‘I fear nothing when I am doing right,’ said Jack.


“ I fear nothing when I am doing right,’ said Jack.

‘Then,’ said the lady in the red cap, ‘you are one of those who slay giants.”

Andrew Lang, The Red Fairy Book


There are three teenage girls here and they are looking at Jules Verne and I am curious. One of them asks for Sherlock Holmes, another has chosen The Great Gatsby and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and the third girl purchases Les Misérables – she tells me she is up for it. They all three of them stand in the door way, the door cannot quite close. They are standing in the doorway and they are looking closely at the Les Misérables and it is 1331 pages long. A man waits patiently to enter but they are so busy. One girl tells her friends she is up for it, this huge book.  The other says well I’m up for this: and she triumphantly shows the Harry Potter volume six, and she explains – I went up for Sherlock but he’s not there. They look at her in silence, considering and then they notice the waiting man. They are mortified and squeak the thousand apologies. They tell him they are going to the bakery and he is smiling, he is happy with their explanation.

When I looked up again from the counter there is a boy suddenly there, aged about 11, staring at me and holding a bag of coins. He said Tintin?  I remembered that he has been here before and that I should know what he needs. He waits patiently.

I have one book – Tintin in Tibet and he relaxes and pours out the coins across the counter and counts them slowly. He says: thank you so much because I love Tintin so much.

Ken told me today about his kids: This morning my kids were talking together, my son he does not want to be at school, you know how they are, but there he was talking with my daughter about the Ancient Greeks and for a long time, too. You know sometimes you think that sometimes the world’s all right, you know.

Then he disappeared into the back room and came back to show me a book about cowboys. He said THIS is a good read. He looked very happy.

A lady told me a long story about her interest in the paranormal. She thought she might have some small powers of her own.

Daryl asks for books about Hannibal, a new book mark and The Family Frying Pan. He tells me that Brother Fish is too heavy to hold. But Hannibal – you know that guy that went over the Alps and conquered the Greeks, can you get me that?

He flexes his tattoos and thinks for a while. Then he asked me for a bookmark with a crucifix on it for his family bible.

Alan and Jenny only watch SBS. They tell me in great detail why this is so.

Maria asked me did I mind if she asked how many children I had and where they all are. I did not mind at all. She said that all her daughters were gone now, left her in the dust and she is pretty happy about that. She has TEN grandchildren. She bought a book of poetry, not too much as she is still reading the Hans Christian Anderson, the delight of her days.

There is a couple in the front room and she reads aloud to her husband to test the suitability of the book. She says to her husband: he’s not six, he’s seven, he’s seven, remember?

She said: what about this one, is it too old for him? Or is it too young for him? Her husband does not answer. They leave without any book.

I, myself read on last night through my Penguin Pocket Anthology. The Reunion by John Cheever, The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin, Mother Savage by Guy De Maupassant, An Upheaval by Anton Chekhov, Roman Fever by Edith Wharton, Paul’s Case by Willa Cather.

A Party Down at the Square by Ralph Ellison is horrible. Where are you Going, Where Have you Been by Joyce Carol Oates is terrifying. Vandals by Alice Munro is devastating. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Marquez is beautiful.

There is Eudora Wealty and Amy Tan and Dagoberto Gilb and Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich and on and on I go through these stories and I hope they never come to an end. They, all of them decades and decades old but they are all about right here right now.

A man bought a book called Hanging: a History of Execution in Australia. I said cheerily: enjoy your book and he said:  It is the history of hanging.  Not a book to enjoy I don’t think.

I was rebuked. His wife said: Look at this! And she had Murray Bail: The Drover’s Wife. She said: I always wanted to read this.

She glances furiously at her husband.



I’m going to put my school bag in the bin…do you reckon I should?


School has begun again in this small town. There are mothers gathered together at the bakery, looking thoughtful and eating risky cream cakes. I am asked for Dougie Starts School, and then Girl Stuff for the Preteens by Kaz Cooke and The Definitive Guide to Icecreams Sorbets and Gelati. …but we are unsure who wrote this one, the lady who has requested it looks annoyed with herself. Another lady tells us she is soon to move to Strathalbyn as it has a good chemist. She buys The World of the Horse while the icecream customer is looking for her Google app.

Outside there are no children clattering past on bikes or scooters. It is quiet and cloudy, not even a breeze. A young man asks me for books on cockfighting but I have never even seen one. Another customer watches him leave and looks disgusted.

