“Form itself, even if completely abstract … has its own inner sound.”
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Sculpture by Athena Jahantigh
“Form itself, even if completely abstract … has its own inner sound.”
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Sculpture by Athena Jahantigh
‘My wife, Roz.’
The man speaking was visiting my shop again, and when he said ‘Roz’, he went still and looked upwards.
He had come back to give me a gift – a copy of Trollope’s The Way we Live Now from his own collection. We had talked about this book a few days ago. We had leaned toward each other, acknowledging Trollope and Barchester Towers. So funny, all about people, all about people right now.
He asked, ‘Why is it, do you thank, that nothing changes…?’
‘It’s delightful. Delightful.’ I watched him judge humanity.
He held his cap under one arm to talk about the free bench seats at concerts in the Adelaide Town Hall when he sat when he was a boy.
‘I didn’t like Elvis, I really tried though. I really did. But I was poor. Did you know that at school, I joined the cadets to get a free uniform. Then I wore that to the concerts. The music. That music. Because…’
‘There, then, on those seats, the orchestra, something happened. To me.’
He, my customer, having given me my book, the gift, edged toward the door, but then came back. I noticed these things:
He would often look upwards, at something that would not allow itself to be shelled easily in sounds.
He would change his cap from hand to hand.
He would apologise in case he was boring me. He wasn’t.
He said: ‘Why is it that.’
‘Of course, Thackeray.’
‘And Charlie Dickens, well look at him…’
‘And of course we must consider…’
‘Music.’ He continued on, sliding through one joy to the next.
‘Rudyard Kipling. Beethoven. The lights in those places at night, from outside, in winter. Oh, the concerts. But I didn’t mind. I had to sell all my things. My tools, I was a tradesman, I didn’t mind. But when it came to the books, I went and stood next to the auctioneer. It was awful. It was severe.’ To see them go like that.’
He shifted his cap and returned to me.
‘My wife, Roz. She paints’. You should see – metallic oxide on glaze – the glaze becomes mobile and the oxides sink. It’s difficult, you need to see it.’
He shifted his cap again; the cap was in the way. He gazed forward at his wife who was not there. His head bent slightly, it too, in the way. ‘My wife, she paints.’
‘I must go. Please do enjoy your book.’
When the cousins talk about Finn, they always say he is too something. The cousins are three, Finn is one. He doesn’t have much authority yet.
‘He’s too small.’
‘He can’t talk.’
‘Finn can’t come because he’s at home in she’s cot because he’s not big.’
‘He’s not strong.’
‘Finn’s lost him’s shoes.’
‘Do him want to come with us?’
‘He’s too loud.’
‘He’s in she’s highchair.’
At the table, Finn eats steadily, bangs a spoon and watches the roof. Noah and Max look on, thinking about it.
They ask me, ‘Is that bread dead?’ Do dogs eat water? Where’s Pa?’
They eat broadly, expansively, and watch each other swallow. They have not finished but they are finished.
‘Can we play trucks now? Not Finn.’ Finn, hearing his name, makes eye contact, unhurried and joyful enough to make them pause.
And say, ‘Look at Finny, he’s looking at us… him can have the train.’
Noah sighs, ‘Yeah.’
“Shall I not see that to live is to have relinquished
beauty to the sequestration of the dark,
and yet that the spirit of man, benighted, vanquished,
has folded wings, and shall use them as the lark
into the sun beyond the cold clouds flinging
her desperate hope, not reaching where she has striven
but soaring for ever beyond herself, and singing
high above earth as she is low in heaven?
Shall I not confess that mine own evil humour
and not man’s failure forged this black despair,
and while I wept, high up the golden rumour
of a lark ascending fringed the quiet air?”
Humbert Wolfe, Uncelestial City
Sculpture by Rex Homan
I don’t expect the motorbike people to come into the shop. They usually park across the road and walk to the bakery and then back to the group. But today, one man came up and shouted through the door, ‘Hey mate, have you got Winter’s Tale yet?’
