“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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I wrote this original post on December 30th, 2015, at the end of my first six months in the shop. I didn’t, back then, realize how valuable these days were, or how important those first customers would become. I know that these days will return, and hopefully everyone with them. But it will be different now. What is important has changed.

It is hot today. Customers are exhilarated and expansive because Christmas is over, and the Hard Work is done.

A lady who suffers terribly from insomnia tells me that insomnia is lucky, as it gives her  time to read. Her husband said that he has no time to read, never has had. He looked at the volumes of Ngaio Marsh she had set aside to buy. He said he doesn’t know where his time goes these days. She told him that it has probably gone to the pub.

A little girl asked for Harry Potter but her mother reminded her that there would be no time to read it. So best leave it.

Kerry said he can get through one thriller a night. I asked Robert how long it might take him to get through The Gnostic Mysteries and he said he will never be done with that book, even after he dies he will still be reading it. And when the government discovers his body still reading it, they had better be worried.

A little boy said he could read a Geronimo Stilton in five minutes, but his sister said that this was a lie.

I have time to think about Henry James.

Fiona picked up her order and said that there is no technology yet that can track what happens to the human mind when we are reading. It can track the activity of the brain but not of the mind.

I tried to imagine what my mind was doing when I read Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees.

Robert, who is still here, said that if the government knew what his mind was thinking when he was reading they would put the watch dogs onto him. We asked him what he is reading (besides The Gnostic Mysteries) and he said The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is so he can find out what’s going on in the world. Better to read The Greek Myths or Homer to keep up with things because everything in the newspapers is an insult, including the weather.

There were some new visitors from interstate. One was feeling hilarious because he’d found a copy of The Unseen Academicals, which is the Exact Book he is up to:

‘I’ve got so many books to read, so many, just so many, we are always just buying other ones. I sit there in the caravan park,and I’m just laughing out loud, it’s so funny. I will have to read for ever. I think it’s possible, that’s why we get so many. I am collecting every book by Terry Pratchett, I read them more than once and they actually GET FUNNIER.

Then at the end of the day, a small boy asked me for a Christmas book that had been in the window last week. He saw it and wanted it, and when I brought out the stories that were left he pointed to a heavy green Faber anthology of Christmas stories. His mother told him that it was a book for adults. His father told him to leave it until he was older. But he gave me all his money and whispered that it was the one he wanted. He defended his choice patiently to his parents, told them that this book would NOT run out of pages. The other books there would run out of pages. He was six years old, and he convinced them; he got his book.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

Why read?

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It is not possible to answer this question. It is because the answer runs too fast. What most people talk about when they come to the shop is based on this question. But even after a half hour of trying to get to it, the answer just becomes bigger.

We don’t know why we read. Or why we choose these books and not those. Or why a book just didn’t do it, or wouldn’t let us in, or left us sitting still, or why a single sentence flames its way across the soft surfaces of our hopes and leaves a track.

Children get closest to it.

Everyone defends their stack.

Once a lady said that she and her husband have been reading in bed together every morning for the last sixty years, she with a good mystery, and he with all kinds, mostly Westerns. I remember them. After that day, they became regulars.

She contacted me recently for some Oscar Wilde. ‘He’ll get us through.’

 

 

Once there was……

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I can’t forget Claudia because of her expertise. She has been visiting my shop for a few years now. She is a confident reader; confident in what she doesn’t want to read. This is a valuable skill because it means you spend all your time looking for what you do want to read – and reading it.

Claudia is posting instalments of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Hermitage on the front fence of her home in Strathalbyn. Passers by can read each instalment, and then consult the accompanying drawing on the footpath.

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This means that we can exercise and keep up with literature at the same time. I encourage everyone to take advantage of this. Once we are all back to normal, these priceless opportunities may fade away.

Claudia once wrote me a list of items that are necessary for all good bookshops to have. Luckily, I have followed these rules ever since, and it has paid off because I am still here.

 

Yvonne

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Yvonne was one of my first customers. When she came in, she apologised for using a kindle. She said, ‘You may as well know’.  She loved racy thrillers – Clive Cussler, and she said that when she was young, she was quite a dish.

