Introducing JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS, a guide for those of us who hate crowds, and who just want to find a quiet spot to sit down and relax (and, ideally, for other people to leave us alone). Each month I’ll feature a place endorsed by me, a bona fide introvert/borderline-hermit, and if you’re looking for a ‘vaaibe’, you won’t find it here. A place is featured based on how tranquil it is, and gets bonus points if not many people frequent it (I’ll indicate quietest times to visit if it’s a popular place). I won’t review food and drink per se, but will mention if such things are on offer. This is a guide dedicated to My People, the introverts of Joburg. Second to feature is Vargas Cafe in Parkwood… introverts, enjoy!
Like the first spot to feature in the JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS series, Vargas Cafe is fairly unknown. It used to be located in a corner at the Military Museum in Saxonwold, but it moved to Bolton Road in Parkwood about 18 months ago. It’s a bit of an ethically problematic place, though – it has a shop attached to it that specialises in war and military memorabilia, called The War Store – and I’ll need to give a disclaimer right upfront: if you decide to go into The War Store, you’re going to come across things like original Nazi insignia and old South African flags, which are both highly offensive things to see. Admittedly, I was a little morbidly fascinated by the Nazi ‘memorabilia’ (I feel like that’s completely the wrong word for it?), as I’d never seen Nazi stuff in real life, BUT, I did feel a bit ill looking at some of it – especially an SS officer’s hat. Complete with totenkopf skull and crossbones, the thought that this artefact of pain was actually worn by an actual SS guard, who most likely, inflicted all sorts of horror on people, was unsettling. The thought that it was for sale was an additional cognitive Pandora’s Box.
Nevertheless, I’ve decided to feature Vargas Cafe – and the attached War Store – as it really is an introvert friendly space, and I’m discovering that those are hard to come by. It’s also something totally out of the ordinary, and if you like history, it’ll blow your mind. But venture into The War Store with caution, is all I’m saying (it’s also possible to just visit the outdoor section of the cafe and not set foot in the store). I should mention here that there is a big sign at the store’s entrance that says the owners do not subscribe to any particular political ideology.
When I went to Vargas Cafe it was a Saturday morning, around 11am, and mostly people-less – which, naturally, brought me joy. I sat outside at a table that was under a tree, and ordered an Americano. There was just a couple sitting at one of the other tables, and I was told that it’s generally pretty quiet over weekends, but busy during the week. The coffee was pretty decent but I didn’t eat anything (there’s a menu with a number of breakfast options, burgers, toasted sandwiches, and the like).
I was unharassed sitting outside, and I felt I could take my time drinking my coffee – I actually ended up spending about two hours sitting there, doodling in my notebook, taking photos, and generally introverting. I was exceedingly curious about the adjoining War Store, however, and obvz had to go in….
The owner, Alan Colman, is so passionate about war that his ringtone is heavy artillery fire (it goes off while I’m talking to him and I almost have a cardiac event; he laughs). He’s wearing a khaki-coloured shirt with a picture of Stalin throwing a metal sign that reads “Stylin’.” While his choice in T-shirts may be questionable, his knowledge of military trivia is next level (he tells me that he’s always loved military history but he has no formal history education – everything he knows is ‘from books’). His grandfather gave him his old war medals when he was eight years old, and he’s been obsessed ever since. Alan is often consulted for advice for historical films and TV shows, and the store’s contents (every single thing you see in the shop is for sale) is sometimes used for props and photo shoots. I ask him if most of his customers are middle-aged white men. “They make up most of our clients, yes, but we do have some really serious women collectors, too,” says Alan. “There’s a woman who runs an Anglo Boer War museum in Bloemfontein who specialises in women’s trench art and female military uniforms. But it’s mostly men who buy from us. Men and boys – men for their man caves, and boys because of video games.”
I ask Alan if he has any black clientele, and he tells me that his biggest customers are from the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), as the men wear a khaki, military-style uniform as part of their religious attire (see this article for a little more on that). “Oh, and we get a lot of requests from young black guys for clothing for hip-hop videos, when they’re looking for a gangster, Idi Amin vibe – same goes for weddings, believe it or not,” adds Alan.
Alan very kindly shows me around the store, and while he talks I realise that he has a Sheldon Cooper enthusiasm-intensity about all things war, except instead of String Theory, his thing is military history. If you think history is boring you need to spend half an hour with Alan.
The War Store boasts everything from samurai armour to Top Gun fighter pilot helmets; World War I artillery shells to PLO patches; Rhodesian army boots to defunct Russian hand grenades. When Alan’s cargo pants go pa!pa!pa!pa!papapappapapappappapapa! I’m left to my own devices; I get the idea in my head that it’d be hilarious to try on an ’80s-era, Johannesburg traffic department jacket (top tip: all are Afrikaans man-sized). While I’m trying on the jacket purely for my own amusement, a young, trendy-looking black guy walks in. He buys many things, and it makes me think of a scene from that Martin Bashir documentary about Michael Jackson, where they go to a Las Vegas shop and MJ points at everything and says, “I’ll take that one and that one and that one and two of those and that one and that one…”
Mr Hip Guy sees me and points to my camera. “Are you a photographer?”
“No, I just take photos for a random blog.”
(I don’t like that a camera brings attention to myself).
“I get that,” he replies, in a not-quite American accent. “Sometimes I walk around with a camera round my neck because it looks cool.”
He then asks Alan, who’s in his fifties, if he fought in World War II, and I laugh-weep inside.
Inside The War Store, there’s a small section that’s an extension of the coffee shop, and it’s a reconstruction of a ‘scramble’ area during the Battle of Britain, where RAF pilots would wait for the call to fly, which could literally come at any moment (they’d have three minutes to get into their planes once the sirens wailed). So they’d eat breakfast right on the airfield – hence a patch of Astroturf. There’s also a very comfy-looking leather couch that could be perfect for reading a book in winter – just try ignore the ol’ swastika on the wall (not pictured, for obvious reasons).
There’s an old man sitting at one of the inside tables, having a cup of coffee and reading the paper. Watching him makes me think that Vargas Cafe is the kind of place where you can channel your inner old man – I know I definitely have one. He’s the one who’s a bit grumpy and fought in ‘The War’ (but won’t talk about it); the one who’s not bothered about ‘being PC’, and who thinks that the youth have it far too easy these days.
He’s also the old guy who just wants to read the newspaper with his coffee – the way he’s drank it for the past forty years – unbothered and in peace and quiet.
Vargas Cafe is open Mon – Fri 10am to 5pm; Sat – Sun 10am to 2pm. You can find it at 18 Bolton Road, Parkwood.