There’s no time

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Two ladies came in, mother and daughter. It’s cold. They are wearing bright jumpers, black scarves, fingerless gloves and they carry umbrellas. They are anxious because back in the bakery, they noticed three ambulances going past.

Why are there that many?

Is this normal for Strathalbyn?

But I didn’t know. I had noticed the sirens, though.

They stayed for a long time but didn’t choose any books. The mother was enthusiastic for Liane Moriarty. She went through the plot of two of her novels for me. Not the third one, because that one didn’t hold her. At the third chapter of that book, she just put it down. No thanks! No more for me! I’m a busy person and can’t just use my time on a book like that.

Her daughter was holding the door open, wanting to leave. But mum kept talking, even though the cold swept in and wrapped us all in fresh wool.

Mum, we’re going. It’s time.

Her mother gave me a dark look, indicating what she had to put up with. At the door, she turned the wrong way, and her daughter took her arm firmly and turned her back toward the car.

The mother was saying she thought they needed some eggs.

But there was no time.

 

Oh, Mate

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Like Water For Chocolate. A reader visited the shop asking for this book, I didn’t have it, I have never read it and he was delighted. He said, oh mate. There were no words for it, so, suddenly, I wanted to read it. He found everything he could about the book on his phone for me, he didn’t say much himself except, oh mate. He just stood there, not needing to do anything. There were no words for this book and I understood.
He looked here and there just in case the book was here and I just didn’t realise. But it wasn’t. He said that I must read it because I just must. There were no other books at this time that he wanted to mention, just this singular book, for which he had no words. He said, we are going to be good friends, mate! He said this as he left, back to work, back to life, back to water, like chocolate, and I thought, no wonder we read.

The English Patient

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A lady is in the shop reading to herself The Very Hungry Caterpillar and I am reading to myself The English Patient. She shows her friend the book and her friend says: Oh, I remember that one. And the reading lady says: don’t we all…and they are smiling. Then they look at my book and tell me that I ought to see the film.

My friend says that Michael Ondaatje is slippery, that is, his writing is slippery, luminous and unpredictable so that suddenly he has described something… like translated light and there is no retreat…

the blue and other colours, shivering in the haze and sand. The faint glass noise and the diverse colours and the regal walk and his face like a lean dark gun

And when reading such incandescent sentences, you know that there is more at play that just those sentences, meanings and truths as large as the world itself following behind your reading, towering over your page, creaking gently behind, on and on and on.

A little boy has chosen a book called How to Draw Monsters and he holds it up to show me, he points significantly toward the monster on the cover. He comes over to whisper to me that he is going to draw these now, but bigger ones.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje is an incomparable writer.

An old lady tells me she has read every book in the Outlander Series and now intends to collect them in hardcover and then she will read them all again. She said she has lived these characters and died with them every day when she reads for hours before dinnertime. I show her The English Patient, but she has never heard of it.

My friend said that Michael Ondaatje has written a number of other books, not just The English Patient. And they are all worth pursuit. (He has come in to see me for poetry but there is nothing sufficient here today).

A mother buys Thea Stilton: The Journey to Atlantis for her daughter who is about 10 years old and she leaves with the book balanced on her head and her eyes closed so that she runs into her brother in the doorway and he says Oh man, oh man, what are you…

The English Patient is a book that does not seem to contain many words.

A man comes through the door, hurrying, nervous of the time. He has leant a shovel against the window as he comes in and his boots are covered in cement. He takes his hat off and says the weather is a cow. Then he asks for Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, his favourite book, he wants to read it again and he explains how this book is one of the best, possibly the best in the world. I show him The English Patient and he says he has never heard of it.

The English Patient is unloud and sufficient and simple and impossibly complex, and tonight I will finish it, reading the same startling way I way I did last night, taking in Cairo, the indigo markets, the minarets and the charcoal and the aching hearts and listening to The Rachmaninoff 3 at the same time and Max there with me, banging a toy water buffalo on the keyboard and wanting me to choose Duplo instead.

 

The Young Readers

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Although it is cold outside there are people everywhere, spending a hopeful Sunday not at home. And there are two children here, brother and sister, who came into the shop earlier and who have refused to sit with their father in the car parked outside. They have been here for nearly an hour and have not spoken once.

They have circled and surveyed the displays and the shelves, balanced on one leg, sat under the tables, leaned on shelves and examined book after book in an intense, rich and enchanted silence. Once they met up too closely at the science fiction and they glanced up briefly, and then silently the older brother moved aside.

Once they reached for the same book. Their father came back to see how things were and neither of them looked up at all. Once, she toppled some Ranger’s Apprentices to the floor and they both stared down at them. Once he laughed out loud at Gorilla World and she looked at him, not seeing him, only seeing Con because she is reading The Magic Thief: Home

Once she says: this book is really good, you should see how they make the bridge. But he didn’t answer. Later he says: are you getting anything? But she doesn’t answer.

