The kids

Came in to the bookshop all at once. Twenty five of them, or maybe six. I couldn’t count them. They talked so hard. They were never still, roaming and picking books up, tapping and turning, and squatting down, three of them, over one book as though it were a map of the evening’s plan. Were they one family or a group of friends?

They turned out to be both. Two families, all friends. Because later, the mothers came in and did the same thing. Than a husband – who could not enter the conversation of the mothers, and so returned to the bakery.

But the children. They had read everything. I caught the tail ends.

‘I might get that.’

‘That’s the second book.’

‘I know.’

‘Where’s the other book?’

‘There’s no what?’

‘I’m not gunna read it.’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Trilogy…The Hunger Games’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Ok. First book good, second book ok, third book I actually liked it.’

‘But it wasn’t a satisfying ending.’

‘I know.’

‘I got halfway.’

‘Yeah. Same. I’ve read that though. And that. But not that.’

‘It’s good.’

‘They should do another one.’

‘I know, right.’

‘He should write the next one.’

‘I wish there was more of them.

‘Have you ever read all night?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Same.’

‘Look what I’ve got. I’m getting it.’

‘Look at this.’

On and on they went. There were sudden silences when everybody was caught in something at the same time. Then on they surged.

‘Hey.’

‘Woah.’

‘Look.’

‘Wait.’

‘Hey crazy guys. Let’s just read everything here.’

‘Except the gardening books.’

‘Oh my god, yeah. Not them.’

Suddenly they began to leave. There was someone outside tapping on the window. He called though the door, ‘Where’s the rest of you?’

They answered, ‘The bakery’.

Image by Hajin Bae

I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor

Yesterday there was a couple at the front window. They were unusual because they stayed there for so long. I could hear them. They couldn’t see me. They wore sensible caps, and shoes made for long walks in the evening. They each had a shoulder bag and a water bottle. And good sunglasses, too – this is why they had to peer through the glass to get at the titles.

They screwed up their eyes and read the titles out loud, slowly, and very seriously.

‘I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor.’

‘Not with my reading I won’t.’

‘I think you would.  It says please come in, there on the door. What do you reckon that means?’

‘Means come in.’

‘Come on then.’

‘Look at this. Is that Leonardo Da Vinci?’

‘History is it?’

They leaned in with difficulty. They made the shape of difficulty with their mouths, and their eyes and foreheads agreed in thin lines.

‘That’s not Leonardo Da Vinci.’

‘Well. Who is it then?’

‘Some chap. Could be anyone. Let’s go in. You never know.’

‘Don’t know if I can be bothered. Looks expensive.’

‘Well, have it your way. Let’s get a bun round the corner there.’

And they left.

Leonardo Da Vinci watched them go; a nice hardback, dustcover in good condition, tight kidneys, no sciatica in the spine, born out of wedlock, never went to school. A master in the guild. Buying caged birds and releasing them. Coming up with the Mona Lisa. He watched them go.

The thing about a massive library is that

People think you don’t know what’s in it. You do.

People think you have read it all. You haven’t.

People think you are trying to read it all. You aren’t.

People think it’s up for borrows. It isn’t.

People think it’s in alphabetical order. As if.

Those of us who collect are indulging in something without end, although we don’t start out that way. We soon learn (that Terry Pratchett is right, and ) to accept that our libraries will eventually control us, and that our collections live way beyond any trivial hope for order we may nurse.

Libraries sprout in any direction they want, and this is because our capacity to be nourished by literature is vigorous and unpredictable. You can be hauled anywhere. It is ok to go from a biography of Leonardo De Vinci to a history of Myanmar and from there to Moominvalley and then back to clocks.  

Margaret Atwood said, A reader can never tell if it’s a real thimble or an imaginary thimble, because by the time you’re reading it, they’re the same. It’s a thimble. It’s in the book.

Oh no….

When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

My books at home

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.

What readers do with books in a bookshop

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

Collecting collections

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

A day in a bookshop

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.

Places I used to read

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

Notes I’ve made about second hand bookshops

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