Yvonne puts her head through the door and shouts: how is that grandchild of yours?

I reply that he is thriving. She says: that’s the way.

A man asks me for Douglas Adams books, especially Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I show him all the copies and he says: good upselling. I think that it is hardly necessary to upsell Douglas Adams! He chooses the leather version, it is purple and silver and I think I should have kept it for myself and I take his money feeling bitter. Later I think that I might have a problem with hoarding books.

I am reading an anthology of literature, prose, poetry and plays. It is a student’s version, heavy with onion skin pages and scribbled notes down the margins. I have discovered Katherine Porter, John Cheever, Somerset Maugham, Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston. I did not know that D H Lawrence wrote short stories. Or John Steinbeck. I have now read The Fall of the House of Usher. I have now read Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway and which is set in Spain. When there is a gap in here, I can keep reading.

Robert wants a copy of The Physics of Transfigured Light. I show him my anthology and he admires the weight of it. He says: there is not enough time to read. I tell him that Ernest Hemingway shot himself and he answered that the world has always treated its artists cruelly.

A lady told me that her young daughter reads the same books that she once did and that this makes her very happy. The books they both love are the Sweet Valley High Series. After school two young girls spend a long time looking through the shelves. They are about fourteen years. One chose two penguin classics in the orange and cream covers – Isabelle Allende Eva Luna and John Updike’s Run Rabbit Run – she did not know who the authors were, she just loved the orange and cream covers.

Scott stopped to say that he is now reading all of the free throw out books from the library even though they are all crap.

Later, toward the end of the afternoon the school children come past again, in groups and heading for food. One boy drags his bag along the footpath and tells his friend he might put his bag in the bin. His friend says: you should.


The tough stories, the myths and legends, of any country, the basics, the absolutes….


Outside the shop a child hurls her ice block at her father’s feet and he says: well that’s the end of that then!

I see James through the window, he is 14 and cycling slowly through the heat and up the road towing a cart behind his bike, I know he built and attached this cart himself. In the cart today there is an old leather bag and a glass lantern.

It is very hot and customers come through the door and tell me about the heat. Mavis brought me a bag of plums and told me she is unhappy with her hairdresser (no plums for her).

A lady piled books on the counter and whispered to me: oh this is such fun. She had an A. S. Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden and I stared at the cover; I have not yet read this. I felt envious of her pile of books. I told her irrelevantly that now I have my first grandson and she was enormously impressed. She said: Oh well done, well, well done. I felt better; I felt generous and showed her The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, the last copy and the one I was going to keep. When she bought it I did not mind because now I have a grandson.

I have just finished Wide Sargasso Sea and searched my own shelves frantically for more books by Jean Rhys and I did not have anything at all. I am disappointed with my own bookshop.

Jim tells me that wherever he goes, the internet is always slow. But he thinks it is because maybe he is slow. He buys Heart of Darkness because he saw something about it on TV. Angela wants Surrender: A Journal for My Daughter which she also saw on TV.

It continues to be hot but it is not quiet. The motorbikes are seldom quiet. When they leave in droves from the art gallery car park on Sunday mornings, the cars obediently stop to allow them to stream out in a group. The drivers are obedient but not happy.

I have not found anything more by Jean Rhys so I am reading The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith which is horrifying so far. It is also horrifying that have not read it yet. When I saw David he said: why haven’t you read that yet?

Some British tourists buy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson and they are anxious that now they will go over their flight luggage restrictions. But they take it regardless because it is worth the risk.

Peggy rang to tell me that she had bought a new car, a Mazda with Bluetooth, satellite navigation, reversing mirror, live streaming, anything you want to listen to but none of that stupidly new music. She also broke her foot, went down over the fireplace like an old fool. So she also went online to the Book Depository and ordered tons of books, none of which will fit onto her bookshelves.

A man told me that Nelson Demille only writes one book per year which is disappointing. His wife showed me how she carries her handbag so that thieves cannot snatch it. Paul, who is a regular, told them that his wife carried her handbag the same way. Then he told them how much he liked reading about gypsies and they were approving. The husband said: there’s nothing like a good book and everyone nodded.

A brother and sister told me a long story about reading the Narnia series by C S Lewis, they argued over many of the details and the brother accused his sister of not having read them properly. Their father, who had brought them in said: keep it down, you two.

