Young people when it’s really hot outside

Slide and glide. That’s how they come in, and when I look up, there they are, pale and cool and never complaining. Young people stand humbly, looking up at the shelves, and then glance quickly and apologetically at me as if they shouldn’t be in here. Unfailingly polite.

It’s very hot this morning. But you’d never know it. Young people don’t comment on the weather; they just let it lie around outside and pile up at the door if it wants to.

A boy wanted a love book by an African writer, but I didn’t have it, and we couldn’t even order it, except from France. He looked at me sadly. And a girl swung about with a pile of 7 waiting for her grandmother who only had 2.

And another younger girl sat in the bird books just reading them as if they were novels. She was about 13, and wore a curious beanie, and she bought 3 books, one about The English Plover, because she loves birds.

Then it got hotter, and all the young people left, passing out into the heat without comment, and the bird girl carrying her three books in a pile on her head.

Pausing at the door to get the mask on properly

Visitors to the shop now have to pause and fumble about at the door before they come in because we all have equipment to manage.

‘Dale, your mask.’ This couple had to go back to the car. Then they went past me to the bakery and got coffees. Then they returned and came in, looking refreshed, and asked for good Australian political biographies and anything about breeding poodles.

‘Forgot m’mask. Gotta go back.’ This man left and came back with his mask in his top pocket, and left it there while he browsed.

‘Got yr mask?’ This man, who didn’t have his mask, was sent back to the car by his wife. I saw him reading the paper in the front seat. She browsed the shelves for another half an hour. They both looked happy.

‘Oh my god, where’s my mask?’ A young mum, who found it in the pram wrapped around half an apple.

A car went past and turned at the corner. The driver wearing a mask hanging from one ear.

A man passing the window wore a pink mask with a devil’s face, hanging sideways from his sunglasses.

A child walked by with an adult mask over his entire face, hanging onto the side of the pram so he could walk straight.

We wear them upside down and inside out, with faces drawn on, and the elastic knotted and twisted to make a snugger fit. We wear them as chin straps and wrist wraps. In pockets and wallets, in phone cases, shopping bags, shoulder bags and looped around coat buttons, thrust through belts. Clutched in one hand while the other hand manages the phone.

One girl wore an emerald green mask that was covered in gold and blue butterflies. She talked to me through the butterflies about reading and about the Divergent books, and she described her bookshelf at home.

A couple walking by paused at the window to take off masks and undo drink bottles for their small children. One child asked if you have to wear masks on the jetty.

Then he said that he’d lost his bucket on the jetty. The parents, still drinking, looked down at him. They were leaning against the window, and looking down at him, not saying anything, just looking at him with besotted faces because he is theirs.

Painting by Claire McCall

The couple who showed each other every book they found

I recognized them, they’ve been here before; they come through the door nonchalant and smooth, and head straight for their shelf.

They both lean into the shelves the same way, head on the necessary angle, flip the pages and look closely at the back of the book. If it suffices, they straighten and hold the book up for each other to see.

They lean back and grin at each other. They whisper and nod and examine book after book.

They cradle the chosen ones in their arms and move on to the next shelf.

Painting by Edward B. Gordon

Ma’am

Two gentlemen at the front window of the shop:

‘Don’t rush me.’

‘What about that there?’

‘No, don’t rush me. I’m not one for reading. But what do you think of this fellow?’

These gentlemen, obviously friends, were outside and leaning over the sill display. The lucky “fellow” was Lee Child. They came in, and one of them picked up the book and brought it to me. They adjusted their masks trying to speak clearly.

‘Lovely day, Ma’am.’

It is.

‘Can you look after this for a bit?’

I can.

I looked up later and saw them in Cooking. Silent, both reading standing up, hats held under an elbow, breathing quietly, as you do. Later again, one of them in the chair, the other leaning against the shelf, still reading, still reading.

They finished eventually and returned to the counter with The Book of Sauces.

‘This is wonderful. Will you put these through?’

I will.

The man who paid handed the Lee Child to his friend.

‘Here. Happy birthday. Didn’t get time to wrap it.’

‘Wrap it. You better wrap it for me.’

But he was already reading it as they left. No time for wrapping.

They said, ‘Thank you Ma’am, much obliged. A lovely day.’

It is.

What I did in the bookshop today

Shelved vampire books. Sorted the Cat Warriors. Put the biogs back into alphabet. Gave Robert a mask because his got lost. Bought a pie. Ate it crouched against a fence on the way back from Pestka’s because it started to rain again.

I listened to most of a furious theory of a one world government, which the teller didn’t finish because I put Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit through the speaker as a soft drowner. It worked. The angry person moved their head backwards in a slight duck movement. This is because Gregory Porter sings jazz, and jazz is already angry.  Liquid Spirit outranks any other noise; it is organized.  It pricks at rich rage and lets it all out with brighter and more useful colours.  The arguer against masks and government, who is actually a really nice (and tired) person, looked at the dictionary they’d just bought and said that it was a really good dictionary. Then they nodded a couple of time, and they nodded in time to Liquid Spirit. That’s ok; how can you not. Whatever they are, it’s probably me, too.

