JOBURG FOR INTROVERTS is a guide for those of us who hate crowds, and who just want to find a quiet spot and be left alone (if you’re looking for a ‘vaaibe’, you won’t find it here). Next to feature are two bookish spots in the CBD: the Johannesburg City Library and Bridge Books in Commissioner Street.
I recently went on a half-day walking tour with Microadventure Tours that included a visit the Johannesburg City Library, as well as a number of other bookish stops. I won’t go into too much detail of the tour, as it’s amazing and you really need to go on it yourself, but introverts, I think we’ve struck gold.
The Johannesburg Library walking tour is fairly new and is led by Kennedy Welani Tembo, an exuberant and athletic man who’s originally from Malawi. His passion for his adopted city is palpable and he really knows his history. He runs his own tour company, called Microadventure Tours, and I’m convinced this guy is Joburg energy, in human form.
The library tour starts off at 6 Simmonds Street in Marshalltown, at a small and hipsteresque coffee shop called GOAT Coffee (an acronym for Greatest Of All Time). GOAT is right across the road from the Standard Bank headquarters, and I presume it’s frequented by people in suits during the week. Unfortunately they’re only open on weekdays from 7am to 3pm; they open up for the tour though, as the price includes a free coffee.
After coffee we set off and head up Simmonds Street, towards the library; it’s a perfect Saturday morning after the previous night’s rain, and the CBD streets are calm and fairly empty. The group is also on the small side, so it’s not overwhelming.
The Johannesburg City Library is located in the centre of Joburg, opposite Beyers Naudé Square (which is named after Beyers Naudé, a former dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church who was banned by the apartheid government). It also happens to be across the road from the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House.
The wind from the previous night’s storm has blown some trash on the library steps. It’s peaceful outside and there are no skateboarders today (the library steps and ramps are popular amongst inner-city skaters).
In front of the library is the statue, Democracy is Dialogue, created by Lawrence Lemaoana, which depicts the universal ‘goddess of democracy’: she usually holds a torch, but in this incarnation she holds a Molotov cocktail and she has a baby on her back. The statue symbolises the violence that occurred pre-1994, as well as how women in protest were not passive.
The building’s exterior is impressive. It’s built in an Italianate/neo-Renaissance style, and was designed by Cape Town architect John Perry. Opened in 1935, the library was originally a tin shack in Kerk Street and was subscription-based. At the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the ZAR government – in an attempt to bring some ‘culture’ to the rough and dusty gold-mining town – funded the formation of the library. In 1924 a professional librarian was imported from Liverpool; a plot of land was bought and construction began in 1929.
The library’s metal entrance doors lead into an imposing foyer: Victorian printing presses flank either side, and marble staircases lead to the floors above. The lending library is on the left (four books can be taken out at a time; membership is free and you just need your proof of residence and ID to sign up). The central reference library is to the right.
The only sound is a squeaky escalator; there’s a definite hush of silence in this space and it’s divine. (Unfortunately no images of the inside of the library are included in this post, as publishing photography of any kind, even on phones, is not allowed).
We’re told by the head librarian that the Johannesburg City Library has over 1.5-million books in its collection and more than 250 000 members. Technically it’s made up of eight specialist libraries, including a children’s library, the Michaelis art library, a music library, and the Harold Strange Library of African Studies, among others. The building consists of three floors, and the library stretches under Simmonds street for a few blocks – the subterranean, temperature-controlled storage area still has space for “a couple more generations”.
The library was closed and upgraded from 2009 to 2012, and it cost R68 million. The City of Johannesburg, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, funded the major revamp. The library still has its original tiles, marble and ceilings, but escalators, lifts, a study area with 560 seats, uncapped Wi-Fi, public access internet, and skylights were added.
Over weekends some of the specialist libraries are closed, but the Michaelis art library is open. It’s a beautiful space with shiny parquet flooring and bookshelves that snake in an S-shape (it’s the largest public art library in South Africa).
The tour visits a few other spots, including the Rand Club (which is usually closed to the public and only open to members; here you’ll also get to check out James Findlay Collectable Books & Antique Maps, which is located in the basement of the Rand Club). Along the way you’ll be able to take in some of the city’s architectural sites, too, such as Corner House and Victory House.
The tour also visits Bridge Books, a bookshop that has an emphasis on African writers. It has another newer branch in Maboneng (which I haven’t been to), but its CBD outlet is a great introvert spot (the coffee, not so great – if you’re a coffee snob like me I suggest you avoid the cappuccino, or at least order an extra shot; I was told the Americano was OK). They have Wi-Fi and a few tables to sit and chill at – the prime spot being a three-seat counter that has big, glass windows that look onto Commissioner Street.
They’re also one of the few places in the CBD that are open on a Saturday; my recommendation is to get here early, have an Americano, then walk a few blocks to the library to spend an hour or two at one of the study tables in the Michaelis library, in introvert heaven.
Pro tip: parking is always a mission in the CBD, but on a Saturday morning you should be able to find a spot near Bridge Books (it’s between Loveday and Rissik streets), or, you could park close to the library, which is on the corner of Albertina Sisulu Road and Pixley Seme Street (formerly Sauer Street).
There is underground parking right near Beyers Naudé Square, but, even though it’s empty over weekends, you may run into trouble parking here. It belongs to the Gauteng provincial government and I’ve had issues before, so I recommend you rather park in the basement of the Franklin hotel, which is a short walk from the library, on Pritchard Street (it costs R10 per hour, if I recall correctly).
Also, don’t forget that many of the M2 highway’s on- and off-ramps near the CBD are closed until October, so plan your route beforehand (if you’re not sure, check out this post from Johannesburg In Your Pocket, which is really helpful).
Keep in mind that the library is busy during exam time, and school and university holidays (except in December, when it’s apparently almost deserted; it’s closed from 24 December to 2 January though). Avoid between 2pm and 3pm on weekdays when it’s packed and gets a bit noisy. Saturdays are generally a bit crowded too, so try get here earlier in the morning. The library is closed on Sundays.
The central lending library is open from Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm, and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm; the reference library’s hours are from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, and from 9am to 1pm on Saturdays.
The Johannesburg library and walking tour takes about four hours and costs R180 for adults and includes a free coffee (kids under 12 can attend for free; pensioners R150 with a free coffee). For more information visit Microadventure Tours or follow their Facebook and Instagram pages.
Bridge Books is located at 95 Commissioner Street and is open Mon – Fri, 6:30am to 4pm; Sat 7:30am to 4pm.