Ambushed again

A lady came into the shop last week, paid for her books, and went to leave. At the door she gave a small scream, came back, and leapt at the biographies. Then she straightened up, and said, ‘Ambushed again. It always happens to me.’

She came back with a biography of Shane Gould, and said that every time she tries to leave a bookshop, right at the minute of departure, something stirs on a nearby shelf and pulls her back in. It happens every time. This is how she gets her best books. ‘You can’t just try and leave. You can’t ignore it. If you read like a mad person, it’ll get you in the end.’ She looked really happy. Then she left.

All day I thought about that!

(Bookend by Tom Taggart)

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.

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.

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

Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part two

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

An hour later I found a crowd of  books clustered around a YouTube video. They shooshed me. They were watching a demonstration on how to build a perfect guitar pedalboard.

‘What about the dance? Are you still doing it?’ I asked.

‘We’re doing it, East. We’re downloading Spotify.’

The Dickens collection had formed a considerable troupe and were ready to practice. ‘Here come the Dickies,’ everyone always said, whether it was Oliver sprinting across to the Beast Quest games, or old Pickwick waiting for the pub to open. Sometimes Charles himself came out, usually with Ackroyd, leaving together furtively, to avoid the vulgar Americans.

The Antiques and Curiosities were lining up cautiously, with bow ties, dusty coats, and mildew on the collar. Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers were setting up tables and arguing over a three sword centrepiece.

They all watched with thin faces, a Barry Oakly and a biography of Stephen Fry being sold.

The place was getting hot and busy and smoky.

The French women had set up a discussion table. Sagan, Sarraute, Beauvoir, Reza. They smiled graciously as the Canadians passed by. The smiles hardened though, when the Canadians had moved on, I saw that. 

The fantasies were stringing lights. The biographies had started drinking. The craft sat in silence because the main lights had been dimmed, and nobody could see their instructions for scrapbooking or how to make soap. A fountain had been found at the back of Art. ‘Who the cuck brought in a fountain?’ The Skulduggeries were dragging it out. ‘Cool. Get in’.

They argued over music; it was too loud, too strong, too low, too dark, not cultural. They wanted Spotify.

‘Gentlemen, we have Spotify’.

‘No we don’t, Maugham, the account’s been fucking locked.’ There was a collective and dismissive curse on technology.

‘Perhaps everyone can just dance their own dance.’ This from the Atwoods, I sat up to listen.

The political biographies moved in speechfully but were hushed by basically everyone. An Australian autobiography offered some kind of infrastructure promise and was told to fuck off out of it.

The Saddleclubs stood still with mouths open and ponies reined in, silent. They were called out of it, too.

But there was an unlikely agreement, fused out of fatigue, alcohol, and fear (of the Atwoods).

I soothed the political biography, and he said, ‘We believe in women too, of course.’

 I said, meanly, ‘Indeed. Although the menopause is a difficult time of course.’ I saw his eyes flicker upward. Hermione Lee was up talking with the Greers on the front table. They looked down. I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t.

Some books could not get a place in the dance.

No one liked the ex-library books much – this was because of the mess of stickers and tape that covered them.’ Sorry mate. Not in our group.’

The Ian Welshes laughed too loudly. They jumped too high and hard. They were embarrassing to dance with. Samuel Pepys, a massive biography, sat taking spiteful notes on everybody from the ugly angle and called for beer and oysters every ten minutes.

In the back room the Westerns had eased themselves around a small fire. They listened to music coming from the Natural Histories who were putting together The Dance of the Chiasognathus Grantii, which was some kind of weird stag beetle. The music came at them like chimes through smoke. They began to talk.

‘The thing is, I was normal. But did my father have time to look at a kid? No.’

The others looked out and away to give privacy. They stared into the firmament.

One shelf above, a lone book stirred, an Edward Abbey. Said nothing.

‘…and what have you ever done except murder all the losers?’ This was History, climbing down in an ordered line, harping at each other all the way.

‘Endocrine, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal….I could keep on but I don’t want to bore anyone…’

‘Neither do we.’

‘In ancient times, reading was one of the most….’

‘The witch is here; the witch is dead…’

‘Begging pardon my lady.’

