Rare Africana brought to book

By the book: It is not always this dark in the new home of Thorold’s bookshop. (Madelene Cronjé)

By the book: It is not always this dark in the new home of Thorold’s bookshop. (Madelene Cronjé)

When I get out of my car at Frank R Thorold’s Bookshop in Kya Sands at 4.30pm its owner, Neillen van Kraayenburg, tells me to bring a jacket because it will get cold soon.

I say I won’t be there very long.

He takes me into his home on the edge of a dirt road and makes tea.

Standing in a converted living room lined with bookshelves, he tells me how he came to have 150 000 books on his three-hectare property.

He got them from a man obsessed with collecting books. Robin Fryde began his amassing of rare antiquarian books by buying Thorolds Bookshop at an auction in 1962. When Fryde died in 2011, his partner sold the collection to Van Kraayenburg.

Van Kraayenburg doesn’t care much for collecting books. He likes to sell them. And it’s not the money to be earned by selling rare books that is the drawcard here, he says, it’s getting a phone call from someone asking for a book that they cannot find anywhere else and being able to help them.

“We’ve had deputy presidents, ­barons and professors from all over the world come here,” he says.

He takes a law book published in 1723 off a shelf and hands it to me, taking my potentially dangerous teacup out of my hand. ­Everything about this book gives away its old age. It is covered by vellum, a ­specially tanned leather, and the paper is alkaline, not acidic like today’s books, so the pages feel ­different and, more importantly, last much longer.

You won’t find the Twilight series at Thorold’s. You won’t find anything by Marian Keyes. This isn’t about mainstream, mass-media literature. At Thorold’s you will find treasures. The books here are records of exceptional Africana history.

There are books hundreds of years old, and books that are socioeconomically topical today. Many of them are signed by the author, and if not the author, then someone note­worthy.

You will find photos in the front pages, notes written in the margins or flowers between the pages.

It took a year to move the collection from its original home in the Meischke Building on the corner of Harrison and Market streets in Johannesburg’s CBD to Neillen’s property in Kya Sands.

“This collection is full of surprises — there are maps, paintings, news­paper clippings and journalists’ notebooks,” he says.

We walk out of the house and across the lawn to a big storeroom.

Shelves full of books reach the ceiling. I stop every few steps, taking books out when a title catches my eye. There is so much to look at.

Van Kraayenburg breaks my ­distracted silence with a lament about the current discussion around digital literature.

“We must get away from this idea that electronic books are going to replace paper books. It’s mischievous to say paper books are dying. We can have both.”

Destination bookshop
The light is fading as we walk to another storeroom. “Come, let’s go, there’s still so much I have to show you,” Van Kraayenburg says.

The books are housed in buildings and corrugated-iron storerooms sprawled across the property. It’s just Van Kraayenburg and me walking around them and that’s how he likes it to be with all his visitors. Thorold’s is no next-to-the-Spar-convenient kind of bookshop.

Van Kraayenburg prefers visitors to phone ahead so he can make sure he is available to show them around what he calls his ­“destination bookshop”. He likes to hear what their interests are so he can show them the things that will excite them.

How do you catalogue your thousands of books?

“I don’t,” he says. “I feel.”

He doesn’t just mean this figuratively. Although some of the books are hundreds of years old and the maps are falling apart at the seams, we don’t use gloves when holding them.

Visitors can pick up and hold whatever they like, as long as they do this with care.

Ninety-five percent of the books are on the history of Southern Africa, its wars, its leaders, its race groups. I have never seen the pejorative word “kaffir” on paper so many times before in one place.

We walk outside heading to another storeroom. It’s so dark I can’t see my feet move over the grass.

“I’m no historian, but look here,” he says, flicking a light switch.

Personal artefacts
He shows me some Dutch and French maps, some of them held together by glue and tape, reproduced from those made by ancient Arabic mapmakers who attached the label “Cafreria” to places they hadn’t named or didn’t know ­anything about.

We proceed to debate the source for the reviled ­word.

On a shelf nearby I find The ­Kafirs, illustrated by GF Angas. Further along is David Livingstone’s ­Missionary Travels in South Africa from 1857.

On the dust jacket is a photograph of the revered explorer. In an envelope glued on to the front page is his autograph.

The book with these personal artefacts would sell for about R50 000, Van Kraayenburg says. On the shelf below is The Savage Life by F Boyle. Next to it is a collection of botany books with actual specimens between their pages, pressed and dried.

In a chest of drawers is a 1634 book by the Englishman Thomas Herbert, whose “were the first Western eyes on Africa”, Van Kraayenburg says. The letters in the text are mixed up, but it is still readable.

I marvel at the thought of where this book has travelled, who has held it in their hands.

A photo of a jowly Paul Kruger looks down on me as I fiddle with a travelling apothecary set from the 1850s that Van Kraayenburg found in the same chest of drawers as the ­Herbert.

It’s 7pm when we are finally done with the tour and the questions and the debates about dissemination of information. Shivering in the cold, I shake Van Kraayenburg’s hand, get into my car and drive back to Jo’burg. I’ll be back.

Thorold’s is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Visit thorolds.com or call 011 875 9991 or 082 551 5318. Open from Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm. This week it will be open on Sunday too

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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