Always useful to know.
Many people ask me about these. So here they are.
I have books in every room. I started collecting books at age seven, but I don’t know why. I now have about twelve thousand books. I am going to read them all. They are shelved by colour.
They were once shelved beautifully in alphabetical order, but when I moved the shelves each country lost most of its citizens. Now Terry Pratchett sits next to Margaret Atwood and does not mind. The histories and books of immediate interest are shelved bum down and pages up so I cannot see who they are. I don’t mind. The children’s flats are out on the floor, hundreds of them, where the grandsons squat and lean over them, point, and shout, and drop bits of ginger biscuits over the pages. The books lay there flattened, creased, and joyful. Every single room has shelves of books. Once, a friend’s family gave me their library, and it lives here, has braided itself amongst those already here, Russian history and Judy Blume, Greek Myths and Harry Potter companionable every night.
One room has a shelf with books that earned a place there because of their colour. One must be bright and weighty. Thus the Cairo trilogy is there. Also Carpentaria, and a set of Trollopes in peacock blue, a fat boxy collection of striped world classics and Geronimo Stilton, that wondrous mouse and his sister, Thea, even more astonishing. Another shelf is of books I’m going to read. This is a good category. It has 954 books.
One shelf is all red. One is books from when I was young. That I’m still going to read. I have a guest room for guests. It has literature and guests are expected to read it if they are still sober when they go to bed. Books dressed in leather have a shelf. Old stuff has a shelf. Books too big to shelve have a table. Books I am going to part with have a wall. These have been there for twenty years.
Books I just got have a chair. This has become two chairs, and here is where I carry books home from the shop in case customers get them before me. I look at these to remind myself that I have a problem.
It’s a good sign when people come into the shop with eyes that zing straight to the shelves. Cannot focus on much else, and they scan the Covid app backwards, without looking at it. Kneel down immediately, in everyone’s way, to look at a small dark red volume of Cranford. Holding it gently as if it were alive, which it is.
Children stand and look down, one finger resting on the book they look at. They read the title out loud, many times as though testing it. Which they are. They stand on one leg and wrap the other leg around the standing leg as though this gives extra information somehow. Which it does.
Young men in backpacks kneel and bend easily, squat and yoga their way around the shelves, tapping paperbacks on their chins while thinking. Young women tip their heads to the side and ponder, tap the paperback on one wrist as though assessing its reliability. They say to each other, ‘Look at THIS.’
Old ladies frown and bang books on the table, expecting the same sort of strength that they are now made of. Old men shuffle and jingle coins in pockets and hesitate to ask me about Clive Cussler in case they are a nuisance. They aren’t. Young people sit cross legged and gaze at rows of books in awe, in love, in a mood to plan a library, in a passion to read the great people. They pull out volumes of poetry and plays and hold them open on laps, frowning, wondering, but who is T.S Eliot…they read lines out loud in whispers, pegging themselves to greatness without realizing it.
Some readers fan through a book with their thumbs, looking for…what…? Other readers turn a book over and over, test its weight, gaze into its face, rub its spine, read the back, the front, a page about halfway through, add it to their pile where it lays flat, smiling.
Others cradle books in their arms, stack them down by ankles, hold them in armpits, balance them, wipe them for dust, turn them around and around, squint at the contents, sprint to the counter to pay. They photograph the books, argue about them, check them against lists, smile delighted, look disgusted, bring them to the counter and argue about their merit. Tell me to find them, buy them, post them, get them, for God’s sake read them, read them, read them!
So I do. I try.
Photography by Rubee Hood
I Shall Paint My Nails Red by Carole Satyamurti (1939-2019)
because a bit of colour is a public service.
because I am proud of my hands.
because it will remind me I’m a woman.
because I will look like a survivor.
because I can admire them in traffic jams.
because my daughter will say ugh.
because my lover will be surprised.
because it is quicker than dyeing my hair.
because it is a ten-minute moratorium.
because it is reversible.
Collecting books for collections is intensely enjoyable. Many people do it, especially young readers. It doesn’t matter what the book is, if it fits a collection, then it is worth having. I now do it myself. If a book has been published by The Nonesuch Press, I want it. I don’t know why and seldom bother to worry about it. Books in collections are slices of something good; fruity, restorative, rich. When a reader says, ‘I’m adding this to my collection’, I know what they are referring to. They are keeping it for later. Later is a realm of time ahead of us that has seats, shelves, warmth, and wooden tables of quiet food.
A set of books is something you can enter (like a realm), and inside it is a complex place that is never still and never complete.
Images from PenguinBookADay
“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Art by Tatsuro Kiuchi
A day in a bookshop has pretty much the same shape each time. But inside, the activity is varied, unpredictable, poetic, and never ending. It looks like this:
On arrival, look through the windows and admire own displays. Make note of books that have fallen down in the night.
Before unlocking the door, check for doggy wee on low areas for rinsing off later.
Look through bakery window and see how long the queue is. Dash in if possible.
Hide doughnut under counter. Sweep pavement and chuckle when every passer by says, ‘You can come and do my place now, har, har, har.’
Lights, fans, displays, bins etc. Sort and put out new stock.
Go through shelves and take away anything I might want to read in the future. Hide these. Clean windows.
Talk to customers about trucks, war, cakes, cats, pianos, aunties, injuries, the bank, the post office, children, circuses, glass jugs, crocuses, football, New Guinea, almonds, carpet stains, butter, Mazdas, Samuel Pepys, the geology of Mt Gambier, analogue clocks, ponies, Margaret Atwood.
Take orders, make orders, write orders. Check queue in bakery. Look out at the people over the road lying about on the grass, waiting for buses, fighting, eating.
Dogs go past and wee on the door again.
