THE BOOKSELLER: André Sales – Clarke’s Bookshop

André Sales

Situated on Cape Town’s bustling Long Street, Clarke’s Bookshop has a wide range of new and used titles (including a particularly fabulous selection of Africana). We chat to André Sales who has been selling books there since 2003.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

The book that I’ve just read which I recommend to everyone is Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang. It’s the sort of book I always enjoy reading, a personal history which manages to broaden my understanding of our country’s past. I particularly like the chapters describing the optimism of the early days of democracy, and later her experience of trying to come to terms with her place in middle-class suburban Johannesburg. It’s an honest perspective of a time in our country which I think we are still trying to understand.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

I think shoplifters have a wide range of interests just like customers who buy books. We did a stock check recently and couldn’t really pinpoint a genre of missing books.

The biggest seller of the past year?

The easy answer to this is The President’s Keepers – it was impossible to keep this book in stock for the first couple of months. But a book which we have actually sold more of is Collective Amnesia, a first poetry collection by Koleka Putuma and published by Uhlanga Press.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

I’ve made it a rule not to read underwhelming books. If a book doesn’t catch me I have no shame in putting it down and forgetting about it. There are so many amazing books that I don’t have time to read, so why waste time on reading a book that isn’t?

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Country of my Skullby Antjie Krog. We have a lot of tourists who come into the shop asking for a book about the history of apartheid, and I always suggest this. It gives a very visceral account of the atrocities of apartheid through the testimonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but Krog also engages deeply with her own identity as white and Afrikaans in post-apartheid South Africa. She also writes beautifully. I would recommend it to anyone who needs an understanding of how apartheid affected so many lives on a personal level.

The last thing you read that made you cry? 

Probably Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel places you very closely within the human experience of war, and it is devastating.

Is there a book you’d never sell?

I think the one book that I would never ever sell is Mein Kampf. I feel uneasy whenever someone even asks for it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

The thing that most people get surprised by is how much space we have behind the scenes. We send a lot of books to customers overseas, so the processing of that all happens behind closed doors. We also have a little garden upstairs at the back which is one of my favourite places to take time out and think.

The three writers you admire the most?  

Sindiwe Magona, who fought hard for her own education and is still working hard for the education others.

Thando Mgqolozana, for not just complaining at the Franschoek Literary Festival but actually doing something about it by starting the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto and Binyavanga Wainaina, for establishing Kwani? and creating a platform for new authors to get their work out.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

It’s boring to go into too much detail, but the short answer is cash flow, and admin.

Describe your archetypal customer. 

We have such a huge range of customers. Being on Long Street means we have a lot of tourists coming into our shop, but we’re also just around the corner from the court, so we have lawyers who regularly spend their breaks browsing the shelves. Because of our focus on South African books we have a lot of younger customers who are interested in South African and African fiction, as well as academics who find books on very specific subjects. We also have occasional politicians visiting the shop who like to browse both the recent political non-fiction as well as the second hand and out of print South African books.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The book as an object is one of my favourite things in the world. When I first started working with the antiquarian and collectible books in the shop I had to catalogue all the private press publications that we had which really made me fall in love with the processes involved in creating a book. Letter-printed pages make me happy every time I feel them. A couple of years ago I catalogued an old customer’s library of mostly collectible Africana which was also incredibly satisfying.

I get to open the front door of the shop each morning and be surrounded by books in every room for an entire day, every day. I can’t think of a better way to spend my working life.

And the worst part?

I’ve been trying to answer this all day, but it seems I reeeeally like my job.

POEM: Mothering: a pantoum

BY CHRISTINE COATES

Then my mother turned to me and said,
You could be made of wood.
Something died, something turned to dust,
Mother was a rose set in diamonds.

You could be made of wood.
Her turquoise dress with rhinestones,
Mother was a rose set in diamonds.
I wondered what the future held for a girl like me.

Her turquoise dress with rhinestones,
I already missed my daughter, not yet born,
I wondered what the future held,
was she too made of wood?

I already missed my daughter, not yet born,
when my mother turned to me and said,
was she too made of wood?
my mother turned to me and said.

REVIEW: Free Association

GARETH LANGDON finds Steven Boykey Sidley’s Free Association uncomfortably enjoyable.Free Association

I am sometimes troubled by the books that I enjoy the most. Not because of any grotesque obsession with violence, or taste for obscure melodrama or science fiction – but because the books I like the most highlight my personal shortcomings.

