FEATURE: Big on books in a tiny Karoo town

BookBedonnerd in Richmond

Dawn Garisch visits Richmond for the BookBedonnerd Festival and comes away enchanted.

Richmond? A Book Town?

You might well ask. We’re talking Great Karoo. We’re talking about the kind of town that boasts many second-hand book shops and literary events. The most famous book town is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, but they exist all over the world – there are 27 listed on Wikipaedia.

Peter Baker and Darryl Davids

A few months ago a man called Darryl David contacted me and asked me to participate in one of the book festivals. I was vaguely aware of a town in SA called Richmond (there are two), but I was oblivious as to what is happening there. I agreed, and have just returned from a fascinating adventure.

Darryl describes himself as a threatened species – an Afrikaans lecturer at a university. We all have our passions outside work, but Darryl’s vision to start a book town in SA evolved from his doctoral thesis on literary tourism in the Karoo. Many of our most famous writers were either born in the Karoo, or lived there, and the landscape forms a backdrop to many works of fiction and non-fiction.

It took Darryl 6 years to find the right town. Many municipalities that he approached turned the idea down, saying they already had an identity built around wine or star-gazing or heritage. But Richmond is a place no-one had a reason to stop, unless they wanted to pee or to visit one of the many sites of battle in the Anglo-Boer war.

Book town Richmond has been going for eight years, against all odds. Although it is fairly central, it is also a whole day’s journey to get there from most major cities. The location is attractive, nestling as the town does between hills, but much of the town needs maintenance and the river is canalised.

To address the run-down aspects of the town, Darryl has come up with the idea of a picture book town, and has persuaded several artists to travel to the town to paint impressive murals which lend a further quirky edge to the experience of visiting.

The Bookbedonnerd festival itself is unlike any other festival I have been to. It is not supported by publishers. There are no parallel sessions, and the printed programme is very rudimentary, with little information about either the speakers, or what they are going to talk about. Set menu, rather than à la carte. Only about 50 to 70 people are packed into an air-conditioned library venue for each talk. Yet I met visitors who had been coming back to the festival every year because they enjoy it so much. Despite its location and small size, the festival has attracted some big names: Patrick Mynhardt, Ahmed Kathrada, David Kramer, Deon Meyer, Antjie Krog, Etienne van Heerden, Mongane Wally Serote, Albie Sachs, Eben Venter, Jonty Driver.

I arrived thinking that I would skip many items on the agenda, yet found myself staying for most, intrigued and stimulated by the diversity. One of the things that impressed me was that several of the speakers had gone the independent publishing route, because mainstream publishers had rejected their manuscripts on the grounds that the subject matter was too niche. As Darryl himself has co-authored two important volumes on the churches of SA with Philippe Menache, he is not snobbish about self-publishing. He hunts out authors who have put their passions down onto the page, and we are the richer for this.

I listened to talks as diverse as the stone bridges of the Eastern Cape, memoirs of a vet, the letters of Olive Schreiner, motivational texts on how to live more generously and less fearfully, and poetry of exile, and of belonging.

Art exhibitions were running concurrently, which included works by prominent SA artists, and there was a musical event each evening.

I sold my own books, and bought a pile of both new publications from my fellow speakers, and second-hand books from the six shops on main road for my already overloaded shelves back home. I met the most interesting and eccentric people on the stoep of the local restaurant and pub, and participated in an experiment that has proved its staying power as a destination for bibliophiles.

If you are travelling on the N1, I highly recommend stopping off at Richmond to browse through the well-stocked second hand book shops. I found volumes there that I have not been able to locate in Cape Town.

Even better, treat yourself to one of SA’s richest offerings for literary tourists, and book yourself into Richmond for one of the festivals.

Dawn Garisch is the author of many books, including Eloquent Body (Modjaji, 2012), and Dance With Suitcase (Tiber Tree Press, 2013).

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