The coffee people

Come into the shop with extra muscles and more blood than other people. Come in grinning. Eyes sparking humorous energy. Can get down to the bottom shelves even when balancing hot coffee; the bottom shelves are fun. They get the music I’m playing, sometimes executing a few imperceptible dance steps next to Biographies.

When the sound of motorbikes shaves the air away from the inside of the shop, the coffee people don’t notice. Coffee is a hot fragrant cushion. The young couple nursing steaming hot coffee look at me and nod happily. There’s another family in here too this morning, flushed and fresh from cold grass and junior soccer. They are on their way to get coffee.

One of their children bought a book about chocolate to the counter. His two golden coins were hot clutched. He handed them to me, hot, clutched, melting.

A smaller girl appeared at the counter, just her face. Then a five-dollar note flapped onto the counter in front of me.

Then her book poked up slowly and was laid next to the five dollar note: Lego Star Wars. I gave her back a coin and her eyes widened, then softened.

The coffee people cross and re cross the floor, going from room to room beaming light, carrying Ernest Hemingway and Chaucer. Reaching for Johnathon Swift, The coffee illuminating and warming sudden new interests.

I can hear children quarrelling smally in the back room.

Now the green grass soccer family are leaving, everyone with a carefully chosen book, and mum with a paper bag, a newspaper, her book, and a son burying his head into her stomach as they bundle through the door and into the cold which isn’t cold for them.

The coffee people continue, ‘What about the collected works of Charles Dickens..?’

‘We’ve got most of them.’

She nods and dives at the lower shelves. Something else.

Why are people so quiet when they look at books?

Sometimes customers are so quiet, I forget they are there. They’re in danger of being locked in, something that’s happened in bookstores before. But never here (yet). People can be silent when it’s necessary.

Browsers of books are always moving; it’s just that you can’t see the movements; imperceptible downloads of information and ideas so astonishing, that on the outside the reader appears as though paralysed. They move from shelf to shelf, giving back only delicate breath, and sometimes not even that.

An arm reaches. A finger touches a spine, asking something. The book is grasped and held, examined. Rejected. Or, held while the reader’s head tilts back, giving ceiling to the eyes, which need it because the memory they are interrogating is too large for this small shop.

Sometimes the paperback is placed under one arm and carried softly along.

Readers gaze into long barely lit thoughts which are ignited and hiss briefly before going out again, sparked by pictures on covers, images on spines, the dry smell of paper, the thick loving waist of a paperback no longer new, the cough of an opening sentence that you remember icily from high school.

Small children are the stillest. All the action happens in the small roaring rooms of their minds. Sometimes their eyes go wide and their lips compress. Then back to normal, all in a second. Once a child shook his head sharply as though trying to dislodge something back into the book.

Some readers press hands to hearts while they read. Others go up on toes and down again. Men jangle keys and coins and say, ‘HA!’ to the page. Readers come and tell me what they just found, and others place their books before me apologetically, as though admitting inferiority of choice. There’s no such thing.

 Sometimes readers just gaze at a book, neither touching nor opening the covers. Why? What are they thinking? They might turn their heads just slightly, and that’s all.  

Notable incidents about today

Robert came in. I was talking with someone else, a fabulous pair from Clayton, but I saw Robert outlined against the brightness outside the door, and I knew it was him: he has a spiky electrocuted outline and eyes like gimlets.

The pair from Clayton left on a bark of humour. We’d been talking about vaccinations. He reckoned he’d been vaccinated with the Calicivirus, but she said that was rubbish. That was when Robert loomed up behind them like a bolt of electric heat from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was precisely what he was there to talk about.

He tapped the counter and gave me a list of books to find. He is currently reading Zecharia Sitchin. We discussed the possibility of getting the books. He said obscurely, ‘Imagine people thinking money is the thing. Don’t they know it’s books?’ We laughed darkly over anyone thinking money is the thing. Then he said, ‘Leave them alone. Best they keep thinking that. Leaves more books for us.’

Then we became hilarious. Robert laughed his high pitched laugh. It’s a thin voltage, admirable and richly unhinged. People turn around.

