The Vampire Books

Joshua Hibbert.jpg

John is back from Tasmania, and he came to tell me about his bike trip of 1400km, taken through rain, sun and good cheer. He told me about the best thing of all.

“ …this is the best thing of all: I rode up to the Mt Wellington car park – right up the top of that place, it was like heaven to ride around the top of that car park, it was flat and it was heaven. I am an old man you know! And a lady and her husband were up there and they clapped me when I got there…because I am old I suppose. But then she said, do you know what she said? She said: Someone ought to write a story about you in the Southern Argus…”

John paused and looked at me. I said: Our Southern Argus? He said: YES!! And then he leaned back with both arms up in the air. YES!! He laughed and laughed. “Somebody knows me! SHE knows me but who was she? I’ve never seen her before and she lives here in Strathalbyn. Up the top of that mountain we were. I tell you that life is an incredible thing!”

“Then I rode out of Devonport and 3/4 of an hour up I went, up another hill and at the top there is a sign: road closed due to landslides. Why the dickens couldn’t they have put that sign at the bottom. The air was like cold crystals up there…. “

“I said hello to my horses as soon as I got back. And THEN I had squatters!!!! Bees, thousands of them, in my own house, moved there when I was away. I tell you that you can never know what will happen next! I moved those bees back out and myself right back in! Now I need something to read until the sunshine comes back.”

Finally, John wishes me a good day and advises me that good weather is coming. A little boy, patiently waiting asks John: but where is your bike? And John tells him that the bees took it.

The little boy returns to his mother in the front room to tell her this worrying piece of news but she is exclaiming over a Hunger Games trilogy, bound in pink, orange and lime green and she tells him that the books are just so cool and funky. Aren’t they just totally rhythmic! He says: don’t worry mum, we’ll figure it out.

A young person asks me why Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was not written properly.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes and I am aware that these smoky stories are symbolic and too difficult for me but I am bravely reading on. I am thinking that she is funky and cool and rhythmic! I hope I can figure her out but it is doubtful. Luckily, this does not matter.

Dion returned to say hello and make sure that the shop is still ok. I said that all is going well and he said: except the weather.

Alex told me about the Persian Army and also about his Toyota Corolla. Then he recommended that I pursue a fabulous historian called E. J. Hobsbawm who wrote The Age of Revolution: Europe from 1789 to 1848. He said that this was riveting history.

I am asked for Positive Imaging: The Powerful Way to change Your Life, Wolf Hall and Lark Rise to Candleford and any books on ants.

Matt told me that it is getting harder and harder for him to find the books he wants to read. He said that he only likes books about paddocks.

I commented on the new five dollar note and the customer said: yes but it’s still only worth $5.

In the other room there are three older ladies, they have come in from a bus tour and are busy amongst the detectives and crime and I can hear them. There is a raised voice: “…it’s just a suggestion…it’s JUST a suggestion…for God’s sake…”

At the end of the day there is a woman here. She stood for a long while. She stood twisting and twisting her hands. Then she turned to me and said she didn’t have time to read but she read a vampire book the other day. She even turned the telly off and read the vampire book and it was so good. It was such a relief to read about vampires and be on another planet where her parents did not have cancer. Then she thanked me and left even though I did not do anything for her.

A customer tells me that his is moving from history books to gardening books. He is doing this because it is time for a change.

I think about the vampire books.

Photography by Joshua Hibbert




Are these books disturbing?

Syd Wachs.jpg

A child leaned into and over the window display. She froze into position, arms outstretched. She told her mother she was being part of the book display so that people would stop and look in. Her mother asked her if she was being sensible.

There are two books here by Australian author Eleanor Spence: Me and Jeshua and Miranda Going Home. They are historical novels for young readers, novels of first century Palestine and the friendship of two children with Jeshua, a carpenter’s son. They are memorable books and I still have my own copies. A mother is here and her children are on strict reading lists. They must not be exposed to magic, make believe or historical inaccuracies. She asked me: are these books disturbing and will they upset my child’s head?

I said: very likely.

A very young reader brought Animal Farm to the counter. I said: are you studying this text at school. She said: no, and then quickly left. I felt that I had been intrusive. Who can explain why they want to read George Orwell.

There is a family here that visit often. They brought their small bikes inside for safety although they left the sleeping baby outside, parked beside the window. The youngest boy indicated the baby and explained the situation: This is my Uncle Lisa’s baby and her was born just this morning. (She is 10 weeks old, said the mother). Then the small boy mentioned a library card…he means a bookmark, explained the brother kindly and he has had his hair cut today, this morning. The smaller boy inclined his head so I could see in detail the bristling new haircut.

