THE BOOKSELLER: Kate Rogan – Love Books

Kate Rogan

Kate Rogan is the owner of Love Books, a delightful independent bookshop in Melville, Johannesburg. Offering a wonderfully edited selection of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, the space also frequently hosts lively launches.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

Impossible to answer, there is so much at this time of year. But Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad left me excited, bowled over, entertained and satisfied. The seamless integration of the slave story with the fantasy elements is remarkable and, love it or hate it, I feel confident that our customers will recognize its brilliance. Firepool by Hedley Twidle is a gem of a book. A collection of essays by a subtle, observant, self-deprecating mind that we are loving selling. And I cannot wait to start selling 100 Objects of the Boer War.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Without a doubt, anything in the Jacana Pocket History series. We have hidden them, placed them on unreachable shelves, and still they go. So now we put dummy copies out and keep the sale copies in the office. Close second is Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. But shoplifting is not a big problem for us thankfully.

The biggest seller of the past year?

For sales outside of launches, it’s a wipe-out for Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. If we had to include launch sales, our biggest seller is Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo-Gqola, by a long shot!

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It has to be Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. I must have read that dreary opening scene at least ten times until I finally got beyond it. It improved a bit after that, and I know it’s full of quiet and gentle universal truths, but my imagination was just not captured by the main character or the snowy scenery.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Since we have customers from the age of 0 to 99, I am going to choose RJ Pallacio’s Wonder. It’s an extraordinary book with a huge heart that somehow speaks as powerfully to me as it did to my 9-year-old daughter.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Is this allowed in a literary magazine? Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – because it was an emotionally charged read, and I, like everyone, was rooting for love to win. It didn’t, but it also did. I also suspect I cried because Jojo Moyes is a clever writer and that’s just what she wanted me to do!

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

Anything by Steve Hofmeyr. He’s an obnoxious racist poser and I don’t want his stuff in my shop!

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

I love to quote from Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted, where he quotes Donald Rumsfeld on the necessity of book shops: “There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was of course warming up for war in Iraq, but what I’m trying to say is that Love Books is full of wonderful, surprising books that you never knew you wanted. You will also meet bookseller Anna Joubert in the shop, and she is a wonderful surprise! She knows what you want before you do!

The three writers you admire the most?

Ivan Vladislavić because no one captures the soul of Joburg and its unique urban landscape like he does. And he is simply one of the best writers I know.

Maggie O’Farrell because I love writing that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and she deals with domestic themes in a most extraordinary way.

Alexandra Fuller, for the way she writes about Africa, and the power of her storytelling.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Balancing cash flow and stock levels. It’s a daily dance, and some days it’s beautiful and other days we’re tripping over ourselves!

Describe your archetypal customer

Someone who’s read (and understood) The Unknown Unknown.

The best part of being a bookseller?

Buying new books – I really love seeing the reps and get terribly excited about what’s coming. Meeting the most extraordinary people (Paul Beatty, Barbara Kingsolver and Helen MacDonald come to mind). Making a difference in our local community by bringing them fantastic launches and a great space to engage with books and the mind.

And the worst part?

Admin. There’s LOTS of it.

THE READER: Andrea Burgener

Andrea Burgener is a self-taught chef and the owner of The Leopard restaurant in the Joburg suburb of Melville. She writes about food for several publications, including a weekly column for The Times, and has authored a cookbook, Lampedusa Pie.

What are you reading at the moment?

I read many things at the same time and often don’t finish them, because my life is somewhat chaotic and my free time appears in tiny little patches. I’ve just started Craig Higginson’s The Dream House which I’m loving and suspect I will finish, then next to my bed is Red Rackham’s Treasure which I’m re-reading for the 50th time (Tintin books are like therapy for me). In my bag I have The Great Cholesterol Scam by brilliant Scottish doctor Malcolm Kendrick, which I read if waiting or bored etc. when out and about. I am, perhaps unreasonably, obsessed with the topic. Anyone taking statin drugs (which I wouldn’t for love or money) should read this post-haste.

How do you decide what to read next?

Sometimes I just grab old books from our shelves; sometimes it’s through browsing (the best place to do this is Love Books in Melville which has been so intelligently curated that you can pretty much grab anything from a shelf with your eyes closed and be satisfied); sometimes I order specific books online because of some interest or other. The most recent order I’m awaiting is Rome Tales by Helen Constantine, a collection of short stories about Rome, my favourite city in the world.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

No single book.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Impossible to answer. I think it’s probably a tie between The Go-Between, To Kill a Mockingbird (my son narrowly escaped being called Atticus), Catch-22, Things Fall Apart, Laughter in the Dark, and The Magic Mountain. And though they are not novels, I love everything written by Florence King, especially her Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. Her books are some of the funniest in existence.

