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THE FIFTH COLUMN

Sometimes I think South African retail websites don’t actually want to sell anything. Well, okay — maybe they want to sell some Weber braais, especially at Christmastime, and possibly the odd pair of R1 500 Nikes. But books? Not so much. Not even Exclusive Books, the biggest book retailer in South Africa by floor space, has a site that works terribly well.

It’s bad enough with the mega-marketers who do things on a WalMart scale: Builders Express (or Warehouse) can show you something on their website without being able to tell you whether it’s really available, whether it’s to be had in a physical shop or, if not, how long it would take to obtain it. Often it can’t even give you the price.

Go to an actual, physical Builders Warehouse shop and ask for the item you’ve seen online, and … well, if it’s not already physically present in the shop, there’s naught for your comfort. Builders Warehouse/Express staff are trained only to tell you what they see when they look something up on the computer, and if computer says no …

I’m sorry to single out Builders Warehouse, because many other such sites are just as bad. I pick on Builders Warehouse because that’s where I’ve had the most frustrating attempts to spend money, attempts usually thwarted. And because they don’t have an apostrophe where they should have.

What truly gets me is a book site that can’t even find what you’re asking for, or which offers you so many variations on the search term that you have to comb through page upon page of irrelevant items. Look for Robert Littell, a great writer of spy thrillers, on Takealot, and you get anything and everything with a “Robert” in its name, from The Adventures of Little Robert to CDs by Robert Cray — plus, for reasons I don’t understand, Marltons Cat Litter Crystals (R95). Surely that search engine is failing to do its job.

On Loot, you will find Littell’s name muddled up with that of Robert S Littell, who published something called The Living Age from 1844 onwards, endless bits of which have been anthologised and republished. Amazingly, these volumes of ancient text, reproduced in facsimile, are on sale for amounts such as R938 (for volume 190) or R717 (volume 217). Don’t spend the money, dear customer — it’s all in the public domain and to be had for free from the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Not that you actually want to read any of it.

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by Amazon, but it’s too tedious to sift though 200 items to find books by Robert Littell without the interstitial S, so one gives up. One tries the Exclusive Books site, except there the problems are different. In the first 50 items by Littell that come up on exclusivebooks.com, all but two are “currently unavailable” — and one of those is a different Littell.

No, I will not “add to [my] wishlist”. I will go to a site on which they are currently available.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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