As a teenager one of my favourite fictional characters was Gordon Comstock, the rather threadbare poet from George Orwell's Keep The Aspidistra Flying. I loved reading about the bookstore he worked in, and since then I held a belief that people who worked in bookstores were literary-minded, if not actually writers themselves.
In the past few years that illusion has been shattered - at least as far as South Africa's national bookstore chain Exclusive Books is concerned. Firstly, it was the experience of overhearing a customer asking a sales assistant at one branch if (oddly enough) 1984 was in stock, to which the assistant replied by asking:"Do you know the name of the author?" Then, at another branch, spotting Waiting for Godot stocked in the fiction section and finding a book of poetry located under western philosophy. A friend had enquired at yet another branch whether it had any travel books about Andalusia, and the assistant had replied:"What is that?" And just recently at a fourth branch I found a play that my own press had published displayed in the fiction section.
Granted, these could be dismissed as isolated incidents, and I admit that in the past year I did enjoy a chat with a sales assistant about Hunter S Thompson. But deteriorating product knowledge is becoming part and parcel of the retail sector in South Africa. For example, I recently encountered a sales assistant at a CD chain store who had never heard of Eric Clapton.
So, as far as bookstores are concerned, are we soon going to have sales assistants who do not know the authors of Sons and Lovers, To The Lighthouse, or Oliver Twist? This might be the case already - and I am too afraid put it to the test.
After all, South African bookstores, both large and small, are, with a handful of exceptions, not lovers of literature. Between a clothing store and a bookstore, the sole difference is the product. They are retailers in business to make a profit. It's not about the quality of the content, it's about the packaging and its potential to generate revenue.
But it is precisely product knowledge that enhances sales revenue, not ignorance. I've been amused by the reports that Waterstone's in the UK is looking into making their staff wear uniforms. I don't care about whether staff wear uniforms - all I want are staff who have a comprehensive knowledge of what they are selling and putting on the shelves.
After all, in a country such as South Africa, which is still facing a tremendous challenge in reducing illiteracy and is trying to develop a reading culture, bookstores, at the very least, should be setting an example.
(First published in The Bookseller, March issue)