People go past and knock on the window.
I help people find books and remember books. Make records of all requests, sales, own purchases, losses, orders. Make a note to improve record system. Talk to people about Ken Follett, Bridgerton, and Sinbad the Sailor.
People ask for discounts, credit, free books, the way to Kangarilla, the way to the pub.
I eat lunch furtively between visitors.
On days that nobody comes I still do most of these things, but feel I am doomed.
On Sundays motorcycle groups circle about in groups, revving engines, following each other, and parking together. Then they do it again. Then again.
People demand my Covid square and then jump, embarrassed because it is right there, next to them, on the door frame, at eye height. Other people say, ‘Don’t you put me on that register!’ I try to cater for everyone; it takes all sorts to keep a bookshop going.
Older customers phone for a chat. Teenage girls sit under display tables and talk in whispers. Children walk past my open door and shout at their parents to go in, and the parents say, ‘No, it’s closed.’
I shelve more books. I charge batteries for the light displays using my new Ikea battery charger. I run over to Woolies for another bag of minties.
I go into the back room and stand up tall and stretch because I am getting lap top neck. Come out and watch couples in cars towing caravans arguing with each other as they park.
Phone people about orders I can’t get. Phone people about orders I can get. Answer the phone to people ringing to complain that I was closed when they came here. Answer the phone and hang up again on anyone who, after a long pause, says, ‘Are you the business owner?’
Look at books people bring in for me to buy. Accept books gratefully that people bring in for me to have.
Listen to the pigeons in the roof and wonder if I should tell the landlord about them.
Talk to people about all the books they (and I) are going to read. Watch ambulances fly past. Watch cars honking at the intersection. I go out and ask people to not park across the carpark driveway.
Check the shelves for gaps and make notes of what is always selling. Dust everything. Look at the cobwebs. Clean windows again. Get on with orders and requests. Tidy all the displays, replace books on shelves.
Start to plan the closing process which needs to be sharp because some hopeful shopper always comes up behind me just as I have my bag on my shoulder and the key in the lock.
Clean windows again, empty bin, empty till, turn off lights, bring in signs. Pack bag, exit, put key in lock just as hopeful shopper comes up behind me and asks for just ten minutes, please, please.
In bed. Still do.
On the floor under the Christmas tree (Heidi, three volumes).
In the car, hoping we wouldn’t get there yet.
During church. Every Sunday. Every service, including during the hymns when I stayed seated not hearing the organ wheezing out the opening sounds, racing though Little Women while everyone else swayed through Open My Eyes That I May See. I was certainly seeing something. When the church goers in the pew behind may have glanced down, they weren’t going to say anything, and anyway, I got the book from my dad’s study amongst ten thousand others, most of which are now mine. And he was the minister after all.
On holidays with relatives, ‘What’s she doing all this time?” I was reading The Wombles. I wasn’t there with relatives. I wasn’t even in Tasmania. I was with Uncle Bulgaria, putting a pin in the map and getting my true name.
At school, getting into trouble for finishing all the readers in the grade four box too fast.
During silent reading which went for a pathetic ten minutes.
On the school bus, bus pass as bookmark.
In the school library, the nerd, lurking in fiction, reading The Purple Plain by H E Bates, thinking that recess time has never been so good.
At uni, ransacking the library for books that had nothing to do with my teaching course.
Between children. With children, The Very Hungry Caterpillar still the same, during work, between jobs. Taking the slow bus to the city to get in another chapter. At the doctor, furious when the appointment is on time and can’t get on with The Hunger Games.
After work, before staff meetings. During staff meetings.
Then. My own bookshop. Reading between customers and boring them with the book. Hiding books from certain customers in case they make a better library than me. Shoplifting from my own shop. Getting home from work and reading. Reading.
Painting by Curt Herrmann
1. They change every fifteen minutes.
2. Every book is hand chosen; a second hand book shop is a carefully curated collection.
3. There is only ONE of each book.
4. Each volume is only there for a short time; sometimes just a few minutes.
5. Thus, you need to capture a book quickly.
6. They attract readers.
7. They attract writers.
8. They attract collectors.
9. They attract really nice people. Without exception.
10. They attract other books.
11. Books get together at night and have families.
12. They appeal to reading addictions.
13. A reading addiction is good.
14. Book shops nourish curiosity. This cures boredom.
15. But, as Dorothy Parker apparently noted, there is no cure for curiosity.
16. If you own a second hand bookshop, you will still invade every other second hand bookshop and carry all your new books home with joy.
17. People who have a second hand bookshop love selling books but then wish the books were still there, not sold.
18. People who have second hand bookshops often hide the books to take home for themselves.
19. Make your way to a second hand bookshop and see what happens.
20. Do it soon. In fifteen minutes, the shop will change again.
Image by Karbo
It was busy today. I don’t know why, just a usual Friday with ducks on the road. I had to dust all the shelves. There was a tiny nest in a hollow in the dust where I usually park. In it were two small hopeful blue eggs. I parked carefully so not to disturb. Over the road people are slewed about on the lawns with cans of coke and paper bags.
A mother came in with her two children. An older boy in sunglasses and earphones. A younger girl in a blue sweater. They bought a stack, and one choice was a leather bound volume, The Complete Shakespeare in black, gold, and toffee. Heavy. Gold edges. I said, ‘Who gets this one?’, and the child answered, ‘Me’, as if I should have known.
I was impressed. She volunteered nothing more. But on the way out she turned back to me and said she was making a library in her bedroom. It would have hidden shelves. One shelf would open because it was actually a door, and inside, another room, and in that room another shelf would open because is was actually a magic door, and in that room another magic door, and in that room another one….
I sat back stricken with envy.
Image by Elina Ellis