‘It’s by Mark somebody. Mate, it’s good, it’s good. Remember we talked about it. You ort to read it.’ He came in and stood leaning back, hands on hips, boots on the earth and read all the titles in Science Fiction and Fantasy. His book was not there, yet he remained cheerful. ‘Mate, if only I had the time to read all these. Not to worry.’
His enthusiasm made an impression on me.
Then he opened the door to leave, and a friend suddenly bloomed on the footpath outside and shouted, ‘Wrong shop mate, what the hell are you doing?’
He answered, ‘No way, it’s a good little place, a good little place. Have you got my gloves?’
I love it!
“But life is never a material, a substance to be remoulded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my inept theories about it.”
Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago
Art by Paul Klee
Swing in. No pause. A brief greeting; eyes straight to the shelves. Eyes either light up or narrow slightly. Both are good signs. Silence, or an exclamation. Both are useful.
A lightning fast assessment, or the dithering on the mat.
Apology for having brought in a cup of coffee.
Apology for bringing in other books.
Apology for letting in the cold air.
Asking for directions.
Some visitors give surreptitious glances over both shoulders so as not to miss anything. Some boom greetings. Others whisper the whole time they are in the shop.
Some need no directions. Others want NO directions, ’It’s ok, I’ll find my way.’
Pronounce me lucky.
Some people peer in through the window for a long time. Shading their eyes, hunched and purposeful. When I look up, they are still there, staring from side to side as though watching trains come in.
People say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, can I just get around,’ gentle voices, understanding each other’s absorption. Hands in pockets. The smile, not at me, but at the books – but including me if they can. Some people can walk and read with ease. Most can’t.
Feeling around for reading glasses that are now on a different shelf.
Gasping; young people.
Paying. ‘Awesome.’ Voices now loud and confident. ‘Thanks very much.’ Even louder, almost shouting, ‘We always come here! Bye, bye bye…great, thank you, bye….’ Growing fainter.
Low laughs. Low discussions.
‘Are you actually going to read it?’ Parents.
‘I’ll get it for you.’ Lovers
‘I’m not paying for that.’ Siblings.
‘Go and wait outside.’ Retired couples.
Some people stand and read their book right in the doorway. Some move onto the footpath but cannot go any further. One family stood in a group on the footpath around The Two Towers and talked for another ten minutes. They leave things behind, drink bottles, hats, a torch.
Small children bring random books to the counter and are called from beyond to put them back. One child bought and paid for The Lord of the Rings and said, ‘This is for me.’
A lady standing behind him said, ‘Well done indeed.’
People help each other get books off the high shelves, laughing laughingly. Tell me about the weather, or the traffic, or their shopping.
Tell a long story and ask me where they were going with it. But I can’t help them. Some people lean their foreheads on one arm against a shelf and thus read alone. Some people talk loudly to strangers about what they think and the strangers edge politely away. Once there was an argument about Scott Morrison which became ugly. Once, an argument about racehorses which became boring. Children pile and count coins on the floor which go clink, clink, clink in desperate piles of hope. I liked to change the prices on their books so they get half of their coins back. But then they look at me in shock, unhappy at having counted wrong. Now I count with more respect, offer the discount at the end. But many children remain uneasy with this.
Older men have a habit of demanding a discount, looming over me, tapping the wallet, confident, assuming I will ease their $9. I don’t.
Once a teenager brought me a box of his own books and would not take any money for them. He said it was to help me stay open because things had been hard lately these days. He told me about each book; they were not discards; they were his own library.
Children keep jacket hoods on, peek at me as they pass the counter. Parents press books toward them, the children press them away again politely and look at me again.
Women meet unexpectedly and laugh loudly, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Oh you know, getting on with it.’
A parent says, ‘I don’t want you buying books just because of the covers.’