Behind Robert I saw Russell looking through the window, and behind him, a brisk lady who called out, ‘Hello there!’ in foghorn font causing Russell to jerk toward the window and nearly collide with the cold glass.

‘Very good thanks.’

In front of me, Robert continued on. ‘I’m getting Herman Hesse. He’s significant and I’ve only got The Glass Bead Game. I need all the rest.’

We googled Herman Hesse. A noble prize winner.

‘Really? Wow.’

Robert always utters really and wow in reverent deep tones, which drop deeper as he talks. Suddenly I, too, am desperate to read Herman Hesse.

I ask, ‘How did you find him?’

‘Don’t know.’ We look at each other and Robert laughs, high pitched and lunatic, and people turned around.  Then we settle down to the real business of the day, which is criticising people who don’t read and Telstra in that order.

Behind Robert, a tradesmen in orange and blue strides toward my door, grabs the handle and swings it competently open. But we are not the bakery, and he reverses, turns skilfully, lifting a phone to his ear at the same time.

Robert continues. ‘I wouldn’t mind a copy of The Master and Margarita’, and I promise to comply. Two ladies have bloomed fragrantly behind him, and he straightens up to leave, courteous.

‘Ok, see you later.’ He is briefly outlined in the doorway. Then gone.

The man who wanted a book written by an old Australian rabbiter who possibly never existed

I remembered him because he stood so close to me when he asked me about this book written by an old famous rabbiter. He’d had the book a long time ago. Lent it out. Never been able to find another copy.

He came around to my side of the counter and peered at my computer screen. Told me that his old grey matter wasn’t working any more. Said that the book may not have existed. He wasn’t sure anymore.

We couldn’t find the book. I said, ‘Never mind,’

He nodded and went into the back room, and I heard him talking to his wife. She was back there with books under one arm. She had a turquoise blue jacket and iron grey smooth hair and bottle green winter weight trousers.  Her face was strong and humorous. I thought this because she when she looked at me she was there.

Some people aren’t there. They look at me with half of themselves. The other half is busy with something else. That’s ok because I’m like that most of the time.

But she was there. She said, ‘We’ve come in before. We always come in to stock up again. It’s part of our trip to drop in.’ And I thanked them for it. Then she looked at me again, and that’s when I saw something else, some extra energy or a decision reached, or a way of going about things that was actually working.

Her husband came back and stood behind my counter again. She said, ‘Rex, come over here.’ He did. He picked up her books and took them over to the door. She said, ‘Bring them back, we haven’t bought ‘em yet. What have you got?’

He looked at me seriously and then asked me about a book he used to have about a flock of sheep. Probably can’t get it any more. I looked it up and he watched closely, but nothing emerged on the internet that was of any use. He said, ‘Well that’s technology for you.’ He said, ‘My old grey matter’s not working anymore.’

He and she looked at each other. She said, ‘Come over here.’ And he did and she squeezed his elbow. She bought the books, and then they left. When they went out of the door he was looking at her and she held his arm and their hands were clasped together.

The small tasks that are done on long weekend Mondays

It’s just traffic driving past really, not fast or slow, just endless, and the sky’s dark and the air is grey and cold. Everyone’s going home. Only truck drivers are stopping for food from the bakery. They walk past checking phones and sometimes they look in see me sitting here: one driver smiled and waved. An older couple spend ages trying to park a caravan outside my door. She stood on the footpath waving directions. Eventually they walked past my door; she had a really heavy shoulder bag and stopped to adjust it. She looked cold and annoyed. They both glanced in at me and then away again.

The carpark across the road is empty. There’s just a lady with smooth pale gold hair. She’s coming across to the bakery. She has an evening bag with a long gold chain. She’s dressed completely in motorcycle leather, including the boots. She looks as though she could go anywhere.

Families with small dogs on endless leads: a father has to untangle terriers and little children who won’t let go of the leads, and he says, ‘All right, let’s just do it slowly. Bridget let go a minute, come on.’

A man walking past fast does an about turn and stares at my door. He stacks two coffees and enters hopefully. ‘I’ve lost someone.’

