The man who had a pair of pliers in his back pocket

Two old blokes  crossing the road in front of my shop door. Waiting at the kerb first because the traffic is busy. They wore famer’s clothes. What are these? I don’t know, it was the boots that made me think it. They were discussing something of intense interest to both of them. When there was a clear spot in the traffic, they didn’t take it. One was finishing a point and the other was listening and nodding. So he must have been right. He used his hand to bang out the importance of it. I could tell that his hands had done a lot of work.

Then another break in the traffic and it got quiet. The sun shone down. I wondered idly if they might take it. Well, they tried. They bent forward and made sprinting motions. They were still talking though. In the quiet I heard them. One man said (as they made their move), ‘Well, my argument on the cat side of it is – ‘

Suddenly a car with small dogs at each window passed in front of them. Each window had about a one inch gap at the top. Three dogs were screaming furiously through the gaps, one in the front and two from the back.

The men stopped abruptly and watched the car go past. One of them said, ‘Jesus.’

Then they finished the crossing. One of them had a pair of pliers in his back pocket. I still remember that.

Painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Buy books then,

“Buy books, then, that you have read with profit and pleasure and hope to read and reread.
Buy books that you may underscore passages and write upon the margins, thus assuring yourself that the book is your own. Keep the books that mean the most to you close at hand, one or two, if possible, on a table at your bedside.
Do not hide away your favorite books or keep them locked in enclosed shelves. Do not keep them under glass.”

Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure

Gee, love your work

A young man came into the shop and said, ‘Every time I come down here I need something. And this time I need something again, might be hard to find, hoping you can look it up and see if it’s still around.’

I waited for the title. He looked at his phone, scrolled through page after page, but couldn’t find it.

I said, ‘Maybe the author?’

But he couldn’t remember. Then he found the book. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’

I had it right there on the shelf. He lit up, surprised, and turned the paperback over and over. ‘My God, love your work. Too easy. Gee, I love your work.’

Then he paid for it. ‘$5.00, that’s so easy. Too easy. Love your work.’

Then he left but put his head back through the door once more to say, ‘Love your work.’

Illustration by Laura Antillano

When I was small, I was bad at reading

I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.

I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.

Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read.  But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree,  I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.

When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.

At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.

I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.

I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.

But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read  H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.

I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branch in her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.

Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.

“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”

 I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.

A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.

“The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.”

The books I am asked for every day represent the kind of reading that people are looking for right now in their life. The books don’t fit any category that I can see, except the category of The Reading That Is Needed Right Now.  

The readers who have requested books recently are aged between 7 and 82. They are locals, visitors, and travellers. Some are students, and most are young readers. A few are requesting books for others but most are collecting for themselves. Most older readers say, ‘I don’t really need any more books, but I’m getting them anyway.’ Young readers say, ‘I need more, but I’m only getting these today.’ The requests never end.

Book requests include:

Asterix in Switzerland

The Pioneers of the North-West of South Australia by Norman Richardson

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Anything by Christopher Fowler

William Blake

Winnie the Pooh

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

The Odyssey

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Anything by Daniel Silva

All the Lucinda Riley Seven Sister books

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Any books about Paris

Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass

Book 3 of the Skulduggery series

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Any Wings of Fire books

Anything by Henry James

Dune by Frank Herbert

Possum Magic by Mem Fox

Absolutely anything by Pittacus Lore

Any atlas of the world – as modern as possible

Anything about Vikings

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961)

People leave their engines running while they run to the bakery

But then they’re disappointed because when they get to the bakery there’s always a queue. Sometimes they come back and yell to the passenger to ‘Switch off the car. There’s a wait.’

Sometimes the passenger comes back and tells the driver to ‘Turn it off. No point hoping.’ Then they get in the car, and I can’t hear them anymore. Often they drive off, sometimes slowly and once, a lady, really abruptly so the passenger, a man, lurched forward into the dash.

Truck drivers don’t come back if there’s a queue. And when they do they aren’t in a hurry. The trucks sit there chugging softly away for ages.

A lady and her dad came in this morning because there was ‘a bit of a queue at the bakery’. She said, ‘You have a look, dad. I’ll go back and see how mum’s going.’

But she came back immediately. ‘Dad, you’ve got my bag.’

Dad had the bag over one arm. ‘I’m causing trouble, aren’t I!’

She agreed. ‘And my mask’s in the bag.’

He said, ‘Ah.’ Then he said, ‘Where’s my mask?’

‘You’re wearing it.’

‘Yes. So I am.’ He smiled at the bookshelves.

Then his daughter rushed back out to the bakery to check on mum who was still in the queue, probably in front of the truck driver whose truck was still rumbling gently right at my door.

Ode to Resilience

Ode to Resilience by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye —

A Moment — We uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darkness —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Illustration by Brooke Rothshank