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

The child

Came in just before closing time. It’s cold. We’ve got autumn now. She is about nine. She has that child’s mouth where the teeth lead the entire face. She is picking up a set of Percy Jackson books, a huge stack, and she can’t stop grinning because they made it in time. She said, ‘We made it in time.’

Then she bellowed through the cold door, ‘DAD.’

I could see him through the glass, on the footpath and sorting through his wallet, finishing a smoke.

He came in, ‘Don’t get excited’, he said, wanting her to get excited.

She was.

‘Don’t put them in order because I already know how they go. This.’

She rearranged them slightly. ‘I’ve already read them. Dad, get them.’

He took out his wallet again and got them.

I offered a bag, but she would not part with them. They were in her arms.

‘No way,’

I understood.

Looking at things

There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.

‘Why are they so liddle?’

‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’

The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.

They are the colour of pests.

But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.

They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.

Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’

‘Is there.’

‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’

They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.

Minecraft, Minecraft

A child sang ‘Minecraft, Minecraft…all the Minecraft” while standing at the window. There’s a stack of Minecraft novels there. He laid both hands palms flat against the glass and continued his interested little song. A piping song, higher than the stack of books. Higher than the window. Then his family called him away.

‘Into the car, come on Dale’

‘Here we go again…’ A older couple at the door turn their phones this way, then the other way, trying to find the right square. ‘Here we go again. Take us half an hour to get in here.’ But they persevere bravely and make it inside.  Later, she reads a children’s book to him, out loud, and he edged slowly away.

A young couple went past the cat shelf. She said, ‘Oh my God, a cat shop. It’s a little cat shop. With cat books. That’s cool. Look Evan.’

‘Yeah, it’s cool.’

‘Because of the cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love cats. I need ’em.’

‘Yeah.’

Painting by Mars Black

The boy turning rocks over

There’s a boy turning rocks over in the bay. I noticed because of the way he balanced himself on two larger rocks and then leaned to pick up smaller ones, one after another. He inspects them with his nose almost on the smooth skin of each stone. The bay he is working in is silent and hot. The child labours on. I can hear the soft click of each rock as he replaces it. Every now and again, the plop of a stone sliding into a rockpool. There’s the horizon, a bar of blue above him, the black spoky jetty to one side, and a row of shacks, oblongs of colour, holding the other side. And him right in the middle.

What people tell me

One man gave me his name and address. ‘Remember us,’ he said, ‘We have an interest in the history of Victor Harbour.’

I often hear about local councils, bus services, and Woolworths. I hear about local doctors and what they say. Some conversations begin without preamble, ‘Kate Grenville, my God she’s a good writer.’ And others are carried on through the door help open.

‘I need the next Lee Child, you got him?’

Visitors show we their art, their families in London, their gardens, and their pets – we gaze together at the little pictures on phones until a text message flashes across the top, where r u did u get bread. One lady knew my family from a long time ago; her daughter had gone out with a very distant cousin of mine. He is now dead, but she isn’t. I learn things about autism, cancer, dementia, death, suicide, and English teachers.

Customers talk to each other while they wait, ‘Is that your own company? Do you do gutters in Mt Barker too?’

I am told about books that should be banned, and why they don’t agree with Harry Potter. They ask me what to do about books they lent out that are not returned, and if I think that books make good gifts. Do I know any editors? Do I bind books myself? Do I live here? Do I know anything about heart disease?

Today someone said there aren’t enough carparks here. Then he told me about the local council again.

A child told me that it’s nearly Christmas. Then she smiled, hugged herself and went back to the Asterix books.

Painting by Henri Matisse

Child reading

It’s a summer day, but cool outside and blowing rain. She’s in here. She’s silent. Such silence: her hair a polished curtain which swings once. I can’t see her book. She leans over the page. She leans back and gazes up at the page. She sits. Swings her feet. Stands thinking. Replaces the book and selects another one. Stands thinking. Her mother returns to tell her there is a magnificent dog outside, a wolfhound, a real one, a beautiful one, and the child shakes her head, the curtain of hair sways, the mother withdraws.

Stands thinking, sits, reads.

Softly, softly past the bookshop

Softly is what the footsteps are as the walkers approach my windows. I can’t see anything, I don’t hear anything – and then they burst across the glass in swinging lines and elbow angles and singular bobbing heads, and there are swirls of conversation bits that all go upwards.

‘It was like, fifty bucks, on the sale section. I was like, yeahhhh.’

People walk past in rows and clots. A slow plodding adult will be followed by totting small shapes with softly moving spokes; I see their eyes flash enormously at the wooden cat in my window.

‘Quickly, come on…’

Bright orange blooming briefly against the glass indicates workers moving and eating and reading phones at the same time, even while crossing the road. They stop and start and spill soft drink.  ‘You got my keys? Troy, where’s the keys?