She’s here, looking at books in the back room. She comes out. ‘I’ll be here for ever.’ He hands her a coffee and says ‘Keep looking. Keep looking.’ They stand side by side with their heads on the exact same angle, hugging hot coffees to hearts.

A mother and two small boys sweep past, but the little boys come back and press noses on the window. Then they move away, but the older boy comes back and stares through at something again. Then he disappears, but returns again, and then again. I cannot work out what he is staring at.

There’s a young man eating a pastie. His shoulders are hunched and he keeps one hand in his pocket. He glances backwards without interest into my shop window and away again. A young woman meets him and he says to her, ‘What’d you get me?’

She says, ‘Nothing.’ And he throws his head back and laughs and says, ‘Mate!’ Then he throws his arm across her shoulders and they walk on, and an old man with a grim face and a green Woolies shopping bag walks up behind them, and then a young woman steering a huge pram with just one hand. Her other hand is steadying what looks like loose apples on top of the pram. None of the apples fall; she is so focused on this one important task.

Illustration by Valentin Rukunenko

On the inside facing directly outward so I can see everyone going past and everything that happens

Now it’s even harder to miss people. I’ve had my counter moved so it sits facing the door. I’m facing that outside space where everything  happens. I don’t have to turn my head anymore.

Things happen at lightening speed. Sometimes a person passes so fast that all I catch is an expression. The thing is: I recognize the expression even though it’s tied to their life and their shopping lists. But it’s good to be part of such a rich and filthy diorama: no solutions, no control, all cream and vinegar and colour.

Sometimes all I catch is a body movement: a shrug or a gesture. And I recognize it, and it looks good. We aren’t aware of how precise our muscles are. Or how delicate. A cheek muscle can express at least a couple of years of solid participation.

All sounds are caught in the scoop of my doorway. Sometimes it’s sheep, caught up in their own private woollen hell, squashed into a truck parked outside so the driver can get to the bakery.

Once two tradesmen (there are always tradesmen) argued at the back of their parked ute. They wore the obligatory orange and blue. One man was talking. The other looked at the ground and shook his head. I liked the way he shook his head at the ground rather than at his friend. This is how I knew they were friends. The road outside was quiet that morning. There was just them. They couldn’t see me. A bookshop is the most invisible of shops. The man looking at the ground said, ‘Jesus. Just hand it in then. Tell ‘em to get fucked.’

The other man nodded and nodded and nodded. Relief.

Once a walking floppy child went past hand in hand with mum. They stopped to look at my wooden smiling cat that guards the front window. The child was turning to soft sad tired rubber. Mummy was trying to cajole her home.

‘Look at the cat. And look at this. It looks like you.’ The child’s face, dripping downwards, suddenly solidified and turned warm. ‘Is that me?’

‘Yes, do you think?’

‘It’s me. Can I have him?’

‘No, he lives here.’ And they moved slowly on, a shopping bag and a jumper dragged along because they were necessary too.

An old man limped past; a lady next to him: his wife. He was being scolded by his wife. They were working hard at the walking but were going slowly. Suddenly he lifted both arms into the air, a gesture meaning that he had no words for it. He eyes flicked sideways and saw the gesture. Then they were out of my sight. Do you get to an age when there  are no adequate words for it? Imagine outliving language.

Once three ladies came in, taking ages to get through the door because they were bringing books in for me. One lady was bent over arranging the bags. They were Woolworths green shopping bags full of books. When she lifted her eyes to me to see if I was pleased with their gift, her eyes were there. Looking at me and at nothing else. The ladies bowed to each other and to me and to the shelves. The kindness of it defeated me that day. I didn’t know what to say.

Paul Keating has an amazing intellect

Somebody said this at my window, tapping on the glass to show his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. But they didn’t come into the shop.

That’s ok, it’s the school holidays and the readers are out leaping into the shop with narrowed eyes like hunters on the path of something. One young woman announced herself to me but turned midsentence, already at the biographies and not finishing the sentence.

But that’s ok, I needed to sit down after battling the autumn leaves in the doorway again. And again. Every morning they come back and wait for me. My broom is coming apart.

When I was out there sweeping, an old lady asked me, ‘Did you get that book I wanted and can’t remember?’ But I hadn’t found it. I couldn’t remember it either, and she patted my arm and said, ‘Not to mind. I’ll leave you to your sweeping up.’

