Do you know how much pages there is in this dog book?

There’s a couple of families in the front room of the shop, nicely tangled and knotted, as families tend to get when they’re relaxed and warm. I like to listen to them. This little question was flung.

‘Do you know how much pages there is in this dog book?’

Someone answered, ‘Mmmm.’

‘There’s 3080.’

‘Yeah?’

There was a soft clatter: books falling.

‘Careful.’

‘I want the first Goosebumps.’

‘I want Selby.’

‘Does that say 3080?’

‘Brian, leave the pram alone.’

‘You read this, Helen?’

‘Long time ago. Give us a look.’

‘Taylor. Is that where they go? Looks wrong.’

A parent wandered out with a paperback clamped under one arm. He consulted his phone. A child followed, holding the parent’s hand, swinging from it, leaning in, clamping an ear to the parent’s thigh and walking easily, a delicate and bent stalk. The father rested the paperback on the child’s head. She smiled.

‘You ready, Troy?’

‘Yeah.’

This family left with an old soft copy of Animal Farm, held carefully in anticipation, and which had recently balanced briefly on a child’s ageless and silky thistledown hair.

The family left in the front room continued buzzing softly.

‘Does this say three thousand and eighty?’

‘Maybe. Look at the numbers.’

‘It says 38.’

‘I think so, too.’

‘Can I get it?’

‘You should.’

The child emerged with the book. They held it up to me with two hands: an offering.

I asked for the necessary $3. The child had the coins. We exchanged the necessary courtesies:

‘Enjoy your winter reading.’

‘Ok.’

I watched them leave, a family, a nub of 3, moving in and out of each other’s thoughts faster than any forlorn and hopeful technology. The child was showing the book to the parent; the child’s face was unable to hold a shape, the jaws compliant and full of heat, trying to find an outline for the significance of the purchase; the bliss of carrying home a bliss.

The family collided with itself in the doorway. A bandaid came away from someone’s small wound and lay flat and spent on the mat. The mother said, ‘Come on,’ and they sailed clumpily out. In the pram, I saw a tiny foot raised straight up; a flag.

Artwork by Le Chat Peles Collective

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.  

The money exchange and the man who only got a coffee for himself

A reader in the shop needs money for her books. She calls her husband from the back room, and he comes slowly because he is carrying his own books. But he offers his wallet. Then he says,

‘You just snatched. You just took a whole hundred.’

‘Well get some more. Go get some more.’

The husband looks at me and says, ‘Oh My God.’ Then he leaves his books on the counter and goes out.

It’s a slow day. Two other people are talking about land development in the front room. One says, ‘Yes, but that’s very sensitive information.’

Browsers are moving slowly. We all have the autumn slows. The money lady is checking her phone against the books she is holding.

A group of three ladies, all wearing black jackets, pass the door, all talking fast and loudly. I hear one sentence:

‘How does she know about it none of us talk about it I mean settle down.’

Then they’re gone.

Then the husband comes back with more money and a coffee. His wife, the one checking her phone, looks at the coffee. He says, ‘Oh My God,’ again, and looks up at the roof, and then gives her his coffee.

Then they pay for all their stuff, all good books, even a copy of Cosmo Cosmolino, and go back out in the sun to the bakery to get another coffee probably. When they walk away, they are both looking down at their books and she is drinking the coffee.

Painting by Im Buchladen

After a busy Saturday, it’s gone quiet again

But that’s ok, it’s usually the way. Days like today give you time to sit and think and notice what’s actually going on. So far this morning has yielded the following:

Four old men, clearly friends, lean against a ute drinking water out of a water pig, one of those old foam ones. There is one cup, so they share it. One man wants to go to the bakery but is advised against it. They have biscuits in the cab.

When I look up again they are sharing scotch fingers around, shaking crumbs out of their sandals and saying that the town has come a long way. One man is staring into my front window.

Inside, a lady says that her library is alphabetical-  it’s A to Z, but her friends says hers is purely aesthetic. ‘Matthew Reilly is put here and Harry Potter is there. It’s about how they look.’

Her friends says, ‘That makes sense. I get that.’

‘I can’t have sets that don’t match, and I can’t have stuff without dustcovers.’

‘Mine are lined up in order of publication.’

‘You’d think that in a bookstore where we find everything alphabetically, we’d have that in our homes too.’

‘Nope.’

‘I know.’

Then they go into the back room. The old men have walked past my door toward the bakery. Guess they changed their minds.

Someone has parked in front of them and I can  hear a lady yelling, ‘You keep locking it. What are you doing? Stop locking it. Dickhead.’

And inside the shop:

‘Girl, this room will eat you alive.’

‘Is that Celtic or something?’

‘I think so. I saw it on my Tik Tok feed.’

‘The bee keeper community is strange.’

‘Maybe.’

Brenda rings for Wild at Heart for her granddaughter and I say, ‘Good to hear from you again’, and she says, ‘Oh I’ve been in hospital, not complaining though.’

A man pumps hand sanitizer all over his shoes but doesn’t notice.

Outside the old men are back with hot coffees, which they drink leaning against the ute and talk about the truck across the road – at least I think they are because they keep pointing at it and nodding.