A child stops still in the doorway, stops walking forwards and steps from side to side in an astonished rocking movement, ‘This is like the movie.’ He holds up his book, and his family stumble and fall all over him. ‘Move, Marcus, don’t stop like that.’ But he is too happy. He can’t hear them, and he stays right there staring at the dragon, rocking gently and forces the family to divide and flow around him, finally scooping him up at the rear – by his father, who says, ‘Gotta go, little man.’
They go, they’re loud; I guess they will take the little man to the bakery…..goodbye…
Illustration by Rudi Hurzlmeier
I like the way they enter the shop, strongly, not opening the door but crashing it out of their way. They are scarves and swirls. They are orange and nutmeg. They are loud, beautiful, and their jewellery is long.
When they came in, one said, ‘My God, a BOOKstore’, and they entered magnificently.
“It’s Dune. It’s making a comeback.’
‘For God’s Sake.’
‘I love Dune.’
‘So did I, but isn’t it dated…’
‘You can’t beat Georgette Heyer, is what I always say.’
Her friends look at her kindly.
‘There’s a new book by…who was it…?’
‘Look at this.’
They argue about Family Circle. They are loud. They are not in agreement about the basics. One of them has a grown child who is causing anxiety. One grips the arm of another. They lean close to read the titles on the Young Reader table; one says, ‘Don’t they read some good things these days, look at this with the dragons on it.’
But they have to go. They move as an army, knowing precisely when and how to move, and why. How to defeat the enemy. They are ladies of a magnificent age. I do not want them to go. I want to know things. But they have to go; there is work to do.
When they leave, one says, ‘Do you want to try for a loaf of bread next door?’
They go. They leave, taking Georgette Heyer and Family Circle Jams and Preserves. Undefeated, always.
Illustration by Inga Look
What do they see, these children who are brought into bookshops, who are allowed to look and choose, are encouraged to read, and whose parents drift aside into their own place; Jack Kerouac, Terry Pratchett, Dune, Sonya Hartnett, Evelyn Waugh, The Remains of the Day, Dark Emu, Toni Morrison, Colette, Lee Child, Alice Walker, Debra Adelaide, The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis. The parents try to remain present. What do their children do?
One family: the five year old telling his dad about a book, desperately. ‘It has a man on the front, with a helmet on.’
The dad says, ‘Show me, take me to the book. You look after me.’ They bustle toward the book – there is a long conversation. Then they drift for a while. Dad has three books. The child has one and has finished.
‘Do you feel like you want to go? To the car?’ The child does.
‘Well, I think mum needs more time.’ We all look at mum. She is leaning, ankles crossed, against poetry, plays and Virago Classics. Child and man gaze at her. She wears olive green, mustard, deep wine, navy blue, chocolate brown, and she is motionless. Three paperbacks at her feet, ready.
Another child spins on an axis.
‘Dad dad dad come back.’
‘Come back dad dad dad dad dad dad dad. This is my book.’
Some children find books for their parents.
‘Dad, look at this, you should get this.’
‘I like it. I the way you think.’ The child, about eight, expands. ‘This is fantastic, too.’
One father tells his partner, ‘I can tell you how that ends.’
Their daughter, about ten, looks on, impassive. She says to me on the way out, ‘I’m reading Lord of the Rings.’
A child, maybe six, listens to his parents argue about Henry James. ‘Portrait of a Lady…we have it.’
The child says, ‘I just found a portrait of a lady.’ They swoop. Oh my God, did you hear that?’ The child shows them a book with a lady on the front.
Some parents say, ‘Hands behind your back, remember,’ while they handle all the books.
Outside, when I am hanging my balloons: ‘Why do you always do that, can’t you do anything right?’ Parents talking in car parked right next to me. They are talking to a child in the back seat, but I assume they are talking to me.
Some children take a seat and just read. Some make a stack, and their parents look on admiringly. One daughter told me about history joyfully, and her father stood back, looking at her with utter respect.