Free Association is a fantastic novel – but I’m not entirely sure that the reason I feel that way is simply because it is my kind of novel. Steven Boykey Sidley’s fourth novel follows the mind and life of Max Lurie, a down-and-out white male, mostly unsuccessful once-off novelist, now host of popular podcast ‘Free Association’ in which he speaks freely about life, love, and personal distress. It screams white privilege, something which Sidley cleverly highlights by juxtaposing Lurie with his South African producer, Bongani. The novel is structured around extracts from the podcast itself, in-between which a third person narrative takes over to provide the context for Max’s freely associated, pre-recorded ramblings. This style provides a careful insight into the character’s mind, while not neglecting the circumstances which give rise to his thoughts.

Free Association made me feel uncomfortable in how much I enjoyed it. Max Lurie is undoubtedly the epitome of white privilege, living comfortably in Hollywood and free to choose podcasting as a sustainable source of income – an unrealistic choice for most ordinary humans. However overwrought the character of Bongani might be (black, gay, immigrant, foreigner all at once), placing him in opposition to Max allows the reader (especially this reader) to be both disgusted and challenged by Max’s behaviour.

Max’s treatment of women is no different. The podcast speaks often of Anne, his “girlfriend” who is herself a total fiction. As a projection of Max’s psyche, she demonstrates his obvious assumptions about Women as group – she is always somehow against him, he can never seem to please her, he is conflicted by what she thinks about him – all of these reflections solipsistic to the Nth degree and stark indictments of Max’s gender bias. Several other prominent female characters provide little departure from Anne. Roxanne (or Ava to the podcast listeners) is a nubile co-worker with radical political beliefs and a shaved head who somehow overlooks Max’s chauvinism long enough to have sex with him, date him, and fail to reform him as a man in any meaningful way – instead she seems to concede to him in the classic motherly, pitying sense. Pixel aka Bethany is Max’s high school ex, a paragon of corporate female success, writ as disinterested in men, obsessed with her career and money, and powerful enough that Max’s penetration of her deepest vulnerabilities leaves her the expected cliché of a woman – powerful, but still weaker than any one man. This is most evident when Max has to rescue her from a mugger, getting stabbed in the process. You can only imagine the self pitying that went on on the podcast after that.

What made me so uncomfortable about how much I liked this book, as I may have mentioned, is how much of Max Lurie I identified with – I was sucked into each and every one of his self-absorbed rants on the podcast, dying to hear more about what he thought about himself and his world. I felt myself internally nodding, and proclaiming “YES! Exactly!” as I read, chuckling to myself at Max’s darker moments as an act of solidarity. Max, when you think about it, is a vile character – self-obsessed and devoid of self-awareness, uncritical, chauvinistic and a little bit racist. But I loved him.

The novel’s climax is slowly introduced through another ostensibly middling character, initially hidden in Max’s periphery, but soon brought to the fore by a series of shocking events – Jake. Jake is a homeless man, evidently schizophrenic, dirty and alone. He lives in the alleyway near Max’s home and was happily minding his own business until Max felt the need to “help”. Max soon learns that Jake is a failed physicist who, once on the brink of tremendous scientific breakthrough, unfortunately succumbed to severe mental illness, his tragic downfall leading to a life on the street. Jake is probably the most intelligent and level-headed of all the characters in the noveln and thanks to that is keenly aware of the dynamics at play in Max’s life and the world at large.

Max waxes lyrical about Jake on the podcast, but some of his creative licentiousness proves very upsetting to Jake, who snaps. Without giving the rest of the story away, the events which transpire lead Max to a kind of epiphany where, after long conversations with Bongani (remember him, the black friend?), he decides to change tack with the podcast. Now it will be called ‘Outsiders’ and will take a careful look, through interviews, at the lives of everyone on the “outside” – the old, the poor, the mentally ill, the immigrant.

But Max’s progression is undoubtedly set to reinforce the exact same tropes which were reserved, mercifully, for his own mind in Free Association. What Max and Bongani sadly don’t realise is that turning the attention of the podcast outside – hell, even the name ‘Outsiders’ – far from doing those on society’s periphery a service, does little more than solidify the existing prejudice which led to their exclusion in the first place. It will highlight their difference, making them even more weird and esoteric, and even more excluded.

Free Association was a challenging read because it made me mad at myself about how I view the world as a white man. I was mad at Max, but I could see myself in him, and that is the power of any good novel – through identification with character we are made to, more and more, question our own core beliefs. Sidley’s great achievement in his fourth novel is that, while catering to the rather narrow tastes of a self-absorbed white, male, millennial reader, has also brought into stark revelation the shortcomings of that reader’s worldview.

Free Association is published by Picador Africa.

POEM: Fame

KIRSHIN C. GEORGE

They’ll come knocking at my door only
when I am dead. My body will be in there
for a couple of days
and nobody will answer.
They’ll turn away
and the world will forget about me