At the counter, the little science fiction paperback had returned, was talking again, ‘We won’t end. Even pulping doesn’t end us. Look at old Gilman Perkins. There’s five of her in here. Look at Mockingbird. Can’t end her.’

To the Lighthouse was on the counter with me, lying on its back and writing, writing, writing, to the beat of a migraine. It said to me, ‘Did you know that manuals on life always subside after the preface? There’s a reason for that.’ Bang, bang, bang. I could hear her migraine. Still she wrote on.

But meanwhile,  the front room was not doing well.

The Algonquin group of classics was being forced to come up with their dance plan.….and they had to do it sober. They sat, sullen, not even one useful verb to be had.

Someone was on at the piano. The books had ransacked the music shelves and dragged out anything with music in its title. They had found a pianist. The music was coming from the top of a shelf, a beautiful little piano by the sound of it, and a cello, that ran barefoot and lightly underneath and then over the notes of the piano.

There are books gathered up there. I can see them listening to the piano.  A copy of Cards of Identity, gazing away into some unknown basin of solitude.

The German classics, dancing, elegant despite their rectangular suits. They bob and dip, a court dance, touch hands, exchange longings, move out again.  The others watch.

The Saul Bellows sitting back, shading their eyes from the melody, and needing a drink.

Someone shouted, ‘Piano Man, play Piano Man, man.’ They are getting mellow. As usual they then begin to discuss things.

Jeffrey Eugenides held forth on The Pilgrim Hawk. He likes books with animals in them. He says, ‘Wescott has courage. And in the morning, I can only open one eye. Also, a dog got to me once.’ He repeated this three times.

I pictured a dog eating the book, biting into the soft ideas inside of it.

But the Murray Bails liked The Fish Can Sing. ‘Iceland is perfect, he said.

But someone answered, ‘Who wants to read about that frozen slab of geyser holes?’

The Murray Bails became bitter. ‘You are all afraid of Iceland.’

The Kenyon Review suddenly opened its covers. ‘Serendipity is no accident.’ it shouted.

‘Shut up Friedel.’

‘That wasn’t Friedel, that was Butler.’

Nobody liked being corrected. The conversation broke up.

Poetry and Plays were still arguing (because Poetry has more shelves). There is nobody else in the store even remotely interested in this conflict. Mostly because they can’t understand anything that the poets are saying, even in an argument. On the way back to the counter, I saw the Shelleys, sitting on the edge of the sea, smoking and not taking part.

The Shakespeares have joined the conflict. This always causes uneasiness because everyone claims to have read Shakespeare, and this makes any argument risky. When Robert was here once, sorting through Astrology, he overheard the Shakespeares quarrelling. Robert said, ‘Good on you all. Fuck Centrelink.’ The Bard was immediately interested, and they had a long dark discussion in the corner.

‘Look at the Lemonys. Aren’t they adorable!’

I stood up. The whole set of Lemony Snickets was moving into the middle of the room, into a square formation, Hostile Hospital at the front.

 ‘STOP!’ commanded Hostile Hospital. ‘You are all wretched. You are all woeful.’ They continued on, happily.

‘Weird!’ Said Salinger. ‘But I like them.’

‘Great dance guys!’ This from the Vladimirs, who have painted themselves black. They are pleased, and in a mood to be kind. Vampire books were selling well.  The other groups looked at them blankly. ‘Can we even see you?’

The horse books were dancing in dressage under the window. Very impressive. I went to have a closer look.

‘Watch it East, they’ll trample you.’

‘Thank you, Philip. But they won’t. I tell you that horses can dance”.

“Not these ones.”

The horse books stopped and announced that they are heading for the lodestone. There was an uneasy pause – this meant the greatest book in the shop. It was agreed that there was one, but not who it was.  

The horse books all turned in a single movement and cantered over to Pinocchio. Most of the books in the shop, I knew, had read Pinocchio, and still remembered Pleasure Island.

‘Carlo Collodi you old….’

‘What are they playing at! Bloody little Saddleclubs! They haven’t even read Pinocchio!’

And then Ibrahim Nasrallah stood up and said, ‘God made horses from wind, my friends.’

 Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is a beautiful book, dressed in gold, cinnamon and black, a wrought iron spine, and always with a layer of fine clean sand following its leather shoes. The other books came forward, made to shake hands, backed off, move in again.’ Hello Ibrahim. Nice coat, man.’ They all nodded quietly, ‘ok, man’. Nasrallah smiled and moved gently over to examine the horse books.

