Tucked away in suburban dullsville Martinique Stilwell discovers a magical treasure trove of words and pages.
I live in a sensible suburb, chosen not for its charm or quirkiness, but rather for its proximity to good schools and hospitals. Our gardens are big; our walls are high and topped with electric fences. In Rondebosch there are no award-winning restaurants, no design stores selling trendy furniture, and no funky boutiques.
Until recently it was difficult even to find a decent loaf of bread locally. The neighbourhood shopping centre – a group of converted houses surrounding a brick-paved car park – would not win any architectural awards.
There is a printer cartridge shop, a modest hairdresser, a few real estate agencies and a pool place where people gather in the summer with their jars of water samples. At the vet shop we buy outsized sacks of fancy dog pellets and in the evenings after work, the hollow-eyed stand in line at Woolies with their microwavable chicken and vegetables.
Several years ago, when a cut-price book store opened in one of the smaller shops, I initially avoided the place, imagining it dealt in the sort of cheap, sad books that usually appear on trestle tables at mall sales. Eventually, I succumbed to curiosity. Inside, I found the trestle tables and rough pine shelving that I expected. And the most wonderful books. Current literary and mainstream bestsellers and a shelf of vintage editions of the past decade of Booker prize-winning novels. A row of classics by Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, all with beautiful red spines.
The complete short stories of Paul Theroux. Penguin editions of the lesser known works of Paul Bowles and Jack Kerouac. Collin Thubron and Ryszard Kapuscinski in the travel section. Art books and Tintin; Garfield and Alex Rider at the back.
All at bargain prices. The owner, a big pink-faced Irishman named Norman, was evasive. "I'm not doing anything illegal," he said, "I've just been in this business a long time and know where to look."
For years now I have visited the book shop – it doesn't even have a real name – at least twice a week, always leaving with something irresistible. When I wanted the Nobu cookbook, Norman found it. And I have grown to know the staff. Francis is a pensioner supplementing her income who works mornings because she doesn't like leaving her dogs alone. Georges, a Congolese man, takes the afternoon shift.
Last year Norman fell ill and we did not see much of him. A few months later I found the door shut, with a handwritten sign taped to the glass: Closed for bereavement. Georges was at the till when the place reopened.
"Norman passed away," he said, confirming my fears.
Francis and Georges were worried at first about replenishing the stock because they lacked Norman's contacts. But the shop has stayed open and continues to sell wonderful books. I am glad, because although the place may look cramped to a casual passerby, it is enormous, stretching beyond our suburb to reach far shores and even – in the case of science-fiction fans – far-flung galaxies.