I read another story by Djuna Barnes and it is disturbing.

Peggy who is indomitable, who is 84, came in for Daniel Silva. She is only reading thrillers these days. I showed her my Virago and she said oh God!

She looked briefly at James Patterson and said luckily she got over him years ago. She is moving to Penrith but will return to SA if she ever gets ill. But then she remembered that she is ill, her liver….but she thought she will give old Penrith a go anyway. And then come back. I insisted she might like the Virago modern classics but she said she gave up reading shit like that years ago. I said, as I always say to her, don’t go and she answers as usual: you’ll get over it.

Robert also came in and talked to me about the Pythagorean comma. I asked him what he does when he comes across a disturbing book. He said that he would read it.

I was asked for all of the war biographies by Spike Milligan. John said that he had them all once and his best mate borrowed them and refused to return them. And just as he was about to go to court over them, his mate died. The books disappeared of course…which is typical of that family…

I was asked for The Mining History of the Klondike.

I was asked how to change the region on a DVD.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes while a lady in amongst the children’s books laughed and laughed because her granddaughter is so incredible. The grandchild, who is tiny, urged her grandparent through the door but stood in the way of pram so that nobody could move. The grandmother laughed and laughed again and said: isn’t she a trick? The child walked up the street, walking backwards next to the pram and reading as she went.

Sydney told me about some people he knew on Westwater Road.

I was asked for Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel. The man read to me the first line of the book.

When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.

He said: isn’t that a disturbing first line…

I said that I had never read it and he told me I ought to as it is brilliant and has won important literary awards. He said that the author is Australian and the book is unsettling.

I think about this book Questions of Travel

A lady spends a long time looking at two little carved owls that sit on top of a neat stack of books and the books are all red. There is a copy of Pride and Prejudice bound in ruby leather in there, it glows but she only has eyes for the owls…she bends forward to examine the owls more closely, she is enchanted by the little owls. Her husband calls her to look at a Complete Shakespeare but she will not answer him.

Last night I read a history essay in a journal called Westerly, about which I know nothing except that it is published in Western Australia. The Flinders University library has these bound and shelved in endless heavy rows and I have borrowed two of them because I liked the way that they are heavy. And that is the only reason I brought two volumes home.  And in one of them is a history essay and it is called: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two by Brian Willis and it is about our history of the treatment of the Indigenous Nations of WA during the Second World War. And about this I have known nothing my whole life and about this I am left limp with horror.

At the end of the day Robert dropped in again to tell me that Medicare is plotting to destroy him but he will not let them succeed. I said: Robert you must keep reading. He said triumphantly that he will keep reading as soon as he sorts out his glaucoma test.

Then I told him about the essay I had read: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two and that I was left limp with horror. And he said: good, you should be.

Photography by Syd Wachs






…like butter through mosquito netting…


A child rode past on a scooter. He said: a bookshop….. AND it’s open!

A woman and two friends attend the same reading group. They are here to browse. The leader of the group is a champion reader and she has read everything.

I saw her indicate The Count of Monte Cristo, a book that is still here, loyal in blue and gold leather, but still not chosen, heavy and magnificent. She said: who would even bother with this. She went back to Her List. The Count was not on it. She said she had learned to speed read and it was a marvellous thing…

…but I don’t think that you should hustle through The Count. If you did you might miss the part when he falls in love with the prosecutor’s daughter. And this part is important.

I do not think you should hurry through Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

You might miss the mountain and how it was called the Phoenix of the Sky and when Luo whispered the name of the forbidden western author and we discover that it is Balzac… and worst of all, we could gently slip through the story and not realise we can read lingeringly and down to the beating heart of the book.

I can see that it might be possible to miss the beating heart of a book.

But this lady was generous and passionate. She was devoted to literature. Everything I had piled next to me, lent by customers to me, she examined. She had read everything. She judged competently – everything. She looked at the Pepys, at his portrait on the cover. I thought that he looked back, insolent, amused. She had not read and did not choose the Pepys.

