like the Karoo misses the rain. I would also like to encourage booksellers, restaurateurs, and people who have always dreamed of a life in the Karoo to contact:

Booktown Richmond
or
Peter Baker ( 
pcbaker@mweb.co.za ).