What were your favourite books as a child?

So many! I think these are at the top of the list: Rebecca, Watership Down, The Secret Garden, the William books (which I still love to read now), Beano comics, Barbar the Elephant and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax.  Then too of course, all the Tintin books. I’ve tried so hard – clearly too hard – to engender a love of these in my children, yet they all remain inexplicably lukewarm.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

I gave my husband a book on charcuterie for Christmas. He is obsessed with transforming pigs into gastronomic delights, and is very good at it.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

The Lord of the Rings. I tried so hard, because I felt I SHOULD like it, but I was bored to tears from the moment I started, and only got to about eighth of the way through (even that I consider a monumental feat). Tried again years later, but gave up even quicker.

What book do you turn to for advice?

For cooking advice, I have hundreds of recipe books that I go to; for other advice, I’m more likely to ask an actual person.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Paper books. I’m not very digital, generally; I don’t do Twitter, Instagram and so on. The online reading I do is of the newspaper article sort, recipes and so on, but never whole books. I like books as physical objects and can’t imagine doing away with that.

Your favourite cookbook?

Impossible to answer. But three of my (dozens of) favourites are: Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, Braam Kruger’s Provocative Cuisine (I love the food but it’s also a favourite for nostalgic reasons: he was a close friend and huge influence on my cooking), and Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca. Bocca is named after Kennedy’s award winning Italian restaurant in London; it’s a beautiful evocative tome with often unusual recipes from all over Italy. The meatballs cooked with lemon slices are my best thing in the book.

If you could cook dinner for a dead writer, who would you cook dinner for, where would you eat with them, and what would you make them?

I would cook dinner for my cousin Roly. He was a scriptwriter living in Los Angeles, whom I adored. He introduced me to the book Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and the timbale within, eaten at a banquet. We called it Lampedusa Pie. We always talked about getting the right recipe for the dish, and he eventually sent my mother a version in a letter. I would cook the perfect Lampedusa Pie for him, and we’d be eating it in Sicily, where the book is set. On the table would be the small vintage painted-plaster leopard which I found in a junk shop and meant to send to him and never did. My children broke its paw off, but it’s still beautiful. Anyway, in this scenario, where I can make dead people come to life, the paw would be fixed.

Lampedusa Pie is published by Bookstorm.

FICTION: Remember your death

BY WESLEY ROBERTSON

I can still see. Even after the gunshot. As it happened, my eyes went black. Temporary blindness. The muzzle-flash did that. The gun was so close to my eyes when it went off. The barrel pressed right between them. The flash was intense, an explosion of light, making my eyesight retreat into its shell. Complete darkness. But maybe there were colours. It’s difficult to remember now. It seems as though everything is fading. Memories are grey now. The flash took my eyes away from me; the noise took my ears in the same way. Silent and dark at first, but now, there’s colour again and there’s sound again, although it seems odd. Every colour seems too saturated, like I’m seeing photos taken by a teenager with a new camera phone and a bunch of filters to play around with. But at least it’s not all dark.

However, everything looks slightly out of shape, or maybe out of focus — I can’t really tell, like sometimes I know I am looking at a thing and suddenly, without warning, everything shifts; what I was looking at, what I knew I had been looking at, was gone and there was in its place a new scene, sometimes the same objects, the same people, but a different angle, a different focus; and sometimes it’s completely new. Something altogether unfamiliar. Like I’ve just forgotten where I was, how I got there, what it all meant.

Along with my eyes being all fucked up, the noise was wrong at first. Subdued. As if it was afraid to sound right. I guess that’s to be expected. I mean, you hear stories about soldiers who temporarily lose their hearing in a bomb blast. They try to radio in after hitting a mine, not knowing whether they’re getting through or not, just shouting into the receiver for some kind of help. When you can’t hear yourself you try desperately to make contact with someone else. You shout and scream and cry for help, because you know that if someone else can hear you, then at least you’re still alive. Or, at least, that’s what I did; I begged and cried and thrashed around and when I hit the ground moaning I still tried to shout out for help, even though I couldn’t see anyone around, and I couldn’t hear them or even myself. Darkness, silence and nobody to help me. I came to accept these things after a while.

But now there’s sound. And there’s colour. It took some time for my hearing to redevelop, just like it took some time for the black to become grey and then muted colours and then the colours I see now, saturated and distorted. Now only the memories are grey and hazy.

