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.