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

pulled the knife out, and he was still bleeding

Sometimes the street outside the shop is quiet. There is no movement, no noise, and nobody passes the shop. Sometimes I go outside and look up and down the road. Then I go back in and get on with things.

Today, it was chaos out there. People crowded past in groups with maps, bags, and phones. The traffic on the road equalled this, stopping, starting, parking, arguing, sounding horns, calling from car windows. And today, the groups on the footpath were so packed together that I heard them and saw them. Every now and again I looked straight into a face that was looking straight back at me.

Somebody yelled, ‘Got to call in here on our way back.’ I didn’t see them. They moved too fast. I hoped they’d come back.

I saw the next couple because they paused at the door. He peered in with screwed up eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Dunno. Medical place I think.’ He looked right at me and abruptly pulled away.

I’m not a medial place.

The next burst of information came a little later.

‘…pulled the knife out and he was still bleeding…’

‘Silly.’

The first speaker turned and looked right at me looking right at him. I thought, ‘Shit!’

Then,

‘You want something to eat, mother? All right, but I’m not fussy about going back to that cafe though.’

‘That wasn’t here, Ed. That was another town.’

He (who wasn’t fussy) humped his shoulders and looked in at me. I looked out at him, sympathetic. I know about getting the right doughnut.

Painting by Charles Hardaker

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

I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor

Yesterday there was a couple at the front window. They were unusual because they stayed there for so long. I could hear them. They couldn’t see me. They wore sensible caps, and shoes made for long walks in the evening. They each had a shoulder bag and a water bottle. And good sunglasses, too – this is why they had to peer through the glass to get at the titles.

They screwed up their eyes and read the titles out loud, slowly, and very seriously.

‘I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor.’

‘Not with my reading I won’t.’

‘I think you would.  It says please come in, there on the door. What do you reckon that means?’

‘Means come in.’

‘Come on then.’

‘Look at this. Is that Leonardo Da Vinci?’

‘History is it?’

They leaned in with difficulty. They made the shape of difficulty with their mouths, and their eyes and foreheads agreed in thin lines.

‘That’s not Leonardo Da Vinci.’

‘Well. Who is it then?’

‘Some chap. Could be anyone. Let’s go in. You never know.’

‘Don’t know if I can be bothered. Looks expensive.’

‘Well, have it your way. Let’s get a bun round the corner there.’

And they left.

Leonardo Da Vinci watched them go; a nice hardback, dustcover in good condition, tight kidneys, no sciatica in the spine, born out of wedlock, never went to school. A master in the guild. Buying caged birds and releasing them. Coming up with the Mona Lisa. He watched them go.

Kindles are better

A couple came in, and he said to me, ‘But don’t you think Kindles are better? This is what I do. I go to the shop, see the book, look it up and download. See?’

 He raised both hands in the air to show me how simple it is. ‘See?’ His wife looked at me and said nothing. He shrugged his shoulders up and down to show us easiness and simplicity.

He went on talking about kindles. His wife moved over to Art and knelt down to read. He walked around, relaxed, commenting here and there. He showed me a book (Sherlock Holmes) and said, ‘Look at this.’

I looked at it, and he said, ‘Would anyone want this?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’

He nodded, ‘Ok.’ Then he said, ‘I like to read but I want to save space. See?’

I did.

Then I said that I liked kindles, I admitted to using the kindle ap, which delivered me recently a rich and full copy of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. When choosing buses and bus routes, I search for the longest slowest path to the city so I can be with Isabella and see how she recruited her health in Japan. After all, I may need to do this too. Anything that delivers literature, I want. I want a kindle.

He was polite, ‘That’s good. But what I do is…..’ He told me some more incredible things.

Then his wife came back with an enormous pile of art books, and said, ‘Here, get these,’ and he quickly pulled out his wallet and paid for all of them; it was a considerable pile, high and aching.