We are, I thought, a perfect representation of lust, gluttony, loneliness, sand, aggression lunch and nomads. There is nothing from life that is not in here. No wonder it was so hot in here. We will be thrown out one day. There had been nine customers all day.

A few Saddleclubs, forbidden to take part in the dance, have moved sulkily back to Young Readers. I see them angle in behind the Enid Blytons to take off makeup and change clothes. Obviously, the riding teachers have forbidden certain outfits.

But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.

To be continued…

Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part one

I always liked the word burlesque. I thought it meant a horse when I was little because it sounded smooth and flanky, with nostrils somewhere and legs on hinges. Like this book shop. All angles and legs and flared outraged noses. I first read of a “burlesque” when I was fourteen. It’s a type of show, one that is provocative, comedic, and distorted. In the book I read, somebody danced one in protest against a ruling establishment. Something about it made sense. They danced it as if they were a horse. And it trampled the thinking of the day.

Is this story inside or outside of my head. Is it distorted? I wouldn’t like to say for sure because I work in this bookshop by myself.

There’s an alcove directly outside the door, a dip in the shopfronts where people stop to search bags, answer the phone, eat food. They look through the windows and say things:

This place won’t last.

Doesn’t look like a bakery to me!

Sandra, get a kindle.

But when you come in, it’s beautiful. The books are lined up, tight, obedient. They look organised, oblong rows of colour and form, table sales of language, literature, and scorn. But really, there’s no obedience in a bookshop, and nothing lines up. 

The books here are spiteful little bastards. They are self-centred, arrogant, and alive with gossip. They are shelved in such dense slices that I can smell them.  They call me ‘Eastwick.’ I know they also call me ‘Updike.’ They think my husband left me and I let it go. Keeps them predictable. There’s 18000 of them, and it’s hard to stay in control.

Each morning I clean up from the night before, fix the counter, check the shelves, rewrite the signs, and make sure each section has gone home.

I hear the books talking behind the customers’ backs as they enter the store. The customers tell me about Their Best Book. From the shelves comes sniggering and derision. Sometimes the books come out of the displays and do a physical imitation of the customer, legs up, elbows out, a mini burlesque of the eager reader.  Everyone cheers. They topple deliberately, high dive into a customer’s nerves and drown the day. They encourage the encyclopedias to put out a hip, cause a fall – they have a tally for injuries. The winners have their name put onto an old library card which curiously, the entire shop regards as some kind of holy relic.

The classics are the worst. They think they have the most experience, are derisive of every other genre (this is mutual), and they drink too much. In the morning, I hear them coughing, and as soon as the first customer comes in they start on what they know about that customer, which is nothing.

But now we have a new problem. My lease is ending and my anxiety about this dilemma is not shared. The books don’t care that the landlord may have a new, more lucrative client. But they should. Especially as each book also has its own anxiety – that it hasn’t been sold – which applies to every book still here. They call out to each other:

‘Are you sold?’ This is vindictive.

‘Wyndham’s been gold sold.’ – this means traded or swapped.

‘Keneally just got dumb sold.’ – this means discounted.

To be thugged (or stolen) is the highest honour.

‘You’re sold.’ This is ‘congratulations,’ but said so mockingly that the receiver wishes they were unsold.

They call the landlord a ‘Scudderless Old No Read’, or ‘Moby Dick.’ When he came to fix the door lock, the shelves rocked with high pitched invective, the anthologies loudest of all. The anthologies here are called tradies. This is because when you talk to an anthology you never know who will answer. You have to ask, ‘Who’s saying that? Who’s opinion? Which author?’ The tradie will say, ‘That was James Thurber’ or ‘Ezra Pound’. Or ‘Cynthia Ozick.’ Finally they’ll say, ‘Who fucking cares?’ Sometimes the tradies get witty. They say, ‘Enid Blyton,’ to everything. Then they want me to get them a beer or a gig.

The books, as a collection, are openly contemptuous of people who come in with other books to sell. They call out, ‘Go back to your own place. Not enough jobs here.’ They hate people who ask for discounts, ‘Get out, you bloody riptides.’ I am never sure what these insults actually mean.