David contemplates past pain through what he reads now, examining every sentence, every word, every letter, which he then replaces with great care and the utmost respect. There is an Indian writer he likes and he can only speak of him with a facial expression. There are no words. When I read Kingfishers Catch Fire, I did not think it was written for me. I thought it was written for itself. But there it was, standing there for me to have and have it I did. That includes the butter yellow stone walls and the mint green of crockery and the rich aching scent of sandalwood and the smoke and the furious villagers and blood. Those things became mine too. The colours became mine. The chance to see raspberry and jade side by side became mine. The fear of the mountain children of the Himalayan Kashmir; mine, and the reason to break off a small (stolen) bough of an apple tree, mine. I have read it seven times. It is written by Rumer Godden.

If you dash through Kingfishers Catch Fire you might miss… simply everything.

A child, a little girl whispered to me the entire story of Puff the Magic Dragon. She was sad about it. She said that Jackie Paper, he grew up. He mother offered her The Wind in the Willows but she said no. (The heartbeat of one book cannot be duplicated or extended by that of another).The child said that the dragon ate strings and things. She made a small face to show what it might be like to eat string.

Two small sisters in the front room overhear a mother and child alight from the car directly outside the window. The mother says to the boy: I do not like your attitude. The girls inside glance at one another and lift their shoulders. They duck their heads and smile significantly at each other.

Robert stops by to tell me that he has had nine pianos over the years but each of them was destroyed by people who were drunk at the time. Also his guitar was smashed. He said that The Arts are always under attack.

John wobbled past the door on his bike; there were lemons and a Lonely Planet Guide in the case on the front. He must be back from Tasmania.

I am reading Smoke and Other Early Stories by Djuna Barnes. I am reading it because it is a Virago Modern Classic, it has been lent to me and it has a nice cover. In the first story, The Terrible Peacock, there is a woman called The Terrible Peacock and her hair is piled high and terribly red and shines even in the darkness. Someone is waiting to meet her and he notices her hair:

The moon shone through it like butter through mosquito netting.

I am happy to have not missed the moon like butter and also, what it might be like to eat string.

Photography of moon artist: Leonid Tishkov



There is reading and there is reading…


An older couple told me they were from Botswana and urged me to read all of the books by Alexander McCall Smith. He said: especially do not miss the one about the sausage dogs – because it is NOT about sausage dogs at all. Then he brayed with laughter.

He said they are astounded at all of the water around and that they did not know that South Australia was so prone to flooding. I said: well…..

But he continued with a story about a young girl they saw who nearly overturned her car through a sheet of water on the road. All three of us said: she will tumble over in her car going at that speed. His wife said, no there were only the two of us watching, Ken.

Outside a cattle truck stopped near the bakery and from inside the shop we heard a cow give fabulous deep bellow. Two children rushed for the window and held their breath. One said: did you hear that horse?

Two men passed by and one said: The Book Keeper. The other said: I wonder what that means…

I come back from Woolworths where the young workers are rushing, focussed, managing fiscal health and the new displays of tinned pineapple. When I go back, Chris is waiting. He tells me that Pepys was an arsehole. He said that if you are a literary arsehole then it is ok. I think about this for a long time. Then I think that my fiscal health is unreliable but my swelling literature collections are gaining monumental strength.. I tell this to Chris and he says: maybe. He said that new brand of pineapple over there is shit anyway and that I should read The Sugar Book.

I finish Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

In Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress, two poor Chinese youths are sent to the mountains to be re-educated during the Cultural Revolution. They live in diabolical poverty. They have come across an old copy of Ursule Mirouet by Honore De Balzac and it is a western work, banned. They read this little romance over and over and copy fragments of it onto the inside of a sheepskin coat (they have no paper). The book changes their lives. It does not change the circumstances of their lives; it is too powerful for that, it just changes their lives.

There is reading and there is reading.

David came for two hours. He told me about Picasso and then about a failed relationship from his own past. The thing was that she was a virago. Then he told me about Picasso and ordered a volume of poetry by Clive James. He recommended that I read some Greek Mythology which is the beginning of all things.

I am thinking about the Greek Mythology when a man carries in his groceries and stacks them in a neat pile. He said that the thing about D. H. Lawrence is that he was the first one to illustrate that men are attracted to two types of women at the same time.  He bought a copy of Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary.

A young man tells his girlfriend about his Star Trek books and does not realise that she is annoyed. She is reading the back cover of Women Who Run With the Wolves and does not want to discuss Star Trek. She tells him dismissively to ring his mum and ask her if he has the books. He goes outside and I can see him on the phone: he comes back inside triumphant and his girlfriend continues to be annoyed.

The little Chinese seamstress wears the sheepskin coat with the forbidden literature written inside and she is changed, she feels more, she is more. We wear the books we read and she was wearing that book.

