The difference between working in a book shop last year and every other year I’ve been here

There is no difference between last year and every other year I’ve been here. There were small things, like mask wearing and checking in, but people, and my shop, basically remained the same:

  • The quality of customer-peering (through the door) remained the same
  • The record number of books held under one arm while browsing stayed the same (9)
  • The same books fell off shelves and tables in the night and dented their own covers
  • The streams of conversation passing the door were as intense, rich, and deeply textured as in 2014
  • Dogs still urinated just outside my door
  • Children still read on their knees and replaced the books backwards
  • Window books continued to draw clear, crisp and authoritative comments from passers-by.
  • Young people gazed through the front window at a single book on the table with the same unreadable facial expression.
  • Readers still bought bookmarks
  • Everyone still turned to open the door the wrong way
  • Readers still went silent when they find a book they really want and then breath slowly outwards
  • People still come in thinking I’m the bakery

What didn’t stay the same:

  • My landlord died

This was sad because Malcolm liked my shop and used to leave books for me in the storage room. It’s only because of Malcolm and Ann that I’m still here.

I’ve been really lucky for a long time.

Sculpture by Eudald De Juana

On the way to work in a bookshop

Two minutes away from the driveway, and I need to think about what I’ve left behind. I can hear books sliding across the back seat and thumping against the boot, but the one I need won’t be there.

And it’s not. I left it on the edge of the kitchen table next to a small container of peanuts, a fowlers jar preserving ring and a set of keys not mine.

So, Anne won’t get Hubert Wilkins today.

I stop at our general store and complain to Jake about Australia Post and he agrees.

I drive to Callington trying to avoid the galahs that scribble all over the roads in small groups of about 8 million.

Through Callington hoping no train comes through and holds me up for a year so that one carriage can come through at a perfect walking pace.

Through the farms, which are all perfect slabs of golden toast at this time of year.

Woodchester, stone walls and quietness and the row boat on the corner made up into a Christmas display.

Weave around the farm machinery going from paddock to paddock, one with silver tinsel tied to each door handle.

While driving, go through orders in my head not completed yet, orders not yet picked up, and wonder how to keep going with James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Into Strathalbyn and more galahs, white ones in clumps of one hundred, I can see them standing on the road and screaming in each other’s faces.

Then the ducks, quiet and always together and never knowing quite when to get out of the way of the traffic.

I watch huge trucks swerve at the last minute and somehow miss them all, and motorists swerving into the oncoming lane to avoid making ducky pancakes, and oncoming motorists nodding, fair enough, but I can see them all saying fukn ducks because I can read lips when driving this slowly.

Kids on skateboards fast and a lady with a walker slow.

The wooden Christmas trees on the corner. Ruby baubles tied to fences, a lady walking her dog with tinsel twisted through his collar.

At my shop, a caravan parked but has left just enough room for me to get to my tiny park next to the shed. A stack of bakery trays piled against the shed for some reason.

A black face mask on the ground and a small purple drink bottle.

Struggle around to the door and enter within with a good plan for the day. Decide against most of it.

Have another brief go at Ulysses.

Shelving, dusting, clean windows. Someone says, “she’s closed”, and I quickly snap the sign to open, but they are gone. More shelving, orders, book searches, message people for pickups, tidy displays, turn on the Christmas lights.

Have another go at Ulysses. Serve customers. More shelving, more orders.

A man tells me about World War 2.

I find a copy of The Incredible Journey for someone.

A young man wants a classic to read and I show him 20 possibilities, but he leaves without getting any of them. I take Grapes of Wrath, which I’d showed him, and begin reading it myself.

Someone asks me how to get to Woodchester.

Not a very lucrative day, but each day a gem.

No day is ever the same.

The 12 best questions I’ve been asked this year

  1. Is this the bakery? (No)
  2. Do young people still read do you reckon? (Yes)
  3. What sort of discount will you give me on these? (The same discount as Woolworths give you when you barter at their checkout.)
  4. Is this mask wearing territory? (Yes)
  5. Do you need Readers Digest books? (No)
  6. Have you read all the books in here? (Trying to)
  7. You still here? (I know I’m somewhere)
  8. Thought this place was called Jeff’s Books – that’s what Google says. (I am Jeff’s books. We’re magical.)
  9. Are there any pubs in Strath? (Yes)
  10. Can you have too many books? (As if!)
  11. Do you know Gavin? (Maybe)
  12.  How are you. Glad you’re surviving. (I am surviving, thanks to customers, visitors, and readers who keep on coming in and supporting tiny shops that have no hope on the real business scene, but who sell something that’s so intrinsic to survival that no day passes without a vintage sci fi or Virginia Woolf or something about painting model soldiers  leaves the store, saluting. I don’t know what reading really is, but like breathing it appears to be necessary, and with not much value in hurrying it along or wasting it for the wrong reasons. Anyway, thank you to everyone who keeps us going: good on you! )

Merry Christmas everyone: you know who you are xxxxx

It’s beginning to feel Christmassy

It always begins when people come in looking for Christmas presents.