One day a young reader bought twelve horse books at once. They lay in her arms, breathing warmly, whiskery with happiness.

The others watching with curled lips of derision.

Today, I have ideas of my own. ‘Let’s clean up and look good. A tourist attraction. We need a good month. We don’t want this shop becoming a Thai takeaway.

The books become interested.

‘What sort of takeaway? Genuine or that noodle box shit? Eastwick, got a menu?’

I am disappointed. I sit there. I tell them that the world thinks the days of books are numbered.

‘What will you do, Eastwick?’

‘Write. Write about how none of you give a shit.’

‘Why not! Do it! Put me in it’. This hooting came from the classics who were drooping about, leaning over the edge of the shelves, examining their leather shoes, and looking for trouble.

The Henry James stand up, regarding me. ‘Literature cannot end, Eastwick.’

‘Shut up Henry, you old bookend.’ It was H. G. Wells, behind him, a copy of Boon, stiff with delight.

The Henrys step back, outraged. The European classic paperbacks begin to cheer and chant, to taunt the science fiction, and push each other from shelves. The Steinbecks begin writing. The Encyclopedias begin to drink.

‘Why do you call me Eastwick?’ I asked the Wordsworths, who were filing past into the back room.

‘You know.’

‘No.’

The Witches of Eastwick. God, do you read?’

‘Not that. Have you?’ (The classics all claimed to have read everything).

‘Saw the film. Liked Cher in it.’

‘Still don’t know why you call me Eastwick.’

But the Wordsworth were moving on, heading to their editing class. They had been told it was healthy to cleanse. It was actually a writing class. I’d helped write the flyer for Carmel Bird. The Wordsworths thought they would show these Australians a thing or two. Once I heard an Upfield ask, ‘what’s Langley doing?’ And the Wordsworths said, ‘Picking Peas.’ Then they laughed unkindly, until silenced by the Tennants.

It was already late morning. A few browsers. I imagined myself without a bookshop – this bookshop, that the books referred to as trade school. Preparing them for life. ‘Not an academic life’, they said with contempt, ‘A working life’.

I said, ‘you don’t work.’

‘We’re not labourers, no.’

I ask, ‘What are you, then?’ There was a chorus. I suspected they been on the internet.

‘Powerhouses, Millwrights, Riggers, Tools, Marble setters, Commercial pilots.’  The Fantasies called their vocation Magnetized Pointing. The young readers were all going to be Pirates, or Jon Snow. The encyclopedias, already rinsed in gin, did not see themselves with a future. They did not see any need for this conversation either. The art books refused to answer. The poets were quarrelling amongst themselves.

‘Where’d you get this information?’ I asked.

‘We are the information. Information is everywhere, Eastwick,’ they said, as if I had just said it wasn’t.

 ‘A Gale is Blowing in From the East.’ This was shouted from the Travelogues in the next room. The Classics leapt up in delight. The Travels were always good for illicit alcohol and a few other things. There was an exodus.

The yoga books began to chant. The Biographies went on with speeches, research and looking out the window. The Spike Milligans told the Yogas to shut the fuck up!

When the shop was busy, I could still see them going at it, regardless of customers. Fighting, running about, organising demonstrations, meetings, strikes. Cocktail parties, Comicon announcements, and today, a dance.

‘What sort of dance?’

‘A burlesque.’

I was startled. Had I said that out loud?

‘Not appropriate at the moment’, I said. ‘We need to be serious; we need bookshops. We’re dying out.’

‘We won’t die out. Although you might.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

There was no reply. They were all busy.  The Fantasies had put out all the shelf lighting because the Vampires were trying out a play. At the front, C. S. Lewis, and Dr Seuss, smoking pipes and criticising even though the play hadn’t started yet. The others all ignored me and began arguing amongst themselves.

Strangely though, there were three customers who could see them, and hear them; Robert, India and Dave, and there were certain customers that silenced them; Glenda and Morgan.

When Glenda comes in, there’s a pause. This is because she wears dark glasses. They can’t see her eyes. The Joan Dideons look at her and smile and lean against each other. In Poetry, the Anne Sextons nod, yes. Glenda. The classics are still and quiet, uneasy, unwilling to be clever. Glenda says, ‘Oh God,’ and they all shuffle slightly, hoping she is talking about them, which she isn’t.