When they leave, they have not chosen any books, but they have replaced carefully the ones they examined and when they pass me they smile and say: thanks, thanks for the bookshop.

 

 

 

 

Reading

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When things are difficult, reading is such consolation. It is thought that life is for living, not for merely reading about, and this is true.
But as with all art, what we are gazing at and the quality of our watching, makes a difference. Some books console, and other distract and others entertain. Many stories reaffirm and add to what we already like. Some writing keeps us liking what we already know.
But reading, like any set of complicated muscles, can move us further. And reading, if given permission, will transfer gently along the contours of our fearful selves, as all great art can, if allowed. This, in turn, can allow us permission to consider what we, all of us, hold in our ghostly hearts.
The greatest literature is by nature provoking rather than judgemental – to provoke without verdict is complex and risky and so the greatest artists rarely present answers.
They, all of them, seem to have halted everything in order to dive.

Fiction, if allowed, can breach defences with undimming compassion.

 

 

Artwork by Leng Jun

 

 

 

 

See you later some other time probably…

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A boy, aged about 11 came into the shop and greeted me by name although I did not know who he was.

He said: well I’m just a book reader, I just like all books. So, I’m just a book fan and I love Doctor Who. My mum says I can get any book I will read over and over again, I always read my books again until I get sick of them. Then I don’t anymore.

He went away and crouched down to examine science fiction on the bottom shelves and then came back to the counter.

I just read them over, you know, over and over like that. Like Dr who and other stuff, like about stallions and also Harry Potter. I have read them all seven times. I get into bed and then make a place and just read for ages, I like Skulduggery, I would read those again. I like old books.

He hopped from foot to foot as he spoke and then went away into the back room for a while. When he came back he said: I like this old stuff, you would have to look after these, they have like different materials in them. They aren’t decorated like our books, back in the old day they couldn’t decorate. I really want this. I’m going to save for this, like anything. My mum will let me. Anyway I have to go now so see you later some other time probably.

 

Photography by Andrew Branch

Why did you get me a book? Why didn’t you get me a Transformer?

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Today is grey, warm and quiet. The cars driving past are all headed for Christmas. A few visitors come in, looking idly for books; one man was looking for Milang. Albert dropped in to say Merry Christmas and that once, when he drove trucks, he took a load of books to Melbourne, thousands of them, all packed into crates. He said: I had a look in the back when they were unloading because they said it was an urgent load and I had to drive all night, books by some bird called Joan Collins. She was in Melbourne signing them or something. Do you think I should have read one of em? Who is she anyway?

I was asked for The Silver Brumby.

An older man spent a long time looking at a Geronimo Stilton. He looked puzzled.

A lady bought a complete Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales. She said I love these, so much more than the Grimm Brothers. They were just so….grim! I just want to read them, I don’t need to study or know everything about them. I have a husband who thinks he knows everything. She looked grim.

There are two ladies in the front room and one tells her friend that her grandson said last Christmas: why did you get me a book? Why didn’t you get me a Transformer? And so now she is getting him another book. They both laugh toward each other and laugh until one begins to wheeze and wheeze. She gasps out: if he doesn’t like it he gets nothing. But my daughter told me I should get him what he wants.

Her friend says OH FOR GOD’S SAKE!

And they both laugh and laugh again. They are silver and elegant and one has a small tattoo. Then they discussed their adult daughters for a long time, they did not look at any books.

Then it is quiet for a long time. I read The Historian… and it is very good. In this book it is mid-winter in England. And everything is freezing, including Dracula. Here it is hot, but the snow and dust mingle nicely and logically.

I am asked for The History of Tom Jones and then Rumpole of the Bailey.

Outside passers-by comment: this is a nice shop! But they do not come in.

An old man buys some books for his granddaughter in England. He is worried that the family won’t approve. He said: this might put me in the bad books again.

Some children paused outside to eat an enormous bag of chips. There is an argument. One child says they must eat them all NOW because he is not allowed to buy this many chips at once or he will be killed by his mum.

I see Robert hurrying past but he does not come in.

I wonder what else should be happening because it is Christmas…

Then a man came in and asked for a map book but I didn’t have one. He said he’s at the caravan park here, and leaving soon. He and his wife had travelled to South Australia, their last trip, she died of cancer soon after they arrived here which was four days ago. And he just wanted a map book; he thought he might drive a little further; he did not want to go home right now.

But I didn’t have one. He said not to worry, and he went to the bakery. I saw him there through the window, eating at a table all by himself. He had said they had 18 years on the road traveling together before she got cancer.

 

Photography by Markus Spiske

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She said to me that heaven better be a library or something or when she gets there she will say: What the hell?

