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Voices from the back room

Readers in the shop, caught on currents of enthusiasm and memory, call out to each other. If the readers are in pairs or groups, they converse in low calls.

‘Oh my god.’

‘I bet you.’

‘Oh not that.’

I can hear them from the counter and I can see it: the pulsing electric current of shared read texts.

‘Yeah. Yeah.’

‘This didn’t start well.’

‘I know about that series.’

Then other customers come in out of the cold and overthrow the current. Robert came in to show me a mistake in his copy of The Complete I Ching. The book had been bound with a whole page missing. We poured over the mistake, delighted. I emailed the publisher, Robert dictating. We examined the rest of the book, hoping for more.

From the back room: ‘Is that series three?’

‘I actually think it should have ended there.’

‘I know.’

Robert left, having ordered a list of new volumes. I went back to shelving Young Readers. Someone rang for a copy of Little Women: not an abridged version, thanks. More talk from the back room:

‘That book stole his soul.’

‘That’s intense.’

‘Yeah. I know. But it wasn’t his fault. Do you want this?’

The conversation continues.

Outside, it’s raining.

Illustration by Francois Schuiten

There is no shortage of good days

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Photography by Rosana Zanetti Fait

The urgent child reader

She’s a little reader, but an enormous one. I can tell. They stand there and don’t need to tell me anything. Then I think, ok.

They look through everything kindly. They know what they need.

‘I need Artemis Fowl’.

I say, ‘Ok.’ And we go to look for it.

Young readers are always kind.

‘I need number 5.’

‘Ok.

‘I also need Tolkien.’

‘Do you mean The Hobbit.’

‘No, I’ve read that.’

I say doubtfully, ‘Lord of the Rings?’

‘No.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly.

‘Hmmm.’

‘I also need the Flood books.’

‘Ok.’

‘I’m up to number 11.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly.

‘I also need.

‘I also need.

The list goes on, but I don’t have it. ‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly. And the child reader leaves, still happy.

Then suddenly she bursts through the door again.

‘Just went to get some money from mum.’

And she gets a book. And dances back out with it held against her neck and her head going from side to side because she’s singing the title out loud and heading for the car across the road, and there’s her mum watching from the driver’s seat and ready to start the engine and get home to start dinner because it’s late now and it’s cold.

Illustration by Katarzyna Oronska

The coffee people

Come into the shop with extra muscles and more blood than other people. Come in grinning. Eyes sparking humorous energy. Can get down to the bottom shelves even when balancing hot coffee; the bottom shelves are fun. They get the music I’m playing, sometimes executing a few imperceptible dance steps next to Biographies.

When the sound of motorbikes shaves the air away from the inside of the shop, the coffee people don’t notice. Coffee is a hot fragrant cushion. The young couple nursing steaming hot coffee look at me and nod happily. There’s another family in here too this morning, flushed and fresh from cold grass and junior soccer. They are on their way to get coffee.

One of their children bought a book about chocolate to the counter. His two golden coins were hot clutched. He handed them to me, hot, clutched, melting.

A smaller girl appeared at the counter, just her face. Then a five-dollar note flapped onto the counter in front of me.

Then her book poked up slowly and was laid next to the five dollar note: Lego Star Wars. I gave her back a coin and her eyes widened, then softened.

The coffee people cross and re cross the floor, going from room to room beaming light, carrying Ernest Hemingway and Chaucer. Reaching for Johnathon Swift, The coffee illuminating and warming sudden new interests.

I can hear children quarrelling smally in the back room.

Now the green grass soccer family are leaving, everyone with a carefully chosen book, and mum with a paper bag, a newspaper, her book, and a son burying his head into her stomach as they bundle through the door and into the cold which isn’t cold for them.

The coffee people continue, ‘What about the collected works of Charles Dickens..?’

‘We’ve got most of them.’

She nods and dives at the lower shelves. Something else.

Why are people so quiet when they look at books?

Sometimes customers are so quiet, I forget they are there. They’re in danger of being locked in, something that’s happened in bookstores before. But never here (yet). People can be silent when it’s necessary.

Browsers of books are always moving; it’s just that you can’t see the movements; imperceptible downloads of information and ideas so astonishing, that on the outside the reader appears as though paralysed. They move from shelf to shelf, giving back only delicate breath, and sometimes not even that.

An arm reaches. A finger touches a spine, asking something. The book is grasped and held, examined. Rejected. Or, held while the reader’s head tilts back, giving ceiling to the eyes, which need it because the memory they are interrogating is too large for this small shop.

Sometimes the paperback is placed under one arm and carried softly along.

Readers gaze into long barely lit thoughts which are ignited and hiss briefly before going out again, sparked by pictures on covers, images on spines, the dry smell of paper, the thick loving waist of a paperback no longer new, the cough of an opening sentence that you remember icily from high school.

Small children are the stillest. All the action happens in the small roaring rooms of their minds. Sometimes their eyes go wide and their lips compress. Then back to normal, all in a second. Once a child shook his head sharply as though trying to dislodge something back into the book.

Some readers press hands to hearts while they read. Others go up on toes and down again. Men jangle keys and coins and say, ‘HA!’ to the page. Readers come and tell me what they just found, and others place their books before me apologetically, as though admitting inferiority of choice. There’s no such thing.

 Sometimes readers just gaze at a book, neither touching nor opening the covers. Why? What are they thinking? They might turn their heads just slightly, and that’s all.