Once a lounge cushion was thrown out of a parked ute which then backed over it and drove away, leaving the cushion to be flattened again by the bus behind them. The bus driver looked out of the window and shook his head, not smiling.

A still shadow means someone has stopped and is probably peering in. A lady once stood writing the names down of the books in my window, but she didn’t come in. She kept biting her lip and frowning to see the titles.

Large groups are usually heading somewhere together. They darken the whole window and deafen even the traffic beside them. They make jokes, ‘Look, Joel, there’s a book about you here.’ Everyone looks at The Dork Diaries in the last window and exchange a bit of laugh with each other, then move on, anticipating the pub. The Dork Diaries will be hilarious then.

Older people go steadily and stop often and turn to each other to talk, sometimes for a few minutes. They check bags and tissues at the same time. They rarely check a phone.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. I heard her say that…she should stay there is what I think.’

‘It takes all sorts.’

‘Well I suppose that’s true in its way…’

This moving activity, like a single day-length message, never ends. It is endlessly comic, delicate, and alive.

Sculpture by Jurga  

That child

This child came in just on closing. Entered by herself. She was carrying an enormous chocolate muffin, holding onto it’s rear end with a paper bag, and she walked at me, like herself, her own walk, with an orange drink, and another paper bag full of clinking coins. She stared at me over the jumble, holding the end of my afternoon gaze with bright direct and unalloyed eyes. I had to sit back and reassess. I looked for a parent. She didn’t.

Her hair had escaped the morning’s organisation, framed her head in soft snakes, as alive as she was, ready to strike at my disinterest. She said,

‘Hello.’

I answered, ‘Hello.’

She hesitated, and helped me out, me, the one needing assistance.

‘How’s the bookshop going?’

I said, very well, thank you’, a limping answer like the ones from my childhood when I used to be questioned about school.

The child was kind. ‘That’s good. Is cash ok here?’

She stood there looking directly at me, not breaking the stare, the chocolate framing an active oval around her mouth, her hair poised in spikes and loops, her eyes dark and joyful, hopeful that I would allow her something.

She indicated her paper bag of money with gratitude. That’s good, I was worried, I want a bookmark, that one, that sorting hat one. Today at school there wasn’t much to do, so I sorted the whole school into all the sorting hats, and I knew who to put into Gryffindor. It’s easy. Do you know how to?

I said I did, hoping she wouldn’t know that I didn’t.

She was delighted and rattled the paper bag of money. The chocolate on her face gleamed. Her hair relaxed but still watched me. She said, thank you for the shop, have a good day and afternoon. She struggled with the door, keeping the half-eaten cake upright, the orange drink calm, and her overwhelming face fixed straight onto mine, slid out, was gone, a spark of something, gone now.

How people exit the shop

I think about this because it’s what the day is made up of – people coming through the door and people leaving again. Everyone has their method. This is about how people leave.

Some people leave because of a phone call. They don’t want to take a call inside a bookshop. They dive for the door, catching the phone, their response face ready. Half of a cheerful conversation is cupped in the alcove outside and shipped back inside.
‘Hellooooo mate.’
‘Hello, this is Dave.’
‘Hello Ruth, at last you got me…I knoooow….’

Customers who are pleased with their purchases, pleased with their stack, delighted with the experience, exit backwards, ‘Thank YOU, yes, thank YOU, thank you very much.’
Readers who just want to read, crash through the door to the street, reading the back of the first book, frowning. Customers who were rewarded with nothing, because there was nothing here, or because I didn’t have it, leave slowly, peeling the plastic away from their next plan.

One visitor told me that when he was young, he was not allowed to tear the Christmas wrapping paper from the presents. They had to ease it away from the gift, the tension, without a rip, so it could be used again. His face was rich with memory when he told me this, his lips curled in agony over the red paper, the sticky tape, and the forty degree day. When he left, his lips were still tense, still telling me the story. He backed into a noisy solo phone conversation that was occurring in the doorway,

‘Look if I had to pull him up for every mistake, I’d be there all day…. look we’re not paid to be there…. we’re all in the same boat…. you’ve got multiple talents there…’

and he (the Christmas paper customer) turned abruptly to find his ute, which he though was close by, but wasn’t.

Children leaving the shop turn and place their daisy faces on the door, squash their noses against the cool glass and look at me until they are yanked away by parents. Older women look grimly at their families waiting outside and stay inside. Young women with prams exit with a hundred apologies even though nothing has happened.

Teenage readers exit easily, turn phones around and press the news of books through the internet to friends. Older men stand with the door open so that nobody can come in or out and continue their story about themselves.

Many customers ask me where to go for coffee, or for the directions to Macclesfield.

My mother leaves me with a cake and two jars of jam and tells me not to leave them in the car this time.