At the end of the week, a Saturday for me, a visitor, a man said:

My wife has had a stroke but still she can read and I always buy her a Colin Thiele. I have got her Sun on the Stubble this time, glad you had it there. I read to her every night. I think that life does go on but I don’t understand how.

I feel that I must read the tough stories too, so that you know life goes on. The tough stories, the myths and legends, of any country, the basics, the absolutes….that’s the sort of books I read to my wife, every night…




Are these books disturbing?

Syd Wachs.jpg

A child leaned into and over the window display. She froze into position, arms outstretched. She told her mother she was being part of the book display so that people would stop and look in. Her mother asked her if she was being sensible.

There are two books here by Australian author Eleanor Spence: Me and Jeshua and Miranda Going Home. They are historical novels for young readers, novels of first century Palestine and the friendship of two children with Jeshua, a carpenter’s son. They are memorable books and I still have my own copies. A mother is here and her children are on strict reading lists. They must not be exposed to magic, make believe or historical inaccuracies. She asked me: are these books disturbing and will they upset my child’s head?

I said: very likely.

A very young reader brought Animal Farm to the counter. I said: are you studying this text at school. She said: no, and then quickly left. I felt that I had been intrusive. Who can explain why they want to read George Orwell.

There is a family here that visit often. They brought their small bikes inside for safety although they left the sleeping baby outside, parked beside the window. The youngest boy indicated the baby and explained the situation: This is my Uncle Lisa’s baby and her was born just this morning. (She is 10 weeks old, said the mother). Then the small boy mentioned a library card…he means a bookmark, explained the brother kindly and he has had his hair cut today, this morning. The smaller boy inclined his head so I could see in detail the bristling new haircut.

I read another story by Djuna Barnes and it is disturbing.

Peggy who is indomitable, who is 84, came in for Daniel Silva. She is only reading thrillers these days. I showed her my Virago and she said oh God!

She looked briefly at James Patterson and said luckily she got over him years ago. She is moving to Penrith but will return to SA if she ever gets ill. But then she remembered that she is ill, her liver….but she thought she will give old Penrith a go anyway. And then come back. I insisted she might like the Virago modern classics but she said she gave up reading shit like that years ago. I said, as I always say to her, don’t go and she answers as usual: you’ll get over it.

Robert also came in and talked to me about the Pythagorean comma. I asked him what he does when he comes across a disturbing book. He said that he would read it.

I was asked for all of the war biographies by Spike Milligan. John said that he had them all once and his best mate borrowed them and refused to return them. And just as he was about to go to court over them, his mate died. The books disappeared of course…which is typical of that family…

I was asked for The Mining History of the Klondike.

I was asked how to change the region on a DVD.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes while a lady in amongst the children’s books laughed and laughed because her granddaughter is so incredible. The grandchild, who is tiny, urged her grandparent through the door but stood in the way of pram so that nobody could move. The grandmother laughed and laughed again and said: isn’t she a trick? The child walked up the street, walking backwards next to the pram and reading as she went.

Sydney told me about some people he knew on Westwater Road.

I was asked for Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel. The man read to me the first line of the book.

When Laura was two, the twins decided to kill her.

He said: isn’t that a disturbing first line…

I said that I had never read it and he told me I ought to as it is brilliant and has won important literary awards. He said that the author is Australian and the book is unsettling.

I think about this book Questions of Travel

A lady spends a long time looking at two little carved owls that sit on top of a neat stack of books and the books are all red. There is a copy of Pride and Prejudice bound in ruby leather in there, it glows but she only has eyes for the owls…she bends forward to examine the owls more closely, she is enchanted by the little owls. Her husband calls her to look at a Complete Shakespeare but she will not answer him.

Last night I read a history essay in a journal called Westerly, about which I know nothing except that it is published in Western Australia. The Flinders University library has these bound and shelved in endless heavy rows and I have borrowed two of them because I liked the way that they are heavy. And that is the only reason I brought two volumes home.  And in one of them is a history essay and it is called: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two by Brian Willis and it is about our history of the treatment of the Indigenous Nations of WA during the Second World War. And about this I have known nothing my whole life and about this I am left limp with horror.

At the end of the day Robert dropped in again to tell me that Medicare is plotting to destroy him but he will not let them succeed. I said: Robert you must keep reading. He said triumphantly that he will keep reading as soon as he sorts out his glaucoma test.

Then I told him about the essay I had read: Restriction and Control of Aborigines in Western Australia during World War Two and that I was left limp with horror. And he said: good, you should be.

Photography by Syd Wachs