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Peggy has a new t shirt: it is milkshake pink and says: Dance with the Fairies, Ride with the Unicorns, Swim with the Mermaids and Fly to the Moon. She said to me: Here I am, 84 and shifting house again!

I said: well at least you aren’t moving interstate anymore. And why don’t you move up here to Strathalbyn anyway? She said: God!! Imagine it! It’s too quiet here. I need action in my life. I said well, when you get old you will feel differently. She said: I’m twice your age and she shrieked laughing and made her little dog jump in alarm. She always brings him into the shop even though she isn’t allowed to.

Joe was waiting patiently to talk more about the Nullarbor. He said the best way to see it is in a truck. He reminded me that he needed some more books about seeing the Nullarbor from a truck.

Peggy listening in said: Strewth! That would be pretty boring reading wouldn’t it?! She told me how when she lived at Woomera, her wretched first husband burnt all her books in the back yard to get his own back.

A small girl in the front room told her dad that if he didn’t make thirty runs at cricket today he would be dropped back to the B grade. He looked glum. He had a small selection of science fiction which he put back on the shelf. Best spend his time at the stumps…

Yvonne was in a mess with her chocolate rum balls – she rang to say she would come on the weekend to pick up the Uncle Remus.

I was asked for anything by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. And then for Pride and Prejudice.

Dick, who is 94, came by to pick up a tennis biography and would not use his gift voucher. He said he would use proper money thank you very much…

One morning a young reader told me that it upsets her that people do not know about Swallows and Amazons.

On another morning a very young couple bought some art history books and Robert peered over at their selection and later said that he had wanted some of those books. I told him that he had to look around more carefully and he was aghast. Then I triumphantly produced his volumes two and three of The Journey to the West (translated by Professor Anthony Wu) from under the counter and he was ecstatic. He added that he can now play most of Fur Elise on the piano and it is good enough to make a recording.

I am asked for The Mayan Trilogy. A young father told me that his son, who is twelve, is devouring the Ancient Greeks.

When I went to the bakery, three old ladies were scolding their friend for reading the road signs wrongly and getting them to the wrong town. They told her: if you won’t wear your glasses you’ll have us on the moon next. But she was eating an enormous iced bun and did not look sorry. I wondered if they would visit me next door but they didn’t.

Instead there was Sharon waiting at the door and looking stricken because there was a volume with an olive green and silver cover she could see through the glass but could not get at it. She said to me that heaven better be a library or something or when she gets there she will say: What the hell?

She always talks and talks, taking flight into a new idea with each volume she handles. She examines every book with reverence. She wants to own every book there is. I understand her completely. She tells me that she gave her Moby Dick away and then suddenly wanted it back. But she had to buy it back because they would not give it to her. She says: oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh….

She murmurs half stories and quarter lines but no complete stories. She says: I read Bonjour Tristesse in college and it was so sexual….

…my sister has all of the Wizards of Oz but she’s not going to read them, she’s such a bitch like that…oh my gosh this is The Pepys….do you remember….Alison Uttley…I will get this Blake…I will get this Dante….I might get…this…do you have The Good Earth….I want to read Hemingway….do you have Virginia Woolf still….do you like my shoes? I just got them for an interview this morning…..maybe I will get this Poe…do you have Han Suyin……

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He said: thank you for thanking us.

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And his wife said: we lie in bed from six am to eight am every morning and read with cups of tea and we’ve been doing that for forty years.

I gazed at this old couple who are so happy with the volumes they have just chosen and I thanked them for coming into my shop.

And later, a whole week later, I rang them to talk about a book they wanted and when I rang, Thelma was reading Manx Mouse in the garden and she said: oh, my dear, my dear, my dear I am reading Manx Mouse out in the garden and there are no words for it. And then she said:  we should also talk about Oscar Wilde next time we come in. John is making a nuisance of himself in the shed; let me call out to him that you are here on the phone. I ought to also turn off the hose. Just wait a minute my dear…

I am thinking of Oscar Wilde all day.

I am reading The New York Stories of Edith Wharton and I am absorbed too completely in Mrs Manstey’s View.  When Mrs Manstey lingers at her window to watch a windy sunset die in bat coloured dusk I remembered that I had once seen that sunset through a glass window and I had licked the glass and it was hot.

A customer looks at my book and says she could never get on with Edith Wharton.

I feel that I cannot get by without Edith Wharton. The cover is beautiful; it is iced green with pink and presents itself as to be eaten.

I am asked for Catcher in the Rye and I feel like furiously saying bother The Catcher! What now about Edith Wharton…

A young woman asks for Thus Spake  Zarathustra and I am wondering why such a young person has chosen this.

Peggy sends me a message with her new address and that the James Patterson she bought from me was rubbish. I suggested Edith Wharton and I am limp with love for Edith Wharton but Peggy says: God, no.

