The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

(Italicized line from Birdsong For Two Voices by Alice Oswald)

Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.

Reading hard books

This was really good. A customer, looking for Anthony Trollope, said,  ‘I’ve read all these.’

We looked at each other.

I said defensively, ‘I’m having a go at Ulysses.’

He lit up. ‘Oh yes. Oh yes. Good. Good. Do you have help?’

I admitted I did. A website, chosen at random, to get me through every word of it, one paragraph at a time. A guide with a torch lighting a path and smashing the overhangs out of the way. When I got to Leopold on the toilet, I was hooked. When his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease, I was committed to the book. Don’t care how hard.

The customer said, ‘Oh. Good. Good. It’s just what you need. James Joyce. Strange man of course. Ireland’. He looked at the floor as though looking at Ireland.

Once, a young woman said, ‘Oh, James Joyce, he makes us look around and look at things.’

It’s true.

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

The customer admitted to finding Anna Karenina difficult. The names. The Russian names. ‘But after all, in an affair, there are only three names. The rest are of no consequence.’ He looked down at the floor, staring at something, possibly Russia.

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” Says Joyce.

The customer stayed a while looking through the classics. He would take a book and stare at the cover for a long time. He read the first chapter of Madame Bovary before putting it back in the wrong place. Eventually he left.

Outside, somebody passing the door said, ‘Every time I go past this place it’s shut. What’s the point?’

That’s right. I’m shut because I’m home having a crack at Ulysses and humid nightbluefruit.

Above image of my shop. Not really. It’s actually a rare book library in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Everything’s much the same

The only difference is that people stand and read my wear a mask sign. Then they put one on and come in and look at me and smile reassuringly. Their masks move and wrinkle up as they try to smile. Then they remember the code, ‘Quick, Ruth, go back.’

‘Why? What’ve we done?’

‘Do the phone thing.’

‘Oh God, where’s me phone?’

I have so many paper signs on the door that passers-by have to peer through, moving their heads from side to side to see what’s in there.

Sarah wears her mask over her eyes as well. Can’t be too careful.

The door opens to let somebody in, but a friend pulls them back out. ‘No need to go in there. We got our books last week. Leave it Ginny.’

I am asked, ‘Can I ask how long it is between vaccinations?’

I am told to try and keep my footing.

There are not many cars going past. No horns, and hardly any trucks. And nobody is standing in my doorway and talking so I can eavesdrop and write it all down. People stop and read my door signs for ages, but in silence, and they usually don’t come in.

The traffic on the road is subdued as though thinking about something.

There’s only one person over at the bus stop.

Locals come in to make sure I am all right. Because of this, I am.

Three people pass the window, moving slowly the way older people do, and shoulder to shoulder. ‘I know what to get him… what about one of those new skateboard things. The young people like those.’

I hope they get him one.

Illustration by Brian Kershisnik

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.’

‘Never.’

‘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.’

Developers.

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

British Tits

Birds 1.png

This is an old blog from January 2019 that I’m reposting because it was funny and it reminds me of summer:

I made a window display after Christmas and lined up the books in an amusing way by accident. Many people stopped to comment. Some leaned back and then leaned in and read the titles out loud. Some people took photos. One boy said to his friends: ‘Omg, look at this: British Tits or something. Is that what it says?’ But his friends have walked by.
One lady said: ‘Oh well, that’s a funny old set of books.’
One man stopped and pointed, he tapped the glass over and over with his laugh spilling slowly. But his friends, too  had moved on.
One lady rode her bike across the road and stopped at the window to take a photo of the display.
Some teenagers stopped and stared at the books. One boy said that his tits had thrush, and his friends looked at him politely.
One man parked his motorbike and took ages to stow his helmet, fold his jacket, haul out his bag, find his wallet. He stood packing things in and out and regarded the display impassively. Then he went to the bakery.
A child said: ‘Look at the cat.’
On man said: ‘British Tits to his wife, twice, and she looked at him and didn’t smile.’
Two old ladies together read out the titles and looked at each other and laughed like anything. One of them said: ‘What’s wrong with Australian tits.’ Her friend leaned back and laughed about sixty years of life easily up into the sky. They walked away arm in.
Some high school students, two boys and a girl walked past and one boy read out the titles. He read them again, but the other boy didn’t hear and the girl raised her shoulder against his joke.
One man roared out: ‘British Tits’ to nobody and nobody responded, and he continued on to the bakery.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m on a houseboat. And life gently gulps past the window, removing and returning, on and on, and never really stopping, not even for British tits.

Birds 2.png

Try this one, it might work better

Two men came into the shop today together, and I thought they were brothers. This is because they worked shoulder to shoulder. First they had to check in.

‘Did you get it?’

‘No not yet.’

‘Come inside. There’s another one in here. Try it. Might work better.’ They found my app printed and hung up in a different place.

