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

Gargantua and Pantagruel

A man bought Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais from me. It was a heavy book, and old. An oblong.

 He and his wife and another man stood outside the door on the footpath and looked down at it.

She said, ‘Good heavens, are you going to read that?’

‘He said, ‘It’s very good, it’s funny. It was banned once; in France where it was published in the 16th century. It was banned. Said it was obscene.’

The other man said, ‘Is that the one about the giants?’

‘This is it.’

‘Hilarious.’

They walked away.

Now I want a copy.

I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

Three women with backpacks

Visited the shop this afternoon hoping to get ‘a small book, but a good one because we only have our backpacks to carry everything. Oh we’ll have fun here!’

They all had stout backpacks. They were of a very experienced age. They had solid trousers, leather belts and useful scarves. They spread out around the shop on large confident boots.

‘Oh no.’

‘Where’s Marie? Look what I’ve found her.’

‘Oh no.’

‘Oh, I do admire this person.’

And they dug in, these ladies, as though scaling the side of a mountain. Their sunglasses led the way. I admired their trousers. They were experienced readers, too. They had no need to go on and on about things. They just announced things briefly, only the necessary details that other explorers must know in the snow.

‘That’s something.’

‘Yes.’

‘I might get this. Eva Peron. Evita.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is sharp.’

‘What?’

‘That pilot. The woman.’

‘What’ve you found?’

‘D.H. Lawrence.’

‘Strange man.’

‘Oh my goodness, what’s in there?’ And they went, the three of them, around the corner into the last room, not checking for danger or the weather.

‘My word.’

I could see the boots and the waterproof socks and the end of a hiking staff leaning against literature in translation.

‘It’s The House of Spirits. Allende. Doesn’t that remind you of when we were young.’

‘Oh, she’s fine.’

I listened to them surveying the coastline. I heard a book fall to the ground.

‘Look out. Look out.’ I listened to them dodge an avalanche.

‘This’ll fit.’ I heard them discussing Travel.

They came to the counter to purchase their books. The Virgin and the Gypsy by D. H. Lawrence. One lady said, ‘It’s for travelling.’

Another lady said, ‘The thing about the classics is that there are no swear words in them.’

The third lady, passing behind her, said ‘That’s not true.’ And they adjusted their glasses and passed out of the door, back out onto the Himalayan slopes.

Photography by Elias Goldensky