When Morgan comes in, the biographies (near the door) shout Ancients as warning. This allows the ancient histories to get organised and display themselves to be sold. They stand tall, flatten stomachs and lick at turned down pages, aiming for the big turntable, or, in their words, a proper library.

I learned later about the bribes offered to door books to give a signal for certain buyers. I also learned of the resentment toward the no foes, or the Fucking Ciceros, which is considerable. They tell the penguin Ciceros that they deserved it (to die). They say that Morgan is Moving On and wants Russian history for now on. The Russian histories stir and try to sit up against last night’s vodka but can’t.

When India is here, they all stand to attention, straight with chests powerful, stretching their narratives until the muscles give way. India is kind. She strokes their spines and murmurs, reading their backs out loud. She is thirteen. She chooses books with strong women. She loves Pippi Longstocking and Tiffany Aching. The Viragos look at her with approval.

Dave, they make fun of. They don’t like his anxiety; they say he is Wrong about Art. They don’t like his shoes. Dave is mostly glum, his life as a psychiatric nurse has bled him dry. When he comes in he says, ‘Restore me for God’s sake’. He says, ‘Writing is for what you can’t say’. The books agree with this but just don’t want him saying it.

Robert, they watch carefully. Sometimes I see them twitch with admiration. I am not surprised that Robert can hear them. He lives on the outskirts of the appropriate. On the edge of a lake, in a rental, without a car, a phone or the internet. He has a staggering library. He has read everything. He is writing a definitive work, a history that will expose the source of all evil, which is Moses. He will also bring down Centrelink. He knows the CIA have him under a radar and he has been the victim of magic attacks, twice.  I like him so much.

One morning he was kneeling down in Ancient Histories, hunting for a copy of Western Asia, India, and Crete by Bedrich Hrozny. I didn’t have it, and he said, not to worry, he knows the government are hiding these books. The Ancient Histories gaze at him in amazement. I look at them, noting their interest. Robert came over to talk to me about Marie Louise von Franz. He steps over a pack of Connelleys and Baldaccis leaning against the doorway, and says, ‘Watch out boys.’ They nod, and keep smoking, eyes thin and ready, looking around for the next murder.

The books, although careless of their future, were fastidious with their insults.

‘Eat your kids, here comes old eat your kids’ – to Johnathon Swift, who pottered around, deep in thought. He called them all ‘filthy lawyers.’

‘In your raft’ – to Colette, although said with a respectful tone.

If I ask, ‘Where are the Whartons?’ They yell, ‘In bed writing.’

They called the Coleridges, ‘Old Kublas.’

They called Mazo de la Roche, ‘The Whiteoak Madam’, or ‘Madam Sixteen.’ She is popular though; all the Canadians are.

They called Virginia Woolf, ‘Landscape.’ Landscape upon landscape of dreams ideas pain life and breathing.’ This had been said to her in a drunken moment by the Fitzgeralds, who had been uneasy about it ever since. This is because the Woolfs were best friends with the Atwoods. The entire shop was careful of this women’s group, who could silence any of them with one considering eye.

Once an old lady went past the window very slowly. She was completely bent over. The Atwoods, who were down browsing, looked through the glass. So did everyone else. Looked out at the entire life that was being carried along. The Atwoods bowed. Everybody else, including me, also leaned over, making our own small movement of honour, to her, the old lady passing my window, carrying fatigue and a Woolworths shopping bag.

But still they wanted a Burlesque.

‘You ought to be serious,’ I said.

The classics were going out, it was nearly lunchtime.

‘We are serious. We’re everywhere. There’s no map on this planet we’re not on. We’re inside your shop, but read us, and out we go. The classics were gathering and swaying and shouting and stoned, like a weird dried out paperback version of Woodstock.

The art books, who were hanging around doing absolutely nothing, were tired of the classics and now wanted their stroke. They called the classics, ‘jam jars.’ This is why I had shelved them away from each other. Only the De Bottons could calm them all in a fray, but the De Bottonswere busy tending their website and couldn’t help. So the art books commanded the lit to clear off.

The classics clamoured through the door, shouting, and aiming kicks at a pram parked in the doorway outside. They liked Strathalbyn. There are four good pubs here and some decent coffee places. They were all, except the health books, into good coffee.

