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I've been collecting books since the early 1990's starting with South African literature. One of my first first editions is July's People by Nadine Gordimer which I bought in 1993. This was followed by a period of collecting South African history books mainly focused on the apartheid era. I built this collection by scouring every second-hand bookstore in South Africa that I could find including Select Books in Cape Town and Collector's Treasury in Johannesburg. Regular travel to the UK and US gave me ample opportunities to visit the many rare bookstores of London and New York as my interest broadened to rare literature and modern first editions. By 2005, I had 2,000 books in my collection and converted half of my townhouse into a library. I created a business library at the company I had founded so moved all my business, finance and economics books there which freed up space at home.

Athol Williams Library 1

First library. Morningside, Johannesburg, 2005. 2,000 books

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Athol in Library.jpg

From mid-2000s, in addition to regularly visiting rare book stores in South Africa, UK and US, I also began buying books through auction houses, mainly online. I continued to deepen my South African literature and history collections as well as world literature. I only collect English-language books because it is my intent that I should be able to read every book that I buy. This does limit my collection since many of the great writers wrote in languages other than English. In 2011, I built a custom-designed library measuring 77 square metres with 3m high ceilings. The flooring was recycled Zimbabwe teak and the shelving and cabinets were manufactured to spec. The room was temperature and humidity-controlled and no food was allowed ... although drinks definitely were with the well-stocked whisky and cognac cabinet.

Second library. Bryanston, Johannesburg, 2011. 10,000 books

By this time my collection had grown to 10,000 books and included extensive collections of modern first editions, finely bound sets and many rare texts. I had expanded into collecting philosophy and politics texts and deepening collections of some of my favourite authors such as British authors John Masefield, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw, and South African greats like Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Andre Brink. The library contained roughly 2,000 pre-19th century books with the earliest dated back to 1609. Most of the poems in Talking to a Tree were written in this room.

In 2013, I tried to scale down significantly so kept my favourite 1,000 books and sold the rest to a rare book dealer. It was a traumatic process. I consoled myself by the fact that I had always considered myself not the owner of the books but a custodian. Just like others had read or held the books up to 400 years earlier, they had passed through my hands and were on their way to new custodians. In the end the sale collapsed and I was only able to sell 3,000 of the books. The remaining books went into storage.

Only five years later, in 2018, did I re-establish the library, this time in Cape Town. The library now contains 7,000 books with a rough distribution of 1,000 books of poetry, 1,000 books of philosophy & politics, 1,000 South African history, 500 South African literature, 2,000 modern literature and 1,500 rare and finely bound books. This library is much more modestly built and furnished than the previous two but is still an amazing space to read and write.



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Third library. Cape Town, 2018. 7,000 books

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