The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

Checking in

Everybody’s fluent entry into the shop is checked now. The door is darkened with hopefuls doing their phone. They are, without exception, patient and kind.

‘Shall we check in?’

‘It’s not working.’ A lady swayed and bent over her phone, but her group were looking into the windows, faces on the glass, eyes screwed up.

‘Look at this.’

‘MARK TWAIN.’ Said in a scream.

‘Weird guy him.’

‘For sure,’

‘This isn’t working. The lady on the glass is turning her phone around and around.

‘Turn it this way. What are you doing? Turn it this way.’

‘No good.’

‘God. Government probably changed it.’

‘It’s worked.’

‘Get in then.’

‘I think that lady at the counter’s going to give me a dirty look if I try and take this coffee inside, so I’ll wait out here.’

I heard her say it, as I pretended not to hear her say it.

Then she crept in. ‘Can I have this?’

I said, oh yes, drinking my own.

They all stood and whispered. The rain banging away outside. Everything dark. I couldn’t place them, family or friends, hard to tell; a kind of magical people, especially the lady with the orange coat because the others all gathered about her, and they held up books for her to see, but she only wanted Charlotte’s Web; I heard her say it.

‘These are good.’

‘So are these.’

‘Look here.’

Are you getting that Twain?

‘Nope.’

Charlotte’s Web?’

‘Yes.’

And they all laughed.

Illustration by Outcrowd

How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Gargantua and Pantagruel

A man bought Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais from me. It was a heavy book, and old. An oblong.

 He and his wife and another man stood outside the door on the footpath and looked down at it.

She said, ‘Good heavens, are you going to read that?’

‘He said, ‘It’s very good, it’s funny. It was banned once; in France where it was published in the 16th century. It was banned. Said it was obscene.’

The other man said, ‘Is that the one about the giants?’

‘This is it.’

‘Hilarious.’

They walked away.

Now I want a copy.

I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

Regarding our own stuff

They are becoming too many, and I know I won’t be able to read them all. Think about that. Why did I get all these? But this is only some of them. Why are book collectors so mad? What it is? Where’s the grip?

My library. It lines every wall. It’s on fire. It swells and shrinks, puckers and protrudes; puts ankles in the hallway, spills books onto the beds of grandsons, ‘What’s this Nanny, it’s got bees on it, it’s got rips in her, it’s too heavy, it’s not my book, it’s bent, but I didn’t done it.’

My library stands with its spine against all walls, shoulders back and watching the family drama. It breathes out. Books land softly. They are trodden on; they brace their cardboard ribs and make it through.

‘Who’s Arthur Ransome?’

‘The Lakes. Heap of kids in a boat. Fabulous.’

‘Is this racist?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Whose this?’

‘Jamaica Kincaid.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Nanny, I saw Paddington.’

‘What’s this Mrs Pepperpot?’

‘It’s mine.’

‘It’s not.’

‘Should I read Margaret Atwood?’

‘Yes.’

My sister bending strongly and in no mood for argument, examines my shelf of Terry Pratchetts. She finds something that might be hers. She straightens up with an accusing face. It is hers.

My dad returns my copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Tea Tree Gully Library.

The grandsons have a go at Asterix.

‘Mum, read Nevo Zisin. Because you don’t get it.’

I read and read. Everything implodes, and my library rocks back and forth holding things upright for me, knowing

I still have my mother’s collection of Monica Dickens. I won’t let it go. It’ll come with me. Which of course it will. Once, a customer, Robert, said ‘all the books come with us, my God, they do.’ Imagine not reading. But I can’t.

…this is my way of reading…

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”


Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Image by Kyle Brock