Rita came in for an Australian Stamp Catalogue and she describes for me the difficulties of her experiences with greyhound racing.

Joe comes back with his copy of The Nullarbor Kid and tells me that his life of trucking the outback is entirely within this book.  He said: my lady used to come with me in the truck sometimes, so on the CB radio –  when the truckers knew she was with me, they cleaned up their language you see… for ten years she travelled with me… it was the best ten years of my life.  She said that the men of the outback treated her much better than men in suits back in that wretched bank.  But it’s different now I guess…I should like to read any more books this guy has written. Please look some more of them out for me.

I am asked for the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft.

There is an argument in the front room over Game of Thrones.

A small child hits her brother over the head with his Horton Hatches the Egg and he is devastated. The mother tells me that she is exhausted. She has purchased Cleopatra and Helen of Troy by Margaret George, each of these is a weighty 900 pages and she leaves the shop hugging her two weeping children and she tells me about her reading afternoon and she is ecstatic. I understand her ecstasy and that sometimes there are not words for it. I remember when I was looking at Wide Sargasso Sea, looking at the pages and the cover and David came in and said: Oh My God is that Wide Sargasso Sea and I said yes and he said: Oh My God! And there were no more words for it.

I understood.

There are all the details there, in these books, the greatest books, whichever they are. Details of the smallest things, the everyday things, so many and so profound and complicated that there is no dealing with them, not even with regular, careful breathing.

Paper sculpture by  Malena Valcarcel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vampire Books

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John is back from Tasmania, and he came to tell me about his bike trip of 1400km, taken through rain, sun and good cheer. He told me about the best thing of all.

“ …this is the best thing of all: I rode up to the Mt Wellington car park – right up the top of that place, it was like heaven to ride around the top of that car park, it was flat and it was heaven. I am an old man you know! And a lady and her husband were up there and they clapped me when I got there…because I am old I suppose. But then she said, do you know what she said? She said: Someone ought to write a story about you in the Southern Argus…”

John paused and looked at me. I said: Our Southern Argus? He said: YES!! And then he leaned back with both arms up in the air. YES!! He laughed and laughed. “Somebody knows me! SHE knows me but who was she? I’ve never seen her before and she lives here in Strathalbyn. Up the top of that mountain we were. I tell you that life is an incredible thing!”

“Then I rode out of Devonport and 3/4 of an hour up I went, up another hill and at the top there is a sign: road closed due to landslides. Why the dickens couldn’t they have put that sign at the bottom. The air was like cold crystals up there…. “

“I said hello to my horses as soon as I got back. And THEN I had squatters!!!! Bees, thousands of them, in my own house, moved there when I was away. I tell you that you can never know what will happen next! I moved those bees back out and myself right back in! Now I need something to read until the sunshine comes back.”

Finally, John wishes me a good day and advises me that good weather is coming. A little boy, patiently waiting asks John: but where is your bike? And John tells him that the bees took it.

The little boy returns to his mother in the front room to tell her this worrying piece of news but she is exclaiming over a Hunger Games trilogy, bound in pink, orange and lime green and she tells him that the books are just so cool and funky. Aren’t they just totally rhythmic! He says: don’t worry mum, we’ll figure it out.

A young person asks me why Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was not written properly.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes and I am aware that these smoky stories are symbolic and too difficult for me but I am bravely reading on. I am thinking that she is funky and cool and rhythmic! I hope I can figure her out but it is doubtful. Luckily, this does not matter.

Dion returned to say hello and make sure that the shop is still ok. I said that all is going well and he said: except the weather.

Alex told me about the Persian Army and also about his Toyota Corolla. Then he recommended that I pursue a fabulous historian called E. J. Hobsbawm who wrote The Age of Revolution: Europe from 1789 to 1848. He said that this was riveting history.

I am asked for Positive Imaging: The Powerful Way to change Your Life, Wolf Hall and Lark Rise to Candleford and any books on ants.

Matt told me that it is getting harder and harder for him to find the books he wants to read. He said that he only likes books about paddocks.

I commented on the new five dollar note and the customer said: yes but it’s still only worth $5.

In the other room there are three older ladies, they have come in from a bus tour and are busy amongst the detectives and crime and I can hear them. There is a raised voice: “…it’s just a suggestion…it’s JUST a suggestion…for God’s sake…”

At the end of the day there is a woman here. She stood for a long while. She stood twisting and twisting her hands. Then she turned to me and said she didn’t have time to read but she read a vampire book the other day. She even turned the telly off and read the vampire book and it was so good. It was such a relief to read about vampires and be on another planet where her parents did not have cancer. Then she thanked me and left even though I did not do anything for her.

A customer tells me that his is moving from history books to gardening books. He is doing this because it is time for a change.

I think about the vampire books.

Photography by Joshua Hibbert