January’s International Bookshop of the Month – Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town, South Africa

Clarke’s Bookshop has been on Long Street in the centre of Cape Town since 1957. Founded by Anthony Clarke as a second-hand bookshop, the shop began specialising in Africana in the 1970s. The new Africana books section began with a shelf of South African books, which has since grown to such an extent that Clarke’s Bookshop now specialises in books on Africa, with a particular focus on Southern Africa. They also still have a wonderful selection of general second-hand and remaindered titles, as well as a room set aside for Africana. Read on to learn more!

1. Your bookshop was established in Cape Town in 1957. Tell us a bit more about yourselves. What has changed over the years?  

Clarke’s started out as a general second-hand bookstore. In the 1970s we started dealing in collectable Africana, and in the 1980s began a shelf of new South African books. This shelf has grown to take over the majority of the shop. Our main focus is South African and African books—new, out of print, and second-hand—and we still have a section of general second-hand books to keep the original spirit alive.

2. Tell us about your local area. How has the pandemic impacted your business?

We have been situated in Long Street in the centre of Cape Town since we began. Long Street used to be a sort of book row, with multiple bookshops up and down the street. These have slowly closed down or moved away, and we are now the last remaining bookshop in the street. Before the pandemic, the street was filled with vintage clothing stores, antique shops and little boutiques, but the pandemic has forced a lot of them to close.

The pandemic has impacted our business in many ways. We have really noticed the travel restrictions, as we are used to regular visitors from overseas who have been unable to come for the last two years.

A silver lining is that we were afforded time to update our website so that we now have an online store that includes all the South African and African titles in stock, both new and out of print.

We supply books to multiple university libraries with African Studies material, including Yale University Library, which has really helped us through the last few years.

3. What are the most popular kinds of books that your customers buy?

One of the strengths of our shop is the range of books that we keep in stock, so it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific popular subjects.

We are well known for our South African Art section which is very extensive, with books ranging from massive overviews of Contemporary African Art to small exhibition catalogues published by the local galleries.

We also do really well with titles published by academic publishers, which are not easily available through the larger bookstore chains.

In the last decade or so there has been a surge of interest in publishing African fiction from across the continent, so this part of the shop has really grown.

4. If you could recommend one book published in the past year, what would it be and why?

The best book that I have read in the past year has definitely been Damon Galgut’s The Promise, which just won the 2021 Booker Prize. The story builds on the tradition of JM Coetzee, in a way that is very self-aware, and often very funny. But the real mastery comes in the method of storytelling and the way that he bends the narrative throughout the book. I’ve been a fan of his books for years and reading The Promise felt like witnessing an author mastering his craft.

5. Are there any Yale UP books which you and your customers consider a favourite? Why is that?

The Yale UP books that have sold the best are unfortunately now out of print. JM Coetzee’s White Writing is still requested all the time, and we wish that it would be reprinted. Class, Race and Inequality by Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass has also sold really well over the years and is now out of print. Recent publications which we are excited about are Wole Soyinka’s Beyond Aesthetics and the new biography of Idi Amin by Mark Leopold.

To find out more about Clarke’s Bookshop, you can visit their website, Facebook or Instagram page, or pay a visit to their shop:

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