Sarah came in needing a number for a taxi. She said that what was going on in Lismore wasn’t good enough.

Robert came in after a year’s absence and started right off where we’d finished last May. His newest news was that he’d saved a lot of money by giving up smoking. He’d saved thousands. So now he could buy some books. But then he remembered that he’d taken up smoking again, and he showed me a plastic wallet of tobacco which reminded me of my grandfather. I almost said Tally Ho, but I didn’t. Robert said that the tobacco cost him $150 and looked furious about it. But then he noticed behind me on a shelf, The Secret Doctrine by H P Blavatsky, Quest Book, Theosophical Publishing House. He read all this out loud. Then he said, ‘I’ll have that.’

We looked at each other, pleased, and then talked about tobacco some more. Then he rushed out to do other errands, and Jim came in and ordered an esoteric type of book that I’d ordered before – for Robert. I told Jim, and he said, ‘I know, Robert gave me a lift in to Strath and told me to get one.’ So I got one for him. I said, ‘How’s Clayton, and he said, ‘Yeah, well you know how it is.’ Which I didn’t, but I agreed anyway.

The girl who was amongst the biographies came back to the counter with a pile. There was 1 historical, 5 crimes, 2 biographies, 2 children’s flats and 1 art book. She bobbed up and down while she paid, flexing leg muscles and looking powerful. I said, indicating Wolf Hall, ‘This is good’, and she said powerfully, ‘I know, my mum told me about it.’

Anthony came in for science fiction. An ambulance and police car went past, and then a CFS truck. He said, ‘that sounds bad’.

A silent young couple came in and looked at just about everything and left silently. I said, thanks for coming in, but they didn’t reply. A lady asked for a book about a certain type of guitar. Another lady asked for spiritual Christian fiction and then left with nothing and looking unsatisfied. I went to the bakery for a chocolate doughnut and there were none left and I came back with nothing and feeling unsatisfied.  

Then someone tapped on the window and called out to his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. The friend nodded with folded arms not looking interested. The man remained bent over and slowly examined all the other books in the window. They didn’t come in.

All in all a satisfying day. Except for the autumn leaves. Lol.

Illustration by Konstantin Mashkarin

The money exchange and the man who only got a coffee for himself

A reader in the shop needs money for her books. She calls her husband from the back room, and he comes slowly because he is carrying his own books. But he offers his wallet. Then he says,

‘You just snatched. You just took a whole hundred.’

‘Well get some more. Go get some more.’

The husband looks at me and says, ‘Oh My God.’ Then he leaves his books on the counter and goes out.

It’s a slow day. Two other people are talking about land development in the front room. One says, ‘Yes, but that’s very sensitive information.’

Browsers are moving slowly. We all have the autumn slows. The money lady is checking her phone against the books she is holding.

A group of three ladies, all wearing black jackets, pass the door, all talking fast and loudly. I hear one sentence:

‘How does she know about it none of us talk about it I mean settle down.’

Then they’re gone.

Then the husband comes back with more money and a coffee. His wife, the one checking her phone, looks at the coffee. He says, ‘Oh My God,’ again, and looks up at the roof, and then gives her his coffee.

Then they pay for all their stuff, all good books, even a copy of Cosmo Cosmolino, and go back out in the sun to the bakery to get another coffee probably. When they walk away, they are both looking down at their books and she is drinking the coffee.

Painting by Im Buchladen

Gee, love your work

A young man came into the shop and said, ‘Every time I come down here I need something. And this time I need something again, might be hard to find, hoping you can look it up and see if it’s still around.’

I waited for the title. He looked at his phone, scrolled through page after page, but couldn’t find it.

I said, ‘Maybe the author?’

But he couldn’t remember. Then he found the book. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’

I had it right there on the shelf. He lit up, surprised, and turned the paperback over and over. ‘My God, love your work. Too easy. Gee, I love your work.’

Then he paid for it. ‘$5.00, that’s so easy. Too easy. Love your work.’

Then he left but put his head back through the door once more to say, ‘Love your work.’

Illustration by Laura Antillano