The memories are what I most want to be of colour. I want to be able to see the detail. It’s a bit pathetic, I guess, this desire to see, to know, the past. It’s a bit pathetic to try and live in what’s already happened, but what else do I have now?

I’m not yet quite sure what happened. Why everything is like this. I remember the gunshot and some time before that there was an argument. A fight, really. Some shoving, some swearing, some running, a gun. And I remember a storm. And then nothing. And now something, but not everything. There’s still a lot missing. I remember the camera. I don’t know if it’s still hanging around my neck, and my head doesn’t want to obey when I tell it to bend down and look, but I can feel a weight hanging there. It’s a reassuring kind of weight. I think it is the camera but I can’t be sure. Not until I can look down at it.

The camera was old-fashioned. Or at least looked it. Digital, but with the body of one of those old-school silver and black cameras. On the day I got shot I had no special lenses on it, just an ordinary one, not too ostentatious. The way I liked it. Simple, clean, uncluttered. Too many lenses, too many filters, can complicate the process too much. I liked it to be pared down to bare essentials and basic concepts. I wouldn’t mind having my camera right now. All the colours are already wrong, no filters necessary. It would be interesting to photograph a landscape of saturated colours and distorted perspectives and know that the photos aren’t lying, that it‘s all real. To know that what I am seeing is the truth. If I could hold the camera and press the button I would understand what I’m seeing and why I’m seeing it. The camera always did that for me. But my hands make no move to pick it up from where I can feel its weight around my neck.

No camera, so I guess I’ll have to keep talking. Talk this place into being, so that you can understand it. I don’t understand, but maybe you can. You do have something I don’t. Something I want. Something I would die to have. Poor choice of words, sorry. Distasteful, maybe. Although, that being said, I would be the only one here getting offended, but I’m not.

I remember there was a bar. I think it all began at the bar. At least my part began at the bar. The rest is someone else’s story and I don’t know it.

I don’t remember exactly what happened there, but I am beginning to feel a weight in my left hand. I want to look down and see but I cannot. My head is fixed. My left hand is closed, fingers curled around something, a handle.

I need to go back to the bar to remember. I need to figure out what happened there, I need to figure out what happened to me. I have to know why everything has changed.

The bar is in Melville, on 7th Avenue, and the place is crowded. Or rather, surrounded. There aren’t many people inside, but standing around the closed doors there is a group of curious young people, held back by a waist-high barrier of tape. On the inside of the tape are some police officers. The doors are being kept shut. When someone from inside slips out, they do it furtively, shielding the inside from the public. It’s unnecessary because it’s too dark past the doors to see anything from outside in any case. Your eyes would need to adjust to the darkness. I don’t know how I can get in, and then I realise that I don’t know how I got here, or where I was before. I think the place I was at before was just light. Or maybe colour. Colour sounds more right. The place I was at, the place I came from, was only colour. I was surrounded by it. Every colour you could name and some that I wasn’t sure of. They were familiar but I didn’t have the words I needed. I didn’t remember fully. But they were everywhere, these colours I couldn’t quite name or separate. All I could make out for sure, and all that I can remember clearly is the light that replaced the darkness and now I am standing here outside the bar in Melville, looking, with all the rest, at the scene of some crime, knowing that I was a part of this crime, but not knowing how.

I was at this bar; I remember being here. I remember the double doors and the sign above them. I remember the words Come in sprayed on the doors. The words were red. Now they look like something else. Still red, but they seem more violent, not like paint, and I have a metallic taste in my mouth, like copper; like when you are a kid and put a 5 cent coin in your mouth just to see what it tastes like. It tastes similar to something else, but I can’t place it. It’s easy to do such things when you are a kid. People will always forgive a kid for little curiosities, little eccentricities. But a grown man sucking on coins is considered odd. I used to like the silver coins most. I thought about the history of a coin when I put it in my mouth: who had held this coin before me, what had it been used for, why had it found its way to me, what would I use it for?  These were questions that I never found answers for. They were questions that didn’t need answers. They existed incomplete because they were perfect that way.

I can taste the coin when I look at the words, Come in, and I can feel a shiver down my spine like something metal rapping against my teeth. Someone must have walked over my grave.

I edge calmly through the crowd, trying to reach the black metal of the door and the two words painted in red. The crowd of curious onlookers seem alarmed. There is a man standing just inside the tape, wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with no tie, explaining the situation to those gathered outside the closed doors. I can’t hear what he is saying so I try to get closer, but edging through the crowd I realise that I can’t hear what the people around me are saying either. A man directly to my right is turned towards me and speaking, but his voice is muffled. Incomprehensible. I can still hear the sounds of the street though: a few cars drive by, a horn honks, there is a man walking down the street with a large painting calling out at random. I can hear the man trying to sell his painting on the street, but I can’t hear the long-haired man right next to me.

