A couple looking through the door and wondering whether to come in

They almost have their eyes on the glass. I can hear them through the door.

‘Do you reckon this is mask-wearing territory?’

‘What do you say babe, want to go in?’

They adjust their masks and come in. She is serene and quiet and pearlescent and powerful. He is broad and outdoors. He bounces on his feet, cannot contain his energy, calls me ‘mate’, wears his mask crooked, and whistles with admiration at basically everything. He kneels down, stands up, bounces, straightens his shoulders, turns around, alive with purpose.

‘What can I get babe? I could go for this.’

He chooses Nicholas Nickleby. She already has a stack of Charles Dickens chin high. She said, ‘Mmmm.’ He said, ‘Babe, we should get out of here.’ Then to me, ‘Excuse me, what’s your oldest book here.’

He and I searched the books, looking for dates. He said:

‘Cool.’

‘Sick.’

‘Mate. Radical.’

Then he said to her, ‘We should get out of here, babe. I’m going nuts, look at all these.’

She said, ‘Mmmm.’

They come to the counter to pay for their books. I say, ‘Do you want a receipt sent to you phone?’ He does. I ask for his number.

‘Are you cracking onto me?’

I am pleased with his joke because he is young and I am not, but his partner gives a scream of laughter.

‘My God, as if anyone would crack onto you.’ She can’t stop laughing.

He tells me they want books for their library. For their caravan. And for their kids.

They both look at her stomach, just a flicker of a look, but I saw it.

Illustration by Deborah Dewitt

The man who badly needed a cup of tea

He came in to browse and told me that his wife was Dux of Woodville High School, but three weeks ago had walked out of his life. He knelt down to examine all the bottom shelves and said that the books were wonderful. Just wonderful; especially the bird books.

Then he sang me a hymn and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He found a book on Scotland (The History of) and told me about his Scottish parents. He began to make a pile of books while he talked.

‘I’m worried about this generation. All they do is sit on the couch and drink fat.’

He said he didn’t hold with televisions, and that he badly needed a cup of tea.

‘After my wife left me, I had to do something with my life, so I started lifting weights. I’m 77, and you probably don’t believe it.’ I said it was amazing.

‘I just got the first TV of my life the other day. It’s for my new lady, and I’ve put it in its own room. Not with the books. Young people don’t know about the war.’

He went into the other room for a while. Then he came back.

‘Everything, Honey, has a city mentality. Even the birdlife. People only think of coffee and cakes. It’s artificial. I once knew some idiot called Charlie who was like that’.

I agreed.

He sang me another hymn, which I admired. Then he paid for his books, told me that he can’t abide a show off, and said goodbye.

Himself, a flash of unique bright birdlife, gone!

A man here browsing gave me the impression that he was looking for something specific

He was with a friend. She kept bumping his shoulder gently so he had to keep moving along. He frowned and read titles closely and bit his lip, put them back and went on to the next one. He gave each book a long fair go. He tipped his head back and narrowed his eyes to get at the reviews on the back and the dates of publication.

‘You find it?’ She asked. He shook his head. She put headphones in.

In Classics, the man rested on one knee. One elbow resting on the knee. One hand resting on the shelf right next to Steinbeck and Stevenson.

His friend took her headphones out and said they needed to go to Woolies later. He nodded. She put her headphones back in. Began to nod gently to another rhythm. He bent closer to the shelf, angling toward another vision. His feet were uncomfortable, splayed out for balance, and he soon moved back and knelt on both knees instead. He was now backed up against the leg of his friend. She had her eyes closed, and was moving, in tiny imperceptible movements, from side to side.

She reached down with her left hand took hold of his ear. She continued listening. He continued looking. Joined.

“Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader (2006), said that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. I thought about why this is and then wrote the following list:

  1. Although we are not alone, we read alone.
  2. Although what happens when we read is not quiet, it makes us quiet.
  3. What we see and sense when we read happens inwardly no matter how powerful, and the more devastating the experience, the deeper the retreat.
  4. Even though reading is all about the written word, a book can leave us with no words to describe it. This is because we are not describing the book, we are describing what our self has become after reading it, and this is often too new to have any vocabulary yet.
  5. Reading draws on and makes use of what we already know and what we already are, and then somehow turns this material broadside and sends it (and us) bowling down new allies.
  6. Reading can reach our hidden and distraught places (the ones that live on piles of silence) and let in some air.
  7. Reading is private and delicate and social and diabolical.
  8. It is only in silence that we can find our troubles, and reading provides a safe balcony to look from.
  9. Reading leaves us alone to find our own face.
  10. Although we are alone, we actually don’t read alone.

Illustration by Lorena Spurio

Warm and raining; one of those weird days that I really like

The traffic outside is muffled. People turning in all directions, trying to cross the road quickly. A few people coming in for books. A couple in a motorhome all the way from WA and buying books for birthday gifts. Sarah came in for her book about Dawn Frazer. Trevor came in for a copy of Carpentaria. I went to the bakery, twice.

Still raining.

I order a copy of Jellies and Their Moulds for a customer.

I look up Liane Moriarty and Jonathan Gash for other customers. I decide not to clean the windows.