Every day she walks the block with Marco. She rescued him. She said he’s a gem, but terribly naughty. She always asked after my family. When she was young, she learnt an instrument that nobody had ever heard of.

One day, she brought me in a glazed tile. She’d bought it up the road. It was a picture of my shop (as close as you could get) and she wanted me to have it. I was very flattered. I hung it on the wall. Every day, customers would ask, ‘Where did you get THAT?’

Yvonne said, ‘Gawd. You can get that picture anywhere.’

The day I closed the shop, I saw her walking calmly by, Marco clicking away at her ankles. She passed me when I dashed over the road for groceries. She said, ‘Times are grim,’ but she was squared up, ready for a challenge.

Josh stacks it

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Then, on my final afternoon, in comes Josh, cursed with a passion for reading and a determination that everyone should make it to the end of the day. Standing at the required distance, he calls for a book, then chooses a thousand. It’s too much to carry. Too much to take home, too much to acknowledge, a silent gift made on the bruised edge of what we know at the moment.

I think the bag might break.

Outside, another customer, next to their car, and who had waited their turn.

They shout to each other across the gap of safe air.  The books! The books!

They call the following humble details to each other: ‘Life. Home. The world. This world. Everything’.

The bag breaks, unable to carry the weight of what it represents.

John Banville, Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Life of Pi, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Peter Carey, The Map of Love, Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress, The Raj Quartet, Simon Mawer, Halldor Laxness, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Questions of Travel…and still more, all on the footpath in clear rectangles and unperturbed.

Sharon laughs out loud to see it, sitting in her car boot, about to go home, reading Racine and C. S. Lewis and shouting from time to time, “Oh My God!’.

The walkers on the road through Strathalbyn

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The walkers, they walk past my shop. The door is closed, it’s dark inside, but I am here, working away, listening. Nobody can come in; the door is locked. But out there, on the little path, people pass by, still breathing.

‘And that was fine.’

The friend, nodding, ‘Yes. Yes.’

‘And then, after all of that…’

‘Yeah, I know. But she still didn’t say anything…’

‘Get in, I’ll hand you your stuff.’ There is a man balancing paper bags of hot food next to the car.  She climbs into the car, sits in the front seat. Her hand reaches out, waiting for the paper bag of hot pies, waiting for too long. She’s looking at her phone, waving her hand about, waiting.  He takes too long, he is looking at a motorbike across the road. She looks up, and says, ‘My God!’

The silent prams buzz past. Swift glance in, keep going. Things to do.

One man calling back to another man. ‘I wonder if they still sell kitchener buns, and you know…mint slice.’

‘You’re not allowed to have mint slice.’

‘No, it’s alright now.’

Somebody talking loudly into their phone. ‘And even if they took your temperature….’

‘Na, he hasn’t got anything, na, no, he’s a moron anyway,’

‘Are they open?’ Faces at the window, looking in, frowning.

‘Hang on to me Dee, this perishing corner.’ People trying to cross the road. Carrying strong handbags.

‘You’re getting too close, do you need to do that? Don’t get quite so close. What are you looking at.’ A father to his young son.

‘I can’t read it. It’s too far away.’

‘Oh, Oh, yes I understand.’

A man breathing heavily. Placing paper bags in the back of his ute. Breathless, lighting a cigarette, leaning there, looking out over the apologetic world.  Looking over the road at the closed art gallery and the closed information centre.  Looks down at the road. Climbs into his car. Remembers his lunch and climbs back out again.

‘She’s closed! Yep! Fucking knew it!’ Young people, caring fiercely.

A customer, an old man, passing slowly, looks in straight at me. Nods. Yes.

A devil for reading

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I remember this couple. They came from Murray Bridge, and they only visited once.  They spent the whole time telling me about their granddaughter. They laughed so much and they were so proud. That was in 2015, and I never saw them again. I remember they wanted the Tintin books by Herge.

Their granddaughter would be 20 now. If only she knew how they had collapsed in on themselves, silent, pained, because there were no sounds that could carry enough value to ease their contentment at having received her into their quiet road, wooden breakfast table, tomato garden lives.