In the fading afternoon sun a man in a worn shirt hauls a satchel of books down the street. He sets his bag on the tarmac and rolls a cigarette — unbleached papers, no filter — and smokes in the shade of a fig tree with yellowing leaves. Every day feels the same.
His feet hurt. He smokes and watches pigeons alight on the poles. When the nicotine dissolves into his blood, he feels stronger, so he resumes walking. He reaches a house with drawn curtains. A young lady answers the door wearing only a towel.
“Is he here?” The man asks. “I brought books.”
He spreads a selection on the tiles while he waits: two Vonnegut paperbacks, a Guide to The Game Parks of Southern Africa, something tattered by Tom Wolfe. The boy appears; they negotiate prices. With silver coins in his pocket the book man leaves.
He spends most of his day in and around Observatory but sometimes travels as far as Pinelands, Claremont and Rondebosch. For lunch he buys focaccia bread from Spar. In another life he trained as a hairdresser. For a brief period he instructed schoolchildren in the teachings of Krishna Consciousness.
He was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and institutionalized at the age of 25.
“I spent 18 years on the lowest ebb, on medication, in the doldrums,” he tells of his time in Valkenberg, the psychiatric hospital on the far side of Observatory’s Liesbeek River. “I’ve been an outpatient ever since. Always in and out.”
His hands shake a little as he relights his smoke. He is sitting on an outdoor couch with a packet of books at his feet. A silver car passes by; the driver stares. The pigeons overhead slice thin lines in the sky.
“I’m nearly 50 years old,” he says. “I’m tired. My feet get sore. One of my eyes is almost blind. But I do this every day.”
He’s been walking around, knocking on doors, rummaging through packets and making sales for nearly 10 years.
“Things weren’t going well,” he explains, speaking slowly, looking at the patterns on the floor, “and I knew that I was dying. My life wasn’t going anywhere. So I decided to start a second-hand book business.”
Since then he’s come across incredible books, he says — “the most beautiful books, such good finds” — and made his customers very happy. He learns their preferences and brings them things that they like. In return they donate old books, or exchange them for books they haven’t read yet.
His prices are obscenely cheap.
“I’ve got really good at spotting things,” he says. “I look through a stack and go: ‘Ah, this book is exactly what so-and-so would enjoy.’ So I take it to them and when they see it they go, ‘Wow! This is exactly what I’m looking for!’”
When he smiles his gums show in the spaces between his teeth.
“If I’d have saved just some of the books I’ve found I would have had a huge library by now. But I don’t keep many. I sell them all.”
“Out of the thousands of people I see every year very few are actually digestible,” he says. “I mean: very few people are nice. A lot of people are closed-minded. They have problems — they’re in over their head. They aren’t coping. And then I come along and say, ‘Um, hello, you wouldn’t on the off chance want to buy a book?’”
He puts on a stupid voice and laughs at himself, at the futility of intruding into people’s lives, at the self-awareness that what he does, and who he is, is strange. He is sitting on the couch smoking. There is a crumpled page of notes on his lap.
“I’ve been so determined. Ever since I started this business, this book business. Nothing can stop me. It’s like what the Afrikaners call ‘dom krag’. Dumb strength.”
He rents a single room in Observatory. Last year he lived in Maitland, where he shared a dormitory with Afrikaners who would burn his feet with lighters at night when he slept. A coloured man would pick fights with him and try and climb into his bed afterwards, whispering, “Meneer, ek wil jou suig.” And once the door to the bathroom was locked for two days, so they bashed it down and discovered a dead body in the tub. Nobody recognized the corpse.
The book man leads a simple life and doesn’t have many needs. A roof, warm clothes, a place to wash, medication, tobacco, and food — that’s it.
“I don’t have many responsibilities,” he says. “I don’t have anybody to feed. I’m lucky not to have friends. I’m unattached.”
He twists another cylinder of tobacco into shape and lights up. He exhales and watches the birds. And then it is evening again and he is stirring noodles at the stove. The floor is unswept. He is eating alone in his room. It is raining outside. He is hauling his satchel down the street. The fig tree is shedding leaves. He is knocking on a door.
“Good morning!” he says through the bars of a closed gate. “Is he here? I brought books.”
The lady looks him in the eyes and says no.
(All photographs © Kimon de Greef.)