This post was originally written on 7 November 2013.

On Thursdays I work at the CAFDA Bookshop in Claremont.

CAFDA (Cape Flats Development Association) is a local community organization that focuses on providing social programs and services to residents of the Cape Flats. The Cape Flats (including Athlone, where I used to stay and where my church is) is an area that especially struggles with issues including poverty, unemployment, drug use, gangsterism, and violence. All of the books are donated, and nearly all of the proceeds go to the work of CAFDA.

At the CAFDA bookshop, I spend the majority of my time sorting and organizing books.

I love it. I love being surrounded by books. I love that the shelves are wood and the signs are hand-written. I love the smell of old books (even when they smell like moth balls). I love that I get to interact with all sorts of customers looking for all sorts of books. But mostly, I love the hidden treasures.

You see, when people donate books, they often forget to check inside them before giving them away. Often while I’m sorting, I find little surprises in the books. Today, I found:

  • A thank you card to “Hilary” from 1984
  • A little illustrated picture of Santa
  • A poem about donkeys
  • Old photos of a beautiful young woman in a graduation cap and gown
  • Flowers that had been pressed between the pages of Die Byble (Afrikaans Bible)

Whenever I find a hidden treasure, I stop for a moment. I wonder: Where was the photo taken? Who wrote the poem? Were the flowers from a special event?

These small tokens inside the books are mysterious and beautiful. But, you see, they aren’t the only hidden treasures in the CAFDA bookshop.

There are also the books themselves.

Due to the nature of selling only donated books, our inventory is a little unusual. Sure, we have copies of The Da Vinci Code and Eat, Pray, Love. But we also have textbooks, old sheet music of Mendelssohn, an entire wall of National Geographic magazines, a how-to book about proper concrete mixing, and a whole section of South African history, politics, and economics.

 Today, I found three hidden treasures among this vast wonderland of the written word:

  • A book of poetry written by women in South African prisons
  • A collection of short stories about life in the Townships surrounding Cape Town
  • A guide to birds in the Western Cape and where to find them

These books are not those you would find in a Barnes & Noble or Exclusive (a South African bookstore). They are books you find on the shelves of a used bookshop.

But, you see, I still haven’t mentioned the best of the hidden treasures. The true gems, the really precious riches are not even on the shelves at CAFDA.

They are the other volunteers.

The CAFDA Bookshop is staffed, almost exclusively, by volunteers. Almost all of the volunteers are elderly, and are white. This is not my typical community in Cape Town. This is definitely not who I expected to accompany. And yet, the time I spend with these people is fascinating and fun.

On Thursdays, I spend time with:

  • Andrew, who spent time looking up fun things for young people to do in Muizenberg and came in with a list of things I could do on my weekends
  • Professor Owen, who calls me “The American Delegation”
  • Alistair, who explained to me today the secret of a long-lasting happy marriage (“Never argue with your wife, she is always right”)
  • Bradley, my manager, who never ceases in lovingly teasing us all
  • Michael, who described to me what it was like the first time he heard John Mayer (we proceeded to discuss our favorite lyrics)
  • Joy. Joy is the first person I have met in Cape Town who is Jewish (it is not a common religion among South Africans). She and I talk about religion, politics, and Israel/Palestine. We also talk about family, work, travel, and our life philosophies. Joy loves to play scrabble and insists that I bake for her before I leave. She once told me that she thinks I am at least 38, because I have such a wise old soul. I told her she isn’t a day over 40 because she is so full of youth and vitality.

Sometimes, I feel like I inherited a whole bunch of South African grandparents. And it is awesome.

It helps me get a better breadth of understanding about the problems this country is facing today, 20 years post-apartheid. It challenges me to have hard conversations with people I have so much in common with demographically. It challenges them to change their assumptions about young Americans coming to Cape Town (especially with the official title of “missionary.”) It is not always easy or comfortable, but I am so thankful for it.

The hidden treasures of my Thursdays, whether they are tokens, books, or people, help me to remember the joy of the unexpected. I challenge myself to reflect with wonder instead of judgment, and to walk alongside people whose stories are familiar and yet foreign to me.


Thank God for Hidden Treasures.