‘I need something for an 8 year old girl who has read everything.’

‘I need something for my brother. But he probably won’t get here anyway.’

‘What do you have for the train lover?’

Customers talk out loud to each other and phone home to consult family about gifts.

‘Does she have this?’

‘Just go and check if he’s got this on his shelf.’

‘Would he have that?’

‘Can you ask Taylor if she’s got any of the Divergent books.’

‘Does he like these? These’ll take him ages to get through.’

‘Can you get me this for Christmas?’

Readers throw in a few titles for themselves or buy books for others and then keep them, and why not!

‘Who is that for?’

‘Jack. Maybe. And this is for me.’

People know we like reading but often won’t buy us a book.

‘Don’t get that for Hilda, she’s got thousands already.’

‘I’m not getting you that. Tony, you’ve got too much shit at home already.’

Books make the best gifts. To choose a book for someone, you have to think closely about them and everything they are. Just this alone makes it special.

A couple looking through the door and wondering whether to come in

They almost have their eyes on the glass. I can hear them through the door.

‘Do you reckon this is mask-wearing territory?’

‘What do you say babe, want to go in?’

They adjust their masks and come in. She is serene and quiet and pearlescent and powerful. He is broad and outdoors. He bounces on his feet, cannot contain his energy, calls me ‘mate’, wears his mask crooked, and whistles with admiration at basically everything. He kneels down, stands up, bounces, straightens his shoulders, turns around, alive with purpose.

‘What can I get babe? I could go for this.’

He chooses Nicholas Nickleby. She already has a stack of Charles Dickens chin high. She said, ‘Mmmm.’ He said, ‘Babe, we should get out of here.’ Then to me, ‘Excuse me, what’s your oldest book here.’

He and I searched the books, looking for dates. He said:

‘Cool.’

‘Sick.’

‘Mate. Radical.’

Then he said to her, ‘We should get out of here, babe. I’m going nuts, look at all these.’

She said, ‘Mmmm.’

They come to the counter to pay for their books. I say, ‘Do you want a receipt sent to you phone?’ He does. I ask for his number.

‘Are you cracking onto me?’

I am pleased with his joke because he is young and I am not, but his partner gives a scream of laughter.

‘My God, as if anyone would crack onto you.’ She can’t stop laughing.

He tells me they want books for their library. For their caravan. And for their kids.

They both look at her stomach, just a flicker of a look, but I saw it.

Illustration by Deborah Dewitt

The man who badly needed a cup of tea

He came in to browse and told me that his wife was Dux of Woodville High School, but three weeks ago had walked out of his life. He knelt down to examine all the bottom shelves and said that the books were wonderful. Just wonderful; especially the bird books.

Then he sang me a hymn and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He found a book on Scotland (The History of) and told me about his Scottish parents. He began to make a pile of books while he talked.

‘I’m worried about this generation. All they do is sit on the couch and drink fat.’

He said he didn’t hold with televisions, and that he badly needed a cup of tea.

‘After my wife left me, I had to do something with my life, so I started lifting weights. I’m 77, and you probably don’t believe it.’ I said it was amazing.

‘I just got the first TV of my life the other day. It’s for my new lady, and I’ve put it in its own room. Not with the books. Young people don’t know about the war.’

He went into the other room for a while. Then he came back.

‘Everything, Honey, has a city mentality. Even the birdlife. People only think of coffee and cakes. It’s artificial. I once knew some idiot called Charlie who was like that’.

I agreed.

He sang me another hymn, which I admired. Then he paid for his books, told me that he can’t abide a show off, and said goodbye.

Himself, a flash of unique bright birdlife, gone!

A man here browsing gave me the impression that he was looking for something specific

He was with a friend. She kept bumping his shoulder gently so he had to keep moving along. He frowned and read titles closely and bit his lip, put them back and went on to the next one. He gave each book a long fair go. He tipped his head back and narrowed his eyes to get at the reviews on the back and the dates of publication.

‘You find it?’ She asked. He shook his head. She put headphones in.

In Classics, the man rested on one knee. One elbow resting on the knee. One hand resting on the shelf right next to Steinbeck and Stevenson.

His friend took her headphones out and said they needed to go to Woolies later. He nodded. She put her headphones back in. Began to nod gently to another rhythm. He bent closer to the shelf, angling toward another vision. His feet were uncomfortable, splayed out for balance, and he soon moved back and knelt on both knees instead. He was now backed up against the leg of his friend. She had her eyes closed, and was moving, in tiny imperceptible movements, from side to side.

