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.  

Notable incidents about today

Robert came in. I was talking with someone else, a fabulous pair from Clayton, but I saw Robert outlined against the brightness outside the door, and I knew it was him: he has a spiky electrocuted outline and eyes like gimlets.

The pair from Clayton left on a bark of humour. We’d been talking about vaccinations. He reckoned he’d been vaccinated with the Calicivirus, but she said that was rubbish. That was when Robert loomed up behind them like a bolt of electric heat from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was precisely what he was there to talk about.

He tapped the counter and gave me a list of books to find. He is currently reading Zecharia Sitchin. We discussed the possibility of getting the books. He said obscurely, ‘Imagine people thinking money is the thing. Don’t they know it’s books?’ We laughed darkly over anyone thinking money is the thing. Then he said, ‘Leave them alone. Best they keep thinking that. Leaves more books for us.’

Then we became hilarious. Robert laughed his high pitched laugh. It’s a thin voltage, admirable and richly unhinged. People turn around.

Behind Robert I saw Russell looking through the window, and behind him, a brisk lady who called out, ‘Hello there!’ in foghorn font causing Russell to jerk toward the window and nearly collide with the cold glass.

‘Very good thanks.’

In front of me, Robert continued on. ‘I’m getting Herman Hesse. He’s significant and I’ve only got The Glass Bead Game. I need all the rest.’

We googled Herman Hesse. A noble prize winner.

‘Really? Wow.’

Robert always utters really and wow in reverent deep tones, which drop deeper as he talks. Suddenly I, too, am desperate to read Herman Hesse.

I ask, ‘How did you find him?’

‘Don’t know.’ We look at each other and Robert laughs, high pitched and lunatic, and people turned around.  Then we settle down to the real business of the day, which is criticising people who don’t read and Telstra in that order.

Behind Robert, a tradesmen in orange and blue strides toward my door, grabs the handle and swings it competently open. But we are not the bakery, and he reverses, turns skilfully, lifting a phone to his ear at the same time.

Robert continues. ‘I wouldn’t mind a copy of The Master and Margarita’, and I promise to comply. Two ladies have bloomed fragrantly behind him, and he straightens up to leave, courteous.

‘Ok, see you later.’ He is briefly outlined in the doorway. Then gone.

The small tasks that are done on long weekend Mondays

It’s just traffic driving past really, not fast or slow, just endless, and the sky’s dark and the air is grey and cold. Everyone’s going home. Only truck drivers are stopping for food from the bakery. They walk past checking phones and sometimes they look in see me sitting here: one driver smiled and waved. An older couple spend ages trying to park a caravan outside my door. She stood on the footpath waving directions. Eventually they walked past my door; she had a really heavy shoulder bag and stopped to adjust it. She looked cold and annoyed. They both glanced in at me and then away again.

The carpark across the road is empty. There’s just a lady with smooth pale gold hair. She’s coming across to the bakery. She has an evening bag with a long gold chain. She’s dressed completely in motorcycle leather, including the boots. She looks as though she could go anywhere.

Families with small dogs on endless leads: a father has to untangle terriers and little children who won’t let go of the leads, and he says, ‘All right, let’s just do it slowly. Bridget let go a minute, come on.’

A man walking past fast does an about turn and stares at my door. He stacks two coffees and enters hopefully. ‘I’ve lost someone.’

She’s here, looking at books in the back room. She comes out. ‘I’ll be here for ever.’ He hands her a coffee and says ‘Keep looking. Keep looking.’ They stand side by side with their heads on the exact same angle, hugging hot coffees to hearts.

A mother and two small boys sweep past, but the little boys come back and press noses on the window. Then they move away, but the older boy comes back and stares through at something again. Then he disappears, but returns again, and then again. I cannot work out what he is staring at.

There’s a young man eating a pastie. His shoulders are hunched and he keeps one hand in his pocket. He glances backwards without interest into my shop window and away again. A young woman meets him and he says to her, ‘What’d you get me?’

She says, ‘Nothing.’ And he throws his head back and laughs and says, ‘Mate!’ Then he throws his arm across her shoulders and they walk on, and an old man with a grim face and a green Woolies shopping bag walks up behind them, and then a young woman steering a huge pram with just one hand. Her other hand is steadying what looks like loose apples on top of the pram. None of the apples fall; she is so focused on this one important task.

Illustration by Valentin Rukunenko

Liking the new spaces in the shop

There are two rectangular bookshelves in the front of the shop, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, bone to bone. The books are not related. But they still get on because they’ve been shelved so precisely that they must. They take up and face out, exact squares of meaning. Customers say, ‘This looks nice.’

I think they’re referring to order. Order is nice right now. When you open the door to the shop, there’s a big new free space. We moved the counter back out of the way. I prefer to be out of everyone’s way. You can get your pram in now. The space is bordered and held by bookshelves holding all kinds of possibility. That’s what I call it because you can get in the door so easily that the rest of the shop seems possible. My assistant, Callie, came in and saw the new arrangement for the first time. She said, ‘I like.’

The books sit tight and obedient. But their contents don’t. There are all kinds of strange books sitting there looking at the visitors coming in. When visitors come in, they move their heads from side to side, fast and interested. Then they say, ‘This is nice.’ They look carefully and softly at simply everything. Spike Milligan. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Blinky Bill. A Biography of Judy Dench. Longfellow. Asterix and the Soothsayer. European Trains in the 19th Century. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Rabindranath Tagore: The Complete Writings.