Outside it’s dark, then light and then dark again. The road is already dry. A child passes on a skateboard; I can hear the wheels ticking over the pavers in the footpath. Someone bangs a wheelie bin lid. Two people yell to each other from opposite sides of the road.

‘What you want?’

‘Ohh…just a pie. Get us a pie.’

‘That it?’

‘Yeah. And a cake or something.’

‘Right’.

Someone trying to park outside my door grazes the gutter with a rubbery shriek. A lady get out of the passenger side and looks at the tyre. ‘You’ll have to go again, Alan. You’re not straight.’

Alan has another go and then gets out looking grim, and they walk to the bakery.

Illustration by Pascal Campion

All the weird things that happened today for no reason that I could see

When I was setting up the shop this morning, someone yelled from across the road, ‘Can you get in?’ and they were looking right at me. Get in where? I had to give a false and confident wave: yes I can, thank you. Yes I can what? I had no idea. The man nodded and waved, pleased that I could get in. Then he walked away, a wide gait and shoulders that had done a lot and were a little weary now. He leaned forward as he walked, careful of the remaining decades that still contained a lot to do.

A lady, a regular, was turning her gopher in my doorway, as she does every morning.  It’s the only place wide enough. She said, ‘Oh, you’ll get in. You’re skinny enough.’ And she laughed strong and broad, filling my doorway with her morning notes. But I considered things seriously. What?

A lady and her husband stood at the window and she said, ‘Well, that’s almost offensive.’ And they leaned in and laughed darkly at each other and moved on, so I never got to know what had offended.

A man passed swiftly with a pole balanced across one shoulder like a fishing rod. He was fast. I didn’t see much, only an oblong of moving stripes, but he saw me looking out as he looked in, and he made bird noises, powerful and piercing, so I thought well he’s off to the magic circus somewhere on the river. Which is probably wrong, but for a minute I dropped back into a book I’d read once where a man wearing stripes had a magic bird booth at a circus, and the birds would tell true stories about the moon if you paid them one piece of gold.

I thought, is Strathalbyn under some weird magic spell today?

A young woman came in and asked for books about witches. I looked at her meaningfully. She browsed, and I watched her, looking for clues. But she revealed nothing, She had to go, she said, to Woolies, for milk and bread. I was disappointed.

Alan came in to share his family news. I told him that there’s magic going on. He said, ‘What kind of magic?’

I said in a mysterious tone, ‘Lots of things. A bird man.’

He said, ‘Na, mate. That’s nothing.’ Then he told me he was going home for a feed.

I said that I would stay here and keep watch. He laughed, another broad and full laugh, and said that I’d never get in.

What?

But he’d gone. He saw him passing my second window already stuffing his mask into his pocket.

When the home library loses its mind

When I was young and had time to loll about, my brothers used to pull a random paperback from my shelves and ask me to identify it using only the gap it left. I always got them right. I knew where each book knelt as though in its own benediction each night. The Last Unicorn. The Incredible Journey. I Heard the Owl Call my Name, Josie goes Home. Every single volume of The Bobbsey Twins. When they weren’t there, I knew.

 ‘Give it back. I never said you could.’

I kept my library tight and worried about it at school. I imaged wrongly that it was of value to everyone and that everyone was dazzled by its kaleidoscope of broken skies and the urge to not travel anywhere but through it.

I was mistaken. Everyone has their own dazzle. What was actually dazzling was only my infatuation with it. But I continued collecting. Later, when I had my own bookshop, I would meet fellow dazzlers. They range from the age of five to ninety five, and I would know them by the way they turn on an axis and can’t decide.

Now our home has been rinsed through with family; a thousand summers. L plates. Exams. Crying, and broken microwave plates. Near misses. Calamity, and needing to reorganize the towels. Grandsons that read and climb and fall out of the mulberry tree and come for a bandaid. The library standing back and looking on with approval.

The collections continue, swollen and mixed, with broadened shoulders and matchbox cars around their ankles. Books have moved. The children’s flats have burst upward like pancakes and newcomers stand around waiting for a place. Joan Didion, Alexis Wright, Lahiri Jhumper, A Gentleman in Moscow, everything by Marie Darrieussecq, Kim Scott, Gerald Murnane. Books have gone; don’t know where.

The library has been forced back into order, but it didn’t last. I pushed all the shelves to new places to make new spaces, so now D is next to T, and Asterix looks at Beatrix Potter, and I can’t find anything, but so far that’s ok. I know where Bill Bryson probably is, and I know where the Text Classics are because I just read The Women in Black and put it back. There are plastic monkeys clustered underneath Little House on the Prairie where they are having kindy, and Owl Babies is always out on the floor.

A library whirls around its readers; it is never still and never the same, and its life can never end.

Image by Vladimir Fedotko

Chemin de Fer by Elizabeth Bishop

Alone on the railroad track
I walked with a pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.

The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond.

where the dirty hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple.
The pet hen went chook-chook.

‘Love should be put into action!’
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.

Sculpture by Hans Some

(The literal meaning of the French phrase ‘chemin de fer’ is ‘iron path’.)