The girlfriend of the young man brings me Women Who run with the Wolves. She says: I am going to read this. He wants to pay for it but she says: no.

He goes back to the Star Trek shelf.

A smiling lady has laid out dozens of children’s picture books on the floor. She is telling her dad about them one by one, tapping each title while he, in the chair, is nodding but I can see that his eyes are closed…he is nodding off. She is telling him about The Velveteen Rabbit. He continues to doze. There is a child in there who is not with them. She has on only one shoe and holds a plastic spoon. She squats down to also look at The Velveteen Rabbit.

People are cheerful, coming in and mentioning the sun.

The Little Chinese Seamstress is written by Dai Sijie who was born in China in 1954.

The books Luo read to me always made me want to dive into the cool water of the mountain torrent…at the bottom of the pool there was a bluish blur, a swathe of murkiness where you couldn’t make out the details of the underwater scenery. As if there was a veil before your eyes…

Photography by Eli Samuelu

Why is that baby staring at the cat?



A lady said to me: I love reading to my grandchild, we share such a thing and I’m building a library just for her. At the moment of course it is all about Hairy Maclary. I have been reading to her since she was born.

A father says: pop it back please, just pop the book back. The child says: but it is a rabbit. The father says: no, no, no…

A couple came in and he said to me that the Angus is up. And that he likes big weather and big women equally. His wife told him that he is not in the least funny and he went off apologetically to find some James Bond novels. She bought The Feminist Companion to Literature in English and I thought she glanced at his James Bond choices with contempt.

There is a pram parked next to the window and its tiny occupant is staring without blinking at the wooden cat in the window. After five minutes, when I look out, the pram is still there and the child is still staring at the cat. Another child inside says to me: why is that baby staring at the cat? Do they think it is real?

A small boy corrected me in detail. – This is how the Treehouse books are: There is no 59 Storey Treehouse, you got that wrong. It is The 52 Storey Treehouse and then The 65 Storey Treehouse. There is also The 39 Storey Treehouse and The 26 Storey Treehouse and The 13 Storey Treehouse.  His sister said: how do you know all this stuff? And he replied: I don’t know. She said to me that he reads a lot and he asked her if he could drink the rest of her Fanta.

Their dad says: can you guys please make a decision, I don’t have much time and the boy says – but dad, there are the Dune books right there! And his father says: shit! Where?

Through the window I see people bent heroically against the wind. It is still raining.

Can we please have some focus over here?


A young father was pleading with his small daughters to attend to the books he had chosen. He said many times: Can we please have some focus over here…you both need to look at these and focus. But one sister was sucking her braid and then painting her sister’s back with it. They both refused to look at the books. The older sister said that she wanted a bell.

The street is busy; a lull in the weather has allowed everyone out again. People say cheerfully: glad to see you didn’t get washed away.

A young man recited a line: I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately… I said that maybe this is Thoreau. He said he had been trying to fine that line for a long time and he was delighted. Then he recited me this: If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there. He said it was from something called Staying Alive. He said he did not know how anyone could live without poetry.

Two young men in beanies and tracksuits outside the door were talking: don’t worry, all you have to do is turn your car upside down and tip all the water out.

Another man outside said: would a bookshop do well in this weather? And his friend said: I don’t know but this rain is a right prick and makes me hungry.

A young boy said that he hoped I would remember that his name Kody is spelled with a K because last time I didn’t remember. He explained to me how the Boy Versus Beast books all fit together. He supervised the list as I wrote down the titles he needed and respectfully corrected my spelling

Ricki is back for more ancient history. She is 73. She loves the ancients and gardening. She admires Seneca and Marcus Aurelus most of all but she is also still having trouble with her windscreen wipers. She said: those young mechanics think they can charge me $150 to fix my wipers but I’m not having it. I think: well I’ve read Marcus Aurelus and I’ve got a shovel over you young fellas. When she left she told me that now she will dabble in some Latin.

A lady told me that at a quiz night she attended she had to argue fiercely over a question regarding Julie Andrews and one of those famous songs. She herself can recite those songs in her dreams but the judge got it wrong and she had to battle to correct the fool. She also went to see the film The Fault in Our Stars with her teenage daughter and she cried all the way through and her daughter was not impressed.

Margaret is over doing her turn in the art gallery over the road but she came to see me. She said she had to run over because they wouldn’t even give her 10 minutes (damn them!)

I have been lent a book called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

I am asked for The Green and Gold Cook Book and Cloudstreet and Divergent.

But now I am reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. And I think I might get a bell.