Another man near us began drumming on his book. He’d been looking through engineering. He tapped his credit card on the books. In time. And banged his books together. In time. How can you not.

Some kids roared past the window, going back to school? and one of them yelled, give it back you fuckhead. Well, why not!

The other person left without finishing their story. It wasn’t that they were wrong.

It’s just that Gregory Porter tells it a different way.

Portrait of Gregory Evans by Colin Able

The dad

I remember him because he asked me if he could come in with food. He was carrying brown paper bags and coffee. His teenage daughter was already inside. She’d been looking at science fiction for the last half hour. When she heard him, she appeared in the doorway and nodded. He came in.

I said all food is ok. I was eating a doughnut. He stood behind her nodding and listening and drinking his coffee, and he bought every book she wanted, which was three. She said, as they left, ‘I love bookshops,’ and he nodded and held the door, still eating his pastie. Then they went out into the rain.

Illustration by Johanna Wright

The Umbrella

There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.

There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.

There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.

There’s mud all over the footpath;  every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.

It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.

The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.

A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.

Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.

When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.

A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.

The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.

Hey, the bookstore’s open

It’s the long weekend, and I’m open! There are passers-by; the windows are dark with them, all full and knobbly with long weekend plans.

‘Hey the bookstore’s open. Not going in there.’ They don’t even look in. But I see them.

Some old ladies come in and look around, pleased. One says to me, ‘We have to dress up, and I’m going as a sorcerer.’ They don’t tell me what they have to dress up for. The other says to me, ‘I’ve got so many thousands of books at home.’

I say, ‘So do I’, but they don’t hear me. They move away chatting to each other.

‘I read Harry Potter. And I read Terry Pratchett. I wasn’t sure about them.’

‘Yes.’

‘What on earth are these?’

‘Oh, Enid Blyton. Yes.’

‘I think I’ll have to get this, The School Bus, it’s a bit tattered, but I guess it’ll do.’

She brings The School Bus back to me, and together we look at its tatteredness. Her friend emerges.

‘Shall we walk back to the museum in the hopes that it’ll be open, or shall we not bother?’

‘These small towns.’

‘Yes.’

They move slowly out of the door. ‘Will you carry my books?’

‘Guess I’ll have to’.

They drift up the road toward the hopeful museum, and two men take their place, looming up and leaning against the glass, peering in.

‘It says come in. but it’s pretty dark. Says open.’

‘Dunno. Rekn it’s closed.’

They turn away from the OPEN sign and slowly walk away, still talking. ‘And then I said to him, just get it done, mate.’

A family take their place at the door. They have climbed out of a parked car.

‘Get off the road,’

‘Get in here,’

‘Mal, I’m going in.’

In comes Mal, his old mother and the grandchild who had previously been on the road.

They buy three Penguins and Tough Boris by Mem Fox.

Someone buys Jules Verne.

Someone buys Anthony Trollope.

Someone buys Agatha Christie.

Someone asks for Kate Grenville.

A lady asks for books about fish. She said she loves fish.

I read Elizabeth Jolley.

The Rudyard Kiplings fall to the floor. All 16 of them.

I sell Horton Hatches the Egg.

Someone offers to buy the wooden cat.

There is some shouting outside over a car park, and then motorbike zooms away outraged.

A family buy Ballet Shoes and Pinocchio.

(Illustration Finding Your Fish by James C. Christensen)

Checking in

Everybody’s fluent entry into the shop is checked now. The door is darkened with hopefuls doing their phone. They are, without exception, patient and kind.

‘Shall we check in?’

‘It’s not working.’ A lady swayed and bent over her phone, but her group were looking into the windows, faces on the glass, eyes screwed up.

‘Look at this.’

‘MARK TWAIN.’ Said in a scream.

‘Weird guy him.’

‘For sure,’

‘This isn’t working. The lady on the glass is turning her phone around and around.

‘Turn it this way. What are you doing? Turn it this way.’

‘No good.’

‘God. Government probably changed it.’

‘It’s worked.’

‘Get in then.’

‘I think that lady at the counter’s going to give me a dirty look if I try and take this coffee inside, so I’ll wait out here.’

I heard her say it, as I pretended not to hear her say it.

Then she crept in. ‘Can I have this?’

I said, oh yes, drinking my own.

They all stood and whispered. The rain banging away outside. Everything dark. I couldn’t place them, family or friends, hard to tell; a kind of magical people, especially the lady with the orange coat because the others all gathered about her, and they held up books for her to see, but she only wanted Charlotte’s Web; I heard her say it.

‘These are good.’

‘So are these.’

‘Look here.’

Are you getting that Twain?

‘Nope.’

Charlotte’s Web?’

‘Yes.’

And they all laughed.

Illustration by Outcrowd

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