‘Just get it over and done with…..like…hello?’ I overheard this from two teenagers passing the door and discussing getting things over and done with. The girls walked shoulder and shoulder, heads together, dragging schoolbags.

A man came strongly through the door into my new space and then backed out again. He said, ‘Zen moment. Sorry. Books here. Sorry.’

When visitors come in together, they stand for a little while and whisper to each other. There’s no need to whisper though. It’s not a quiet place. Books are not quiet.

A mother and child browsed a while and left looking happy. The mother had bought The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She said, ‘I want to cry’. At the door the child said, ‘I’m going to die from holding in my pee’, and the mother screamed with laughter. I thought that was good.

On the inside facing directly outward so I can see everyone going past and everything that happens

Now it’s even harder to miss people. I’ve had my counter moved so it sits facing the door. I’m facing that outside space where everything  happens. I don’t have to turn my head anymore.

Things happen at lightening speed. Sometimes a person passes so fast that all I catch is an expression. The thing is: I recognize the expression even though it’s tied to their life and their shopping lists. But it’s good to be part of such a rich and filthy diorama: no solutions, no control, all cream and vinegar and colour.

Sometimes all I catch is a body movement: a shrug or a gesture. And I recognize it, and it looks good. We aren’t aware of how precise our muscles are. Or how delicate. A cheek muscle can express at least a couple of years of solid participation.

All sounds are caught in the scoop of my doorway. Sometimes it’s sheep, caught up in their own private woollen hell, squashed into a truck parked outside so the driver can get to the bakery.

Once two tradesmen (there are always tradesmen) argued at the back of their parked ute. They wore the obligatory orange and blue. One man was talking. The other looked at the ground and shook his head. I liked the way he shook his head at the ground rather than at his friend. This is how I knew they were friends. The road outside was quiet that morning. There was just them. They couldn’t see me. A bookshop is the most invisible of shops. The man looking at the ground said, ‘Jesus. Just hand it in then. Tell ‘em to get fucked.’

The other man nodded and nodded and nodded. Relief.

Once a walking floppy child went past hand in hand with mum. They stopped to look at my wooden smiling cat that guards the front window. The child was turning to soft sad tired rubber. Mummy was trying to cajole her home.

‘Look at the cat. And look at this. It looks like you.’ The child’s face, dripping downwards, suddenly solidified and turned warm. ‘Is that me?’

‘Yes, do you think?’

‘It’s me. Can I have him?’

‘No, he lives here.’ And they moved slowly on, a shopping bag and a jumper dragged along because they were necessary too.

An old man limped past; a lady next to him: his wife. He was being scolded by his wife. They were working hard at the walking but were going slowly. Suddenly he lifted both arms into the air, a gesture meaning that he had no words for it. He eyes flicked sideways and saw the gesture. Then they were out of my sight. Do you get to an age when there  are no adequate words for it? Imagine outliving language.

Once three ladies came in, taking ages to get through the door because they were bringing books in for me. One lady was bent over arranging the bags. They were Woolworths green shopping bags full of books. When she lifted her eyes to me to see if I was pleased with their gift, her eyes were there. Looking at me and at nothing else. The ladies bowed to each other and to me and to the shelves. The kindness of it defeated me that day. I didn’t know what to say.

The family who read a lot

Two women and a heap of kids came into the shop. One of the women hugged an atlas. She kept looking at the front of it, turning her head to one side. A little boy chose one small Zac Powers book at a time and ran it over to me. Then returned for another one. Sometimes he took a book and flew it from room to room like a plane before adding it to the stack in front of me. He added 11 Zac Powers books. A little girl removed half the Zacs and put them on the floor in front of the counter. The boy added another one.

The women with the atlas passed the counter again in a serene ordered way. The other women had novels. She said, ‘I love novels’. Another child watched the atlas float by at her eye level and found her own atlas. She added it to the stack, standing, I think, on the Zac Powers pile, luckily left there for her small sandalled foot.

An older child piled a series of novels she’d found on the top of the Zac Powers.  ‘I’ve been looking for this a long time’. She added a Minecraft book. One woman said, ‘I don’t really know what this Minecraft is, but she does, so we’ll get it. The older child’s face became a lit lamp. The little girl added a book about snakes. Then one about frogs. The atlas passed us again, now with another smaller art book lying on top of it like a slice of something else. The Zac Powers boy zoomed and swooped and added a copy of Possum Magic. His mother said, ‘Oh good.’ And his face became the second lit lamp.

Every time I go past this window I see a book, and I’ve read it

Three ladies together came into the shop, travellers; they told me they’re in their happy place in a bookshop. They gave each other things to look at.

‘This will do you, Nabby.’

On lady said, ‘When I was growing up, I got all my books free.’

Another lady said, ‘I really love the very old Penguin books because you get some fabulous writers….right back to the 1900s.’

The third lady said, ‘Look at this. This book was just waiting here for me.’

They moved around holding things up and talking about them. They were all wearing delicate colours and scarves and reusable soft bags they unfolded from tiny rectangles. They talked about the beach.

‘The beach is finished now girls. Next year.’ They were all looking down at books, and they all laughed into the books.

Painting by Angela Morgan