‘That one out there must be on a shadow or something, generally I get it, don’t I.

The other man instructed him.

‘Come back a bit. Come back a bit.’

‘It’s been working beautiful till now.’

‘Yeah, I know mate. Come back a bit, you have to get the whole thing in.’

‘I’ve got it.’

‘No, you haven’t.’

‘Ok, I’ll have to sign the thingo. Don’t know why that is, it worked beautiful in the bakery, sorry to be a nuisance.’ He looked at me apologetically. I said, ‘Not to worry.’

I rewarded them with Melody Gardot through the speaker. They swayed.

I watched them move. Gentlemen, with hands in pockets. Silence. Leaning over the books with courtesy and interest. One men went into Art. The other man swayed, listening. They passed each other twice in the same narrow space. ‘You right?’

‘I am, mate.’

Hats on, black, coats on, blue, shoes stout helping with winter. Silence and breathing.

Suddenly their wivesentered, signing in efficiently. There are three of them. Who is the third?

‘Come on, girls.’ The see their men.

‘Oh, ello stranger, fancy meeting you here.’

One of the men responds, ‘Do I know you?’

Why are you in the children’s books?’ They don’t answer.

‘Come on Sue, let’s get Nora Roberts.’

Sue, in a beautiful red coat moves gently and slowly. ‘Did you sign the thing?’

‘We did.’ They move off, Sue with a walking stick. They ask each other.

‘How much is this?’

‘Is there a section for crime?’

‘I know what author I’m going for.’

‘Here, watch your step.’

Meanwhile, the husbands are still in art, shoulder to shoulder. They are examining their wallets. I listen to them when they pay for the art book.

‘Hans Heysen, not a bad bloke.’

‘He didn’t do too bad, did he?’

‘Now that I’ve retired I should put my finger back into the apple pie.’

‘Well, I’ll tell you what…’

Then they left, alone, and without their ladies. Outside in the cold, I could hear them still talking, still bent over the book he had open and was holding out under the afternoon cold.

‘Have they gone? Where are they?’

‘The men have left us behind, Sue.’

‘They’ve all gone, have they?’

‘They’re probably looking for us.’

‘Well, we can get back to the car. Don’t need them.’

Then they left, but I can still hear them outside the door.

‘I’ll just look round the corner.’

They moved slowly out and on and past the window. I can still here their voices…

‘…well that’s their fault for just sitting at home…’

Small girl in bike helmet

A little girl wearing a bike helmet is at the door. She’s still outside looking in; her helmet is knocking against the glass; she can’t get her eyes close enough to actually see anything. She jams the helmet against the glass, and this is when I look up and see here. Her eyes pierce the inside of my shop. Beams streaming in as though from a torch. As though from a lighthouse that won’t compromise. Her eyes rest on me. She makes no compromise; she won’t smile.

In she comes. Wearing pink and grey. The bike helmet still on, the straps swinging softly around her stern chin. She looks at me and does not smile. There are no adults with here. Is it Pippi Longstocking? I sit back and regard her with respect.  

She goes in amongst the books. I go back to Amor Towles.

When I look up she is crouched over Horrible Histories. Then she moves to historical. Then she moves to a shelf and looks at a copy of Inkheart. Then she’s out of my sight; must in sci fi.

Suddenly she’s passing me again. Silent and stern and the straps of her helmet swinging softly, respecting her chin.

She took ages closing the door. She stood in the gap, doing up the straps of the pink bike helmet and looking at me. She stood there for ages doing this. Then she was gone.

My covid code

Is hanging on the door. There’s five scattered about, so nobody can miss them. I don’t like them.

Everybody uses them. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t. But then I jump up and scan into my own shop. Don’t want anyone Checking the Data to think that nobody came.

Visitors are generous and careful. They stand outside in the rain and the cold, patiently fiddling.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Try again.’ They lean over the phone, glasses on the end of cold noses.

‘It says Bunnings.’

‘That’s we were.’

‘By God. What’s this shop then?’

Young people scan the code carelessly, without looking, still talking. They text a long reply to someone as they walk in. The text takes 1.5 seconds.

Some people sign in with a pen. They fill out every piece of information carefully for me.

Some people forget. Then they come back to the counter and sign in. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’

‘Better do this then, hadn’t I!’

‘Better add my name.’

‘What’s the time David?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The time. The clock. Don’t worry about it.’

David turns in a circle, confused, with two Jeffrey Deavers in his hand. His wife signs them both in. He tells me that Jeffrey Deaver has gone down in quality.

Some people show me their scanned in status. I say, ‘Great, thanks.’ And I mean it. Glad they can just do it and not get mad with me. Glad they’ll still come in and keep me going. Glad they still want to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and Agatha Christie even though the world seems a little weird right now. Glad they still argue that they should have gone to the bakery first.

Image of an actual door at Salah Eidin Citadel, Cairo, Egypt