Three advertising books and the story of a world moved on

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I’ve been planning to build on my humble collection of marketing and advertising books, for various reasons. Primarily to read them, of course. The other day I took all the ones I own out to see how many I had and to proudly gaze upon my not-so-immense library of knowledge. In amongst them were the three books in the photo above — Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan, How Brands Become Icons by Douglas Holt and Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel. Three timeless pieces of marketing literature which have stood the test of time. But that’s not why I’ve dragged you into this blog post today. Seeing them again reminded me of the story of how I bought them second hand a few years ago.

It was 2013, after living in Johannesburg for two years my wife and I wanted to go spend Christmas in Port Elizabeth where we’d moved from. The only problem was that we had to take our two Jack Russells with us. The Christmas period isn’t conducive to dog sitters. I scoured the internet looking for somewhere halfway that had space and could take dogs. Not an easy task that time of year. Eventually I found a spot in Smithfield which ticked both boxes.

Off we went. Smithfield, despite probably being a little better than most Free State small towns, was nevertheless a bit of a nothing town. I remember driving alone to find a liquor store for a beer and a bottle of wine after settling in, and finding a liquor store of the type that has all the booze locked behind bars. The shop assistant served you as if he was in a jail cell. Squinting my eyes (didn’t know I’d need my specs to pick out wine), I pointed to something that was probably the only non-sweet wine there. Beer quarts were, of course, in abundance. I walked back out into the dusty street, the sun fading behind the hill. All eyes on me. I felt a little like Clint Eastwood about to enter a final shootout scene.

Enquiring about dinner options, our guesthouse recommended an establishment two houses down. To be fair, I don’t think they had anywhere else to recommend. By default we had our dinner venue. Strange, I didn’t see anything that resembled a restaurant two houses down. Just old fashioned houses with dusty yards bordered by farm-like fencing.

We walked over at 7pm with that nervous feeling of not knowing what you’re in for. In through a rusty old gate, around the house and . . . . oh! This wasn’t too bad. Quite charming in fact. Cute booths ran along a glassed in area at the exterior of the place. Quaint decorations were displayed on the walls, places to sit outside, the sun was going down in a lovely orange glow, while music played from somewhere inside. This was fine. More than fine.

A man showed us a seat. He offered wine, which he probably wasn’t allowed to do — they weren’t licensed. I wasn’t about to say no. After a while a guy in a wheelchair rolled around and introduced himself. An old white guy with a beard. Clearly the owner, he explained the meal options we had. We had a choice of two dishes, which he described with great enthusiasm and delight, detailing each ingredient and the resulting flavours. Eventually the food came, and while not award winning, it was wholesome and did the job.

The place was filling up. The old man was doing a lot of wheeling and a lot of talking around us. He finally got around to us and asked how we enjoyed the meal. We got to talking a little more. He discovered we were both in marketing and advertising. His eyes lit up, and he relayed his story that he was in fact an ex-lecturer of marketing at a leading advertising school in Johannesburg. Had been for many years.

“Want to see my advertising book collection?” He asked. His eyes glinted. Turns out the old chap was a bookseller as well. This was getting better. “Follow me,” he said, and wheeled further into his place. I followed behind him, and he led me to an entire wall of books, all marketing or advertising related books. Second hand, of course. He recommended three in particular, which I duly bought — the three in the photo above. I am a bit of a sucker in this regard. Or am I? Here they are with me in London. They made it from Smithfield in the Free State, through five years in Johannesburg before travelling across the world.

“Have you seen hour main bookstore?” He asked as I was paying. Huh? Main bookstore? He gave directions to the place next door. We shook hands and my wife and I went out into the well-lit night. A path led to a lit up house next door with the door open, just as he described. And there it was. And entire regular sized house packed with books.

I’d spent enough. And clearly all the good stuff was next door in the main house. But still, the fact that this charming bookstore was here, in this nonentity of a town, open at that moment at night, was an experience of its own. Thinking back now that was one of the better bookstore experiences I’ve had. I love bookstores. I never walk past one without entering. I can walk around them for ages. But these days, oddly, I never buy. I take photos, then buy on Amazon. Usually at a cheaper price. I’m part of the problem aren’t I? The small, unique, the charming, pushed aside. For the big. For the uniformly soulless and charmless.

Fast forward five years. We spent the night in Smithfield at the end of 2018, for the first time in five years. We’d come to prefer the other route down to Port Elizabeth, usually leaving the dogs with a sitter. Consequently I hadn’t been through Smithfield for that entire time. On this occasion, despite no dogs, we had a much more precious traveller with us — our daughter. The restaurant was gone. The building looked empty. Probably for some time by the look of it. There was a derelict air about it. The bookstore next door was obviously gone too. Hard to believe these places were ever there. The rusty exterior features of the house and garden seemed to whisper a story of a world that had moved on. Why do we expect houses and shops to remain the same? Nothing else in life does. The charming restaurant and its owners gone. In its place . . . nothing. An empty shell of a building. Somehow I doubted that the old man in the wheelchair and his fellow owner had gone on to better things in the years that followed.

Driving the next day I thought of the small grocer shop in our area when I was growing up. The type where you could get a coldrink, cigarettes, milk or a lotto ticket. We came to know the owners — both sets of them. My mother and I would stop there often. Next to it was a small liquor store and then a butchery. Like the Smithfield restaurant that shop is long gone too. Much longer. How many others like it? In the name of progress we steamroller over the small, the unique, the memorable. The grocer and the restaurant in Smithfield are one and the same. Relics of another time and place. Forced out of that time and place by a world that just consumes and moves on.

And here I am now in London in 2019, looking at these books, remembering the night I bought them. Of course, they’ll always be in my shelf, because they will always tell more than one story. They’ll remind me over and over again of a world that was.

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