“When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”
But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.
The crimes and thrillers start a weird kind of line dance with revolver displays that nevertheless looks dull.
The Text Classics, in a grid of hot yellow, perform a dance with neutral expressions. Janet Frame, Arnold Zable, Boyd Oxlade, Patrick White with a slight smile, stepping and side stepping and stepping, not agreeing, but at least stepping.
Groups straggle forward, looking nonchalant, looking for a gap.
Joyce and Proust, in different groups, passing back to back, palm to palm with the next dancer.
The McCarthys moving carefully around the Hellmans.
An FBI History and Charles Bukowski eye each other. The Bukowskis move to a different bar.
‘Listen to this, boys.’ It was Cubanisimo! It prepared a sentence, opened its covers to read aloud. Everyone cheered. They all liked the Cuban, who waited for quiet.
…and I went my way, which means preferring nights to evenings, choosing night instead of day, living by night and squeezing my memory, I mean my life, into a glass with ice or into a negative or into memory.
There was a pause. The dancing continued slowly, but heads and book covers were turned toward the Cuban. There was the chink of an icecube into a glass from somewhere in the shop.
‘Thanks Guillermo,’ someone said, and everyone cheered again.
Now, a set of Great Journeys coming through. Shouting, having their first drink, consulting maps, checking Trivago, a journey always on the horizon. James Cook and Mary Wortley Montagu arguing ‘There will be no hunting pigs in this dance’. Olaudah Equiano looks at them both, says nothing. The Yutangs smile as they pass, impassive.
‘Look at the Thrillers, Eastwick. Every day, a brilliant story.’ The classics were back on the counter, breathing too heavily in my ear, becoming annoying. ‘Thrillers take you West, further each time. But so what! West is a cliché. It’s East where we want to go. Look at the Virginia Woolfs. They’re drill bits, boring East in search of the truth. Think East, it’s sunrise. God, Eastwick, have you read anything? You know what Woolfy’s doing now? She’s writing a biography of herself writing a biography of all the biographers who’ve attempted to write a biography of her so far. And what’s Tom Cruise doing?’ They all snigger, looking at the Lee Childs, who are trying on bowties.
‘It’s not Tom Cruise,’ I said patiently. ‘He doesn’t write books. Its Lee Child.’
‘Eastwick, we know you’re going East, we saw you reading Helen Garner.’
I look at them all. ‘What will you do, all of you if I have to close? There’ll be an auction.
‘Well, actually some of us are staying. We all love Thai food.’
‘You don’t need me.’
‘Never did. Sorry Easto. We’re made of writing. Indestructible. Go read like hell and write your shit.’
‘Well, I’ll see you in the morning.’
There was no answer. The books were moving around me. The shop was all horse, flanks, and hinges, spinning and reeling, smoking, coughing. They were putting out chairs, tables, moving the smoke machine, setting up a market.
I moved slowly to the entrance, pausing at the door.
‘Why the buckets of water?’ I ask.
‘So we don’t catch on fire during the party.’
‘Who’s on duty?’
They looked toward the buckets. The Greek Myths was on duty, leaning over the pails, gazing rapt into the pools at their own reflections.
‘God, they’re useless’. The New York Reviews shot off, rising furiously in the air to dong the Greek Myths back to the present.
Two ladies are drifting around the shop, dreamily, and apologetic as if they shouldn’t be here. They say, ‘Sorry’, and tiptoe past me. They are pineapple and blue, bright and delicious. They sway here and lean there.
‘I remember half of these books from me childhood.’
‘It’s a bit of a shock isn’t it!’
‘Oh I know.’
Outside the door there is a ute parked, and in the back of the ute, a sheep, quite dead, and next to it, a ladder. I know because I stood up to see. I looked at the sheep’s belly, looking for breathing. None.
A passer-by walked past the windows, absorbed and fluent. He looked into the back of the ute as he walked, his head turning as though on a stalk. He stopped abruptly and looked more closely, and then walked on.
‘Oh my lord.’ A lady stopped and gestured with her bag.
Inside, the pineapple and blue ladies are still drifting. They have solid bags. Their hair is similar, small silver tents. They clasp their hands across their fronts. The floor creaks under their gentle boots. Slowly, softly, they exclaim at memories.
Outside in the quiet road, the sheep is still dead, itself now a memory. The driver plods wearily past my windows and climbs in. He has a tray with two coffees.
I am asked for James Michener, Miss Read, The Readers Digest Motoring Guide to Australia and books that are good for reading groups.
A young woman asks her friend, ‘Would you listen to this if I read it out loud?’
Her friend, breathes out, ‘Maybe.’
The blue and pineapple ladies pass by, thank me and tenderly leave.
The young women search urgently for things to read aloud.
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.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
Two people are here in the shop arguing over the Douglas Adams books because they disagree over his first book. They are friends but they are experts. The first man lists off everything written by Douglas Adams and then comes back to the first book.
He says; not radio work, not Dr Who stuff, not short stories, only the books – so it is The Hitchhiker’s Guide. And he was drunk when he thought of it in the first place.
His friend says: God you’re an upper case!
And the first man says: victory.
“I have my softcovers and my hardcovers and half of them are in Dutch…I like to read a book in Dutch and then in English, possibly at the same time.”
This customer, yesterday morning, lined up two books side by side and showed me how she reads them. She said that her children thought she was magic.
Today there is an older couple, he is on the phone. He is asking somebody, perhaps a grandchild, if she would like to read Treasure Island but the child is perhaps saying that she would prefer Harry Potter. She is asked if he might be getting bored with Harry Potter and the child insists she is not bored with Harry Potter. But the man insists that she is. He suggests that she is getting bored with all the books she chooses.
So he chooses Treasure Island. He tells me that she is 11 and that is the right age to read Treasure Island. Indeed, he himself read that book when he was 11. He tells me that their granddaughter is getting bored with Harry Potter.
A young woman is looking through the window from outside and she tells her mother that Titanic Lives looks interesting. Her mother asks her why, they continue down the street with their shopping and their talk of Titanic Lives.
I am asked for anything by Jodi Piccoult, Stephen King, Kate Forsyth and also The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
The grandparents of the child who does not really want to read Treasure Island are arguing in the front room.
Robert is here, he is reading Goethe, from the Britannica Great Books Series.
Sarah is reading The Complete Narnia.
Andrew is reading The Silmarillion.
I am reading The Journal to Stella.
Dale is reading The Spiderwick Field Guide.
I am asked if I might have a Christmas tree and when I will put it up in the shop.
Kay orders The Silver Brumby.
A young reader tells me the complete plot of Dune by Frank Herbert. This takes more than an hour.
A lady looks at a biography of Vincent van Gough and says he looks like an old fury.
The couple with the copy of Treasure Island they bought for their granddaughter who does not really want to read it are leaving. They are arguing about a copy of The Battle For Rondo – he says it does not look very good so they are not going to buy it. They move out and across the road and he is still explaining why The Battle For Rondo is not very good.