The Letters of the Great Artists, heavy and boxy and seductive, was on the top of the stack. It took up a lot of valuable space in the world. In it, Claude Monet complains (in a letter) of old age. He slashes a canvas because he cannot reach the high notes of the colours he needs to reach. The book is a deep scornful red with thick cream pages done by Thames and Hudson (with 150 plates, 51 in colour) and a delicious bitter coffee stain stamped on the satisfying last page, As usual, I look at the buyer darkly. Maybe I should have kept it for myself. I am likely to never see another copy. I slash at my canvas because I cannot reach all the books I need to hold.

She marched out with her books, and he followed, checking his phone for reasons to feel better.

How people browse for books

Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.

Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.

Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’

A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.

A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’

He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.

She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.

Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.

Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’

Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.

Cash or card: the exchange

This exchange, between me and a couple of passionate readers, was fast and professional.
They had seven books, very nice.

They are a couple. He took out his wallet and wondered about how to pay.
He said, ‘Card or cash’, and looked down at his tie, thinking.
She said, ‘Use card, Ken.’ But he already had the cash out.

He put it away and looked at all the books again.
She asked, ‘Did you use card?’
‘Not yet.’
‘Well, use cash, then.’
He put the card away and gently pulled some notes from his wallet.
She came over. ‘Maybe use card if you’ve got it out.’
He folded the notes back in, and she leaned over.
‘Is that the cash?’
‘Yeah.’
‘Well use it.’ He looked at the books and his wallet. He leaned over and went strongly up and down on his toes a couple of times.

I ached to help, but I too, was paralysed, and the books sat flat and helpless.
The door opened, and the spell was broken. He edged cash across the counter. I gave change. We all gave thanks.

It’s all right, just done me hands at the doctors

A couple came into the shop together, but he tried to leave. She said, ‘No, stay, Frank’, and he did.

She said to me, ‘It’s all right, just done me hands at the doctors, Frank, do your hands’, and he did.

Then she said, ‘This is very nice here, but I’ll think we’ll go get a cup of coffee instead’, and they did. But they came back.

She loved books. ‘Vanity Fair, I loved that on the television, the blond guy. That actor, he was gorgeous, do you know the one?’ But I didn’t know it.  

‘I’ve read 22 biographies of the stars. Now that Yoko – she was a terrible, terrible person. It’s now wonder he was the way he was. It’s because she was terrible to deal with.’

She stood at the counter, dignified and straight and kind, and told me about various things. She bought Vanity Fair, a biography of Vanessa Redgrave, David Copperfield, The Harp in the South, The Constant Gardener and Pinocchio. Then she turned to find Frank, but he had left the shop.  

She said, ‘He’s got hearing aids, but I swear he still can’t hear anything, especially me.’

I thought that this was probably true. She darted out of the shop, was swift in the doorway, she flitted past the window to their parked car. Here, through the window I could see Frank, leaning against the passenger side, smoking.

She said loudly, ‘Frank, you have to pay for the books, that’s what I said, remember.’

He said, ‘I’m ready. Where’s your stuff?’

They came back in, and she picked up her books from the counter, he handed me a credit card. She sighed and frowned, but he looked unperturbed. He winked, paid, and said, ‘All done Mrs.’

Illustration by Marius van Dokkum

Is that a cat or something…

There is a couple here at the shop. She is looking for books. He seems exhausted and stands against a shelf and looks at her. His black T shirt has white lettering: stay hydrated.

‘What’s that movie that…?’ She is sorting through the classics, softly, gently, making a pile, pushing back what she does not need.

He rubs his eyes. His glasses have plastic shades attached, these are raised, a verandah allowing light.

‘You know that movie. It was really good, but numbers two and three were terrible.’

He is silent, looking at her kindly.

She says, ‘I can’t talk and read, sorry.’ She makes clicking sounds with her lips, turning and looking and choosing.

He leans and gazes. Every time she begins to speak, she becomes distracted and looks elsewhere. ‘Little Women, I love that. I might get that Robertson Davies. Is that a cat or something?’

He is smiling.

I should get this

‘I should get this.’

‘Why?’

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