She reached down with her left hand took hold of his ear. She continued listening. He continued looking. Joined.

Shouting going on and on

Shouting outside goes on and on; it’s a conversation about floorboards between three men with coffees who are leaning companionably against the bakery veranda posts.

An old couple across the road are arguing over their dog who has just completed a large poo on the footpath. The man has a dustpan, but the couple can’t agree on the cleaning up. They both keep pointing at it. The dog sits and watches the traffic.

The floorboard men have moved up to my veranda posts and are discussing someone called Craig.

‘He’s in a difficult situation. Very hard to deal with. I’m going to try and smooth things over for him. Yeah. I’m going to give him some ammo, something useful to help his argument.’

‘Yeah.’ Everyone is nodding.

Another group pass; broad and heavy shouldered and dressed for motorcycling. They are all drinking from water bottles.

‘It’s 34 minutes, man.’

‘Is it?’

‘Yeah, that’s by Tailem Bend. We’re not going there. Enjoy your ride guys.’

‘No worries.’ They all part in various directions. One looks into my shop as he passes and says, ‘Spike Milligan. What a legend.’

The floorboard men, who have leaned back to let the cyclists pass, gather in again.

‘Well, if this is what I have to do.’

‘Yeah mate.’ Everyone is nodding again.

I notice that the couple with the dog have left. There is a car and caravan there now, and the couple inside it have a map spread out over the dashboard.

Suddenly the door opens and Sarah comes crashing in with four shopping bags and a newspaper and settles in to tell me about that moron Scott Morrison.

Warm and raining; one of those weird days that I really like

The traffic outside is muffled. People turning in all directions, trying to cross the road quickly. A few people coming in for books. A couple in a motorhome all the way from WA and buying books for birthday gifts. Sarah came in for her book about Dawn Frazer. Trevor came in for a copy of Carpentaria. I went to the bakery, twice.

Still raining.

I order a copy of Jellies and Their Moulds for a customer.

I look up Liane Moriarty and Jonathan Gash for other customers. I decide not to clean the windows.

Outside it’s dark, then light and then dark again. The road is already dry. A child passes on a skateboard; I can hear the wheels ticking over the pavers in the footpath. Someone bangs a wheelie bin lid. Two people yell to each other from opposite sides of the road.

‘What you want?’

‘Ohh…just a pie. Get us a pie.’

‘That it?’

‘Yeah. And a cake or something.’

‘Right’.

Someone trying to park outside my door grazes the gutter with a rubbery shriek. A lady get out of the passenger side and looks at the tyre. ‘You’ll have to go again, Alan. You’re not straight.’

Alan has another go and then gets out looking grim, and they walk to the bakery.

Illustration by Pascal Campion

All the weird things that happened today for no reason that I could see

When I was setting up the shop this morning, someone yelled from across the road, ‘Can you get in?’ and they were looking right at me. Get in where? I had to give a false and confident wave: yes I can, thank you. Yes I can what? I had no idea. The man nodded and waved, pleased that I could get in. Then he walked away, a wide gait and shoulders that had done a lot and were a little weary now. He leaned forward as he walked, careful of the remaining decades that still contained a lot to do.

A lady, a regular, was turning her gopher in my doorway, as she does every morning.  It’s the only place wide enough. She said, ‘Oh, you’ll get in. You’re skinny enough.’ And she laughed strong and broad, filling my doorway with her morning notes. But I considered things seriously. What?

A lady and her husband stood at the window and she said, ‘Well, that’s almost offensive.’ And they leaned in and laughed darkly at each other and moved on, so I never got to know what had offended.

A man passed swiftly with a pole balanced across one shoulder like a fishing rod. He was fast. I didn’t see much, only an oblong of moving stripes, but he saw me looking out as he looked in, and he made bird noises, powerful and piercing, so I thought well he’s off to the magic circus somewhere on the river. Which is probably wrong, but for a minute I dropped back into a book I’d read once where a man wearing stripes had a magic bird booth at a circus, and the birds would tell true stories about the moon if you paid them one piece of gold.

I thought, is Strathalbyn under some weird magic spell today?

A young woman came in and asked for books about witches. I looked at her meaningfully. She browsed, and I watched her, looking for clues. But she revealed nothing, She had to go, she said, to Woolies, for milk and bread. I was disappointed.

Alan came in to share his family news. I told him that there’s magic going on. He said, ‘What kind of magic?’

I said in a mysterious tone, ‘Lots of things. A bird man.’

He said, ‘Na, mate. That’s nothing.’ Then he told me he was going home for a feed.

I said that I would stay here and keep watch. He laughed, another broad and full laugh, and said that I’d never get in.

What?

But he’d gone. He saw him passing my second window already stuffing his mask into his pocket.