What to talk about when things get uneasy

I know that people who come into the shop are a little more concerned than usual, and that if they weren’t before, they will be now. There have been conflicts and difficulties in the past, and I have had to intervene. But things have changed. The biggest change is that it is so easy to get things wrong, especially in a small shop where everyone can hear everyone else.This means I have to intervene more often.

Now I have something that can help a little. When there was angst about the government, I used it. Once, during an argument about Bob Hawke, I used it. Once, after an enraged threat, ‘Well, I’ll fucking tell you something’, I soothed the participant with it. Once some travellers from Victoria in my shop were told sharply that they had no right (to something). I fired the accuser with a new issue, and luckily it worked. A man leaned over me angrily about vaccinations, (‘it’s all about profit’), and I moved him on gently to a greater issue.

This is because there are common issues. We can bend our anger and hatred upon these, and they deserve it.

The greatest of these is phone updates.

I ask, ‘Do you like your phone?’

We mostly don’t. People bend over their phone screens for me, trying to find the words for something that, while vital, provokes endless rage. If necessary, I probe the wound:

‘Do you do the updates?’ No argument can survive this question. Everyone takes out their phone and looks at it, looking for the update still sitting there like an arsehole.

‘God, updates. With this phone, I can’t update anything. Look at this.’ And they show me the source of all evil, previous argument gone.

‘Fucking hate this phone. Don’t get an Android.’

‘Samsung. Useless. Apple is better. But…’

I ask, ‘Should I do this update?’ This provokes intense anxiety (except in young people, who will fearlessly update anything) in case I am mis-advised.

‘Don’t do it mate.”

‘Na, fuck that.’


‘Do all of ‘em. Else you’ll be hacked the shit out of.’

There are other things. Printers. All people hate their printers. This includes me. They always work for the first eighteen pages… ‘

So, what printer do you recommend?’

‘God, I hate Canon. So shit. And Epsom. They’re wankers.’

“God. Don’t ask me. I got this one at home that….’

Australia Post. People look stern and severe.

‘You tell me why it takes ten days for a pack to get from here to Woodside. I mean, what are they doing with the stuff!’

‘You know what they charge? You ever been in there? You have to queue from here to the river. That’s because they’re all dickheads with fancy watches. Actually they’re ok here. But they’re shit in Mt Barker.

‘Well, they lost my stuff. Everyone knows they smash the parcels to bits and reckon they didn’t. No compensation for me.’


I only use this for emergencies. Because after this one, everybody is family, and nobody will go home.

Fancy what a game of chess would be…

“Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden.

You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for his instruments.”

George Eliot, Felix Holt: The Radical

Sculpture “Modern Chess Set” by Rachel Whiteread

I should get this

‘I should get this.’


I could see the person asking why, but not the person he was talking to. She was in a corner of the shop, muffled in books, piling them, talking to him from general fiction where she was sitting on the floor.

‘Because remember how I stole your sister’s copy after the funeral.’

He looked startled. He made a shrugging kind of face, alarmed but preferring to know nothing else about the matter.

‘All of us have got vascular problems.’ This was a lady passing outside who had paused to examine the biographies through the window. She was speaking to a companion.

He laughed, or someone did. Then they moved on. I heard her say, ‘Wasn’t that book about Julie Andrews? God she’s a diva.’

Then funeral couple left too. She (carrying a stack) now satisfied, he, still mystified.

Later, Robert and Sarah met at the counter and exchanged a remedy for a tooth abscess. I don’t know how this conversation began but it increased alarmingly in volume and gale. I was concerned, the clashing of some personalities can trouble the stratosphere, especially unapologetic characters such as these. Sarah, holding that window biography of Julie Andrews, and Robert writing on a piece of paper, oil of cloves, oil of thyme, oil of (other things) and unable to finish lettering the words because now they are also arguing about Jerusalem, Centrelink, Rudyard Kipling, the government, woollen beanies, vaccinations, Russia, The Talmud. The Catholic Church (nest of vipers).

I have many customers, unconventional, uncomfortable, writing it their way. Lonely. Passionate readers. Gracing me with their presences, their turmoil, and their them. Difficult, refusing to not ask the questions. What I’ll remember in twenty years’ time as most real. So, I have to get it now.

Robert said he attended the gardening club in the little place where he lives, but found it confronting. At the meeting they gave him a slice of seed cake. He said that the people alarmed him, but the cake was nice; he wished they had given him a second slice.

Sarah was enthusiastic, she said, ‘That’s nice.’

He told us that every night the Queen drinks a glass a champagne and Sarah was overjoyed.

‘She’s earned it. She’s earned it, God bless her, she’s earned it.’

After Robert left, Sarah said, ‘what a nice chap!’

Sculpture by T F Lazeroff


Riccardo Biavati.jpg

Two people came into the bookshop as friends. But they did not leave as friends. This is because of Go Set a Watchman.

One friends has read The Most. The other is admiring and respectful.

They were doing well, swaying about, calling out books they had read, old friends, jovial anecdotes. Reading lists…

Do you remember….

What about that character in…

But Go Set a Watchmen lay in wait. Books can sense readers.

Think, think.

The Admirer admired Go set a Watchman. But Authority straightened up and said:

No. There is too much controversy surrounding that. It should not be here.

They both looked at me. I looked at Harper Lee, because it was her bloody fault.

The Reader repeated: it should not be here.

The doubter said: no? How can you say…?

Because I have a problem with this.

I noted the shelves, the books, become still, amused, eyes thin, listening.

She repeated, I’ve read it. I have a problem with it.

It is frosty in here. The friends look away from each other. Their shoulders make an unforgiving shape. They leave without purchasing anything.

On ya, Harper.


I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.

Harper Lee

Sculpture by Riccardo Biavati