On my left there is a woman also turned towards me and speaking. To my right the man has stopped talking and seems to be listening, focusing intently on a point near my shoulder. The woman on my left is talking to a spot just above and behind my right ear when I look at her. The two are obviously having a conversation together. They don’t even know I am here.

The man explaining the situation from the other side of the tape stops speaking. There is a thin woman near the front with her hand up. He points to her and she presumably starts speaking as well, gesticulating with her one hand free and her other holding a small notepad. The man in the suit gives a small, nervous-looking laugh, and puts both hands up while he explains something further.

This carries on while I inch closer to the front of the crowd, looking at the red paint which has dripped like something else would, but I can’t think what. What is red and drips? The black metal door is closed and forbidding, but on the inside it is painted a bright colour. I can’t place the colour. The bar is long and runs almost the entire length of the left side of the room. Behind the bar the wall is stacked with shelves filled with bottles of alcohol. Near the centre of the wall there is a wide patch where almost all the bottles have been smashed.

In line with the patch of wall all but devoid of bottles there is a swathe of destruction reaching across the floor and ending at the opposite wall with the figure of a man propped up against the wall, his right arm resting on a knocked-over barstool. He could have been a drunkard, passed out after too hard a party the night before; there is a pool of darkly coloured something next to him and below his head, which lolls to the left side; it could have been mistaken for vomit if not for the small hole in his head still leaking blood.

A trail of blood leads from his body to the wall, where he had obviously been dragged. But who is he? I feel like that answer would be important. I lift my camera, happy to feel its weight again, focus on his hanging head and click. There is no shutter sound and no flash. Something must be wrong with the camera. But when I look at the photo in the viewfinder it’s perfect: head entering the picture from the left hand side, taking up a good portion of the frame, dark and ominous, looking like a sleeper, like a man passed out, but for that tiny hole and the deadness in his eyes.

I remember this man from last night. He was sitting at the bar when I came in. I sat next to him and ordered a drink. He had a black briefcase with him which he kept on the counter, resting his drink on top of the leather. Looking at him now I don’t see the briefcase. Both of his hands are empty. There’s no evidence of the shooter, at least that I can see, and nothing that gives me any idea as to what might have happened here last night. Or what might have happened to me afterwards

I sit down at the bar pulling up one of the upturned barstools and putting it in front of where the destruction took place. I look at the broken bottles, the still-dripping liquor, the scratch on the surface of the bar as if someone had pulled something along it. Something like a briefcase.

I was talking to that man last night. The man with the small hole in his head. The man with the white hair and the briefcase. He doesn’t have the briefcase anymore though. I shift the weight that rests uncomfortably in my left hand. I’m not sure what the weight is and I can’t bend my neck to look down, nor can I lift my hand to eye-level.

I had talked to the man last night. Or was it afternoon? The gunshot happened at night and I had the briefcase when the gun went off. The man and the bar must have been in the afternoon. There were few people drinking, the bar was poorly lit, and there was only one woman working behind the counter. The kitchen was closed. I remember because I ordered a burger and the bartender took my money but never brought me my burger. I was in a rush when I ran out of the back of the bar, but on the way past I looked through the door to the kitchen and it was empty.

I was talking to the man with the briefcase and the white hair when two other men came in, one stocky and wearing a suit, the other tall and muscular and wearing a sleeveless vest. They sat on either side of me and the man with the briefcase. The man with the briefcase and I looked at each other and his eyes deadened for a second. By the time I turned around and saw the reason for his reaction, the man to my left had already pulled the gun from inside his jacket and was pointing it at him. He pushed the briefcase towards me and tried to run, but the other one, the one on his right caught him and pushed him against the bar. I am watching this happen. Nobody else can see it, but I can see the three men, one white-haired and whimpering as the man in front of him, leaning against the opposite wall, is shooting bottles from the shelves behind the bar; the third man is standing off to one side, also holding a gun, but loosely at his side. More bottles explode behind the white head. More whimpering.

The man in the suit says something and the white-haired man answers and the former looks first at me and then the briefcase I’m resting my hand upon. I grab the handle without thinking and rush out of the back door, taking the suited man by surprise who shoots and misses breaking more bottles, and barrelling over the tall, muscular one whom I must also have taken by surprise.

I remember hearing some more whimpering and some more gunshots. Not to be the last of the evening. I remember hoping that the man with the white hair wasn’t dead.