I know they often jogged down to Jeff’s books. Or to the booze shop. There was a work experience student at Jeff’s Books they liked. I said, ‘thanks for abandoning ship, guys.’ They said gently, ‘it’s not a ship Eastwick, it’s a bookshop. And their shop is better.’

I said, ‘there’s such a thing as loyalty.’

 ‘Whatever.’

This from Hunter Thompson who is always nursing a hangover. Later he will stand at the bottom of Vintage Beverages and shout for the cocktails to wake up and get on with it.

‘We’ve done some improvements to your shop though’, said Art. This was true. The Westerns had even tried gun twirling demonstrations until I had put a stop to it.

‘It’s not enough’, I said glumly.

‘Maybe get rid of…’

‘Let’s not go there again.’

Each genre thought itself the most significant and enjoyed advising me on which collection should not be here – shelf stealers. There was once an ugly scene in war history when the French Grammar decided to take one of the war shelves. Eventually Crowded Hours got told to back off and was flung from the cupboard. Was told he had a crowded arse. They had all looked at me sulkily – deal with that!

They played a game called Bolt which I didn’t like.

Chanting always precedes a game:

‘There was movement at the station,

For the world had gotten round,

And the BOLT from old Egret had gone away.’ Chanted faster and faster

On the word bolt, the participants dashed for the centre and collided front on. The fallen are then dragged out to be reglued. The David Attenboroughs run about taking notes and interviewing the losers. Today would be a short match because the Asterix books were lining up.

 I said to the Atwoods, ‘This shop is a story.’

They agreed.

‘But I may have to close.’

‘That’s also a story.’

 ‘Why do they want a burlesque?’

‘It’s for balance. Burlesque is an interlude, a jolt.’  

‘I don’t get it.’

‘It’s what art does. It’s what literature is for. The nudge. The jolt. The lightening – the bolt. We would die without it.

Weeks ago, a young mother browsing instructed her children to purchase Christian books only. Not C. S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll (who was a paedophile). There was a hoot of laughter from the shelves. I looked up sympathetically. The Sendaks were leaning over, pretending to vomit. They all loved this because they loved difficulties and controversies. There was nothing (they said) that could not be written about, nothing that is not already in a story. This included the end of books, a story that all the books here weirdly loved.

They also adore commotions in the street. They rush the windows, hopeful for a fight, and there often was – over the carparks. Today one motorbike had taken the entire space. The books rocked with the potential of it.

‘Look at that fuckhead’, said a copy of The Clockwork Orange, limp with admiration.

There were more annoying Classics milling around the counter.

‘No matter what East, we’re serious. Burlesque is serious. We make everything serious. If a burlesque isn’t serious, it’s to make something serious. You’ll get it. Time to get going.’

‘Are we going to the desert?’ This from a little set of Spiderwicks playing on the mat and listening to everything.

The Antiques looked down kindly. ‘No, little fellows! But I suppose you mean Ayer’s Rock!’

‘What’s Ayer’s Rock?’

‘God, do you kids know anything?’

‘We just want to look at Uluru.’

A Pascoe came out of the back room.’ Everyone ready?’ There was a galloping from the front room. Droves of young readers, novels, flats, and vintages crowding for a place in the line.

‘Where are they going?’ I imagined the art gallery or the visitor information centre across the road. Education.

‘Across to Woolies. Doughnuts.’

 ‘Burlesque is science fiction too.’ The sci fi who had spoken from behind the classics was young and hopeful. He continued, ‘Burlesque, the dance – this is what science fiction is ALL about.’

‘NO it’s not. Get out of it you bloody little silverspines.’ I looked at the shouting classics. They looked at me looking at them and slid out of the door, suddenly in a hurry as though late for lunch.

‘We’ve done everything in our genre,’ the science fiction paperback said softly to me.

‘You have?’

I didn’t read much science fiction myself. He began to list everything.

‘DNA. Done it.’

‘A history of witchwork? Done it’

‘Utah. Done it.’

‘Salt? Done it.’

‘Is that meant to be a summary of the world? Because I like it,’ said an Oscar Wilde Complete Collection in One Volume who had been listening from one of the counter shelves. It leaned down kindly, ‘Don’t listen to anyone.’

‘Oh, there’s more,’ the science fiction book said carefully.

