Brixton is just a stone’s throw out of Mayfair and like Mayfair, is an onamastic bearer of Blighty’s historically imperialist ways. Brixton is a lot like Hilbrow, squealing squalor from weather beaten balconies, while memories of its best days live on its oldest residents. But while Hillbrow is keenly populated by its own peculiar brand of businesspeople, Brixton has become the stamping ground of another breed of businessmen, Bengali, plying their trade in convenience stores, on every available corner. Between them, Brixton’s Protea shopping centre stands out like the proverbial hair in the soup. It’s never been exactly glamorous, but growing up, it was the closest thing to a mall in the proximity. I whiled away many school afternoons at the centre, often under the pretence of needing school supplies from CNA. I’d walk through, Clicks and Truworths blissfully charging whatever appealed to me to my imaginary plastic currency. I remember buying my first tub of fruit flavoured lip balm from the Mr Price for all of R5.00. The stuff of a twelve-year-old’s happiness.
There isn’t a CNA anymore in the Protea centre, nor a Truworths, not even a Clicks. But the Pick n Pay, remains a defiant stalwart. And so on my way to stocking up on weekend kitchen supplies for mum, I dropped the latest pair of sunglasses to have suffered disfigurement at my hands at the optometrist, and having some time to bide while my shades had long overdue surgery, I limbered into a second hand bookstore, promising myself to just look through.
On the heavily laden classics shelf, I found a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, a 1921 impression. Well thumbed through, a Scottish publisher, its original owner’s name neatly lettered on the inside, its pages fading, truly charmant. A throwback to a time when literature was the domain of a privileged few. As Penguin like to say, ‘In 1935 if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card.’ And there A Tale of Two Cities stands, in a second hand bookstore in a Brixton, Johannesburg, with Kurt Darren blaring overhead and a price tag of R25.00.
With my more tangible plastic currency, I’ve made it my own. The stuff of a twenty something’s happiness.