Now I am sitting in the bar I was at yesterday afternoon and the white-haired man with the briefcase is lying against the wall where he’s been dragged for God knows what reason and I feel like I could use a drink but the alcohol does not smell appealing; and there’s no barman to get me a drink in any case, but even if there was, he wouldn’t be able to see me. And how did I get here? I remember being outside.

There’s another dead body down the other end of the bar, nearer to the back door through which I had escaped, and the barman is lying dead behind the counter, his blood mixed with the remainder of tens of bottles of various liquors. The smell is awful: slightly sweet but also sickeningly acrid.

I can’t remember what happened after I ran out the back. I’m assuming that the two chased after me. They had been there for the briefcase and not just to kill the man with the white hair, and I had run off with the briefcase they were looking for. Obviously they had chased me. But where did I go?

I decide to follow my footsteps which still echo across the bar and up the stairwell, the echo of a thud as I pounded into the sleeveless guy, the echo of my path up the stairs, panting, my feet slapping the steps, taking them two, three, at a time. I follow these noises.

I try not to look at the dead body near the door but can’t help glancing at his mangled face. They must have gunned him down as they ran past. Perhaps he had tried to stop them, to get in their way. Even if he had slowed them down, they still caught up to me not long after I burst out of the door at the top of the stairwell.

I hear that sound now. The crash as I slam into the painted-blue metal door that I can see at the top of the stairs, and then the second crash as it hits the brick wall outside. I take a deep breath, but nothing happens. I can feel my mouth is still closed and no air passes through my nostrils and there is no swelling in my chest as my lungs expand. I try to exhale as slowly, but again nothing. Have I forgotten how to breathe? Trying a few more times produces the same result. My eyes are closed now and I think I’m trying to cry, but I’m not sure. It bugs me that I’m unable to breathe. And it bugs me that I’m unable to cry.

My eyes open when I hear the explosion that was the last real thing I heard before I came here. I’m standing in my kitchen. The back door is swinging open, there is a storm brewing outside and I can see myself standing at the sink, camera around my neck, briefcase in my left hand; and there are two others in my kitchen as well. One with the tall, muscular build of a lock, and the other short and stocky like a prop. I don’t know who these men are or why they are in my house. Nor do I know why I am standing outside of myself, watching myself cower against the sink. It feels like a dream: I try to lift my left hand to feel the weight clasped there, I look at myself at the sink and think it’s probably the briefcase, but I can’t confirm this; my arm is too heavy for me to lift. There is another weight around my neck and looking at myself I think it’s my camera, but I cannot bend my head to see. The short, stocky stranger pulls a gun out of an inside pocket of his light-coloured suit and points it at me, unaware that I am not standing at the sink where I can see myself, but to his left, watching the scene. The taller of the two seems to look right through me and then back to my body at the sink. The shorter pulls the trigger of the gun that he has pointed at my face and I cannot hear the click, but I see him pull again and again and my body remains unaffected, except that it slouches a bit in relief. I cannot hear the words that the shorter of the two men screams at his partner, but the taller one, wearing the sleeveless vest passes his gun to the shorter.

Standing at the sink I seem to have gained life with the click that the gun surely must have made; throwing my hands up I seem to be asking why. Just that one word, mouthed over and over, but I can’t hear the sound that should accompany it.

It stirs something in me and I wonder the same. Why? That question breeds more. Who are these two men? What is in the briefcase and where did I get it? Why do they want it? How did I get here?

The last clear memory I have is of an explosion, like a gunshot, very loud and very close to me. Then blackness, only temporary, and silence, only temporary. There is a flash from outside and I’m not sure if it is lightning or something else, but my body is still propped against the sink. My right hand holds the camera, a finger on the button. I am still mouthing the word why, although I can’t really understand the question. The short man with the gun places the barrel between my eyes and says something that I can’t hear and I ask again, “Why?” and this time there is sound. The short man answers by pulling the trigger, I push the button on my camera setting off the flash. Two flashes.

I can look down now, and I tilt the camera to see the picture, but instead of seeing the short man from the side, pointing a gun at my now-collapsing corpse, the picture is of him standing a metre away, facing me and aiming the gun at a point near where my face should be. The line from his shoulder to my face takes up most of the picture; his face occupies a small circle near the top left of the frame. His features are dark but fierce.

I try to look up but I can’t. Everything loses colour and then the echo comes: an explosion between my eyes; the muzzle-flash blinds me, the sound deafens me, and the bullet kills me.

But the darkness and the silence don’t last. I can still see. Even after the gunshot.