‘There always is,’ said Oscar Wilde.

Although always claiming contempt for science fiction, the classics were always hanging around them, borrowing their devices to look up old quarrels, best seller lists, and Wikipedia to find the mistakes. They all claimed to be big in the digital underworld. They were all best friends with biographers. They loved iPads with those glowing clean clickable entries. They loved all devices except the kindle which was boring. Who wants to read!

They all knew every cliché in the book and what page it was on. They said this warily though, out of hearing of the older classics who claimed to have no clichés, and from the women’s lit who actually didn’t. But for some reason, be still my broken heart, raised respect throughout the shop. They all argued authorship of it.

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

…to be continued

What do readers do with their books?

I always wonder this. Where do the books go? What sort of libraries does everyone else have? There must be some enormous collections out there. I know that, if allowed to, libraries take on a life of their own that is way beyond anything we can direct. People mention this.

Some visitors carry out armfuls. Some just one. But it’s the same thing; the intensity of the capture is identical whether one or some. It’s impossible to tell another person why or even exactly what one has found. Last Tuesday, John carried seven large volumes of history, in two Woolworths shopping bags. He was bent over with the weight when he went out the door.

I said, ‘But where’s your car?’ And he said, ‘No, no, I’m all right,’ while looking down at the bags he was carrying with eyes like jewels.  

Do children make libraries? They are particular about their books, staring at covers for a long time. Once a child stood over a table, examining an illustration, tapping it as he stared, not hearing me, or the traffic, not even the thunder storm outside that pushed all of Strathalbyn under cover. When he bought it, he walked outside into the rain without noticing that either.

Some young readers have by memory every title on their shelves. They describe the size of their collection by how good the books are that are in it. Thus a collection of six books can challenge a national state library in terms of significance.

Illustration by Erin McGuire

Winter and reading and a glass of wine

2019-06-24 12.58.52.jpg

Under the door of the shop there is a gap, and a thin straw of cold enters quietly, all day long. I have fingerless gloves. Excellent for typing. For looking up any possible gossip about Virginia Woolf that I may have missed. Winter is always bright with possibility because to stay in is acceptable.

One couple came in this afternoon and said, it’s warm in this little place.

He looked like Terry Pratchett, sort of intensely occupied. She looked like Vita Sackville-West, so was probably looking for Virginia Woolf.

They stayed in the room furthest from the warmth for ages, but didn’t seem to notice it. They had, each, a mighty selection when they finally came to the counter and noticed me. I said wisely, ah, the winter reading….

He straightened up in surprise, well, yes of course. He had three Terry Pratchett books.

I said, with a glass of wine….

He straightened up again, this time with joy, well yes of course. We have the place for it at our house, an old place, space for books. The shelves are all bending. Her stuff. He looked at her with an expression of acute happiness.

She presented her Margaret Atwoods and nodded, nursing that private power that comes with Margaret Atwood and husbands like him, and said, it’s winter, time to stay in.

They bobbed back out into the weather, serene, parting the winter into two fields with their own bright path right through the centre of it.

 

Old House in Stepney, Adelaide (photography by me)

 

 

The lady who read The Silver Brumby

Old Woman Reading Boris Mayorov (2)

Two ladies, friends, came in together and split immediately into classics and crime. A third lady entered, passed her friends without greeting and folded herself into young readers; horses, ponies, Australian classics, where she sat with The Silver Brumby until the others had finished. She looked up once to say that I did not have the complete series here. She said she thought that I would have that. And Tennyson.
One of the other ladies had worked hard to bring down a volume of Heinrich Boll, short stories from the top shelf – she was delighted because as a young girl she had read this book in German. She’d had to translate one of the stories from German to English at school. If only she’d had this very book she could have cheated the whole assignment through. Both ladies leaned in and laughed darkly. The Silver Brumby lady read on silently.
The friend who had read Boll in German brought the book to me and described one story, a girl who crossed a bridge halfway but would go no further; she had never forgotten this story. They prepared to leave, rustling, packing, removing reading glasses.
The third lady brought her books to the counter and reminded me that I didn’t have the complete set (or Tennyson) and that she was disappointed.
She said, you’ve probably not read Tennyson.
She said, you’re a thousand years too young. I looked at her, delighted.

Artwork: Old Woman Reading, Boris Mayorov