Inside the shop, the ladies are still collecting:

‘Oh my God.’

‘Calm your farm.’

‘Look at this. The first one I got from a discount bin. It was a hard read.’

‘Russell Brand and I don’t see eye to eye.’

‘He’s a bit of a douche canoe, but I love him.’

Lorna rings me for James Herriot, second hand, please.

The ladies are leaving. The old men are climbing back into the ute.  The shouting lady has returned from the bakery with paper bags and cans of coke.  Walks quietly because she has no shoes on. The truck is gone. There’s a four wheel drive here now and the owner is walking around and around it, tapping the bumper bar with his keys.

Sarah goes past but doesn’t come in.

The man tapping the bumper bar is now talking on the phone right next to my door and saying, ‘Someone’s been at this.’ He listens for a long time to whoever’s on the phone and then hangs up without saying anything. Then he gets back in the car and drives away.

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson

The lovely ongoing enthusiasm of readers

In the shop, I get told about things in bits and pieces. There is never enough time for customers to explain the whole story – which in their minds is one complete coherent and catastrophic realization- but it only gets to me in fragments.

‘The Russians are a cruel people. I prefer the Druids. King Arthur, for example. And Lancelot was a complete arsehole. You can’t tell me he didn’t have something strange going on with the Danes.’

Readers are always enthusiastic and visionary.

‘Easter is for throwing things out. That’s how I was raised. Read Winnie the Pooh, and you’ll understand.’

And emphatic.

‘I had to confront the manager about the hot cross buns.’

And they are mysterious.

‘I’ve read all of these. Brilliant books. I might get that one anyway. And you’ll see something across the road in a minute. At least you will if you’ve read book 4 of these.’

And they are confident.

‘Did you know that the writer of Tarzan made it all up?’

A reader brought a copy of The End of Certainty by Paul Kelly over to me. He said, ‘There’s a lot we can learn from the Americans. But as for Blair, just leave him out of it.’ He bought three other biographies. He said, ‘Luckily, there’s no end to it.’

Children try harder. They watch your eyes when they talk and gauge your enthusiasm and your comprehension accurately. They tell the story properly, loyal to the facts and inventing nothing. In ‘Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll’, Kelsey lives in Pakistan and needs a friend. Her and her Nanna get her a doll. Called Amy Jo. They have a hard adventure. But they are all right in the end.’

They explain succinctly why they want a particular book.

‘It’s because I want it.’

Illustration by Inga Moore

What readers do with books in a bookshop

It’s a good sign when people come into the shop with eyes that zing straight to the shelves. Cannot focus on much else, and they scan the Covid app backwards, without looking at it. Kneel down immediately, in everyone’s way, to look at a  small dark red volume of Cranford. Holding it gently as if it were alive, which it is.

Children stand and look down, one finger resting on the book they look at. They read the title out loud, many times as though testing it. Which they are. They stand on one leg and wrap the other leg around the standing leg as though this gives extra information somehow. Which it does.

Young men in backpacks kneel and bend easily, squat and yoga their way around the shelves, tapping paperbacks on their chins while thinking. Young women tip their heads to the side and ponder, tap the paperback on one wrist as though assessing its reliability. They say to each other, ‘Look at THIS.’

Old ladies frown and bang books on the table, expecting the same sort of strength that they are now made of. Old men shuffle and jingle coins in pockets and hesitate to ask me about Clive Cussler in case they are a nuisance. They aren’t. Young people sit cross legged and gaze at rows of books in awe, in love, in a mood to plan a library, in a passion to read the great people. They pull out volumes of poetry and plays and hold them open on laps, frowning, wondering, but who is T.S Eliot…they read lines out loud in whispers, pegging themselves to greatness without realizing it.

Some readers fan through a book with their thumbs, looking for…what…? Other readers turn a book over and over, test its weight, gaze into its face, rub its spine, read the back, the front, a page about halfway through, add it to their pile where it lays flat, smiling.

Others cradle books in their arms, stack them down by ankles, hold them in armpits, balance them, wipe them for dust, turn them around and around, squint at the contents, sprint to the counter to pay. They photograph the books, argue about them, check them against lists, smile delighted, look disgusted, bring them to the counter and argue about their merit. Tell me to find them, buy them, post them, get them, for God’s sake read them, read them, read them!

So I do. I try.

Photography by Rubee Hood

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

The man who asked for a book I didn’t have

A man visited me on Thursday and asked for a book I didn’t have – Shark Arm by Phillip Roope, and his walking stick gave him some trouble as he balanced himself at the counter.

He said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just my walking stick trying to kill me’, and we smiled, and a customer nearby looked across and nodded and then looked back at the shelves again.

He asked me to order the book for him, and I replied, ‘Of course’, and I looked up to take his details and there were tears in his eyes which must have come on suddenly and for no reason visible to anyone here.

He said, ‘Let me know when it arrives, I’m looking forward to this.’

His eyes were blue. His shirt and jeans and hat were all green, His eyes held the story though because everything for a second swam right in front of us, and then was gone again.  

Image by Horacio Cardoza