Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part three

But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.

The crimes and thrillers start a weird kind of line dance with revolver displays that nevertheless looks dull.

The Text Classics, in a grid of hot yellow, perform a dance with neutral expressions. Janet Frame, Arnold Zable, Boyd Oxlade, Patrick White with a slight smile, stepping and side stepping and stepping, not agreeing, but at least stepping.

Groups straggle forward, looking nonchalant, looking for a gap.

Joyce and Proust, in different groups, passing back to back, palm to palm with the next dancer.

The McCarthys moving carefully around the Hellmans.

An FBI History and Charles Bukowski eye each other. The Bukowskis move to a different bar.

 ‘Listen to this, boys.’ It was Cubanisimo!  It prepared a sentence, opened its covers to read aloud. Everyone cheered. They all liked the Cuban, who waited for quiet.

…and I went my way, which means preferring nights to evenings, choosing night instead of day, living by night and squeezing my memory, I mean my life, into a glass with ice or into a negative or into memory.

There was a pause. The dancing continued slowly, but heads and book covers were turned toward the Cuban. There was the chink of an icecube into a glass from somewhere in the shop.

‘Thanks Guillermo,’ someone said, and everyone cheered again.

Now, a set of Great Journeys coming through. Shouting, having their first drink, consulting maps, checking Trivago, a journey always on the horizon. James Cook and Mary Wortley Montagu arguing ‘There will be no hunting pigs in this dance’. Olaudah Equiano looks at them both, says nothing. The Yutangs smile as they pass, impassive.

‘Look at the Thrillers, Eastwick. Every day, a brilliant story.’ The classics were back on the counter, breathing too heavily in my ear, becoming annoying. ‘Thrillers take you West, further each time. But so what! West is a cliché.  It’s East where we want to go. Look at the Virginia Woolfs. They’re drill bits, boring East in search of the truth. Think East, it’s sunrise. God, Eastwick, have you read anything? You know what Woolfy’s doing now? She’s writing a biography of herself writing a biography of all the biographers who’ve attempted to write a biography of her so far. And what’s Tom Cruise doing?’ They all snigger, looking at the Lee Childs, who are trying on bowties.

‘It’s not Tom Cruise,’ I said patiently. ‘He doesn’t write books. Its Lee Child.’

‘Eastwick, we know you’re going East, we saw you reading Helen Garner.’

I look at them all. ‘What will you do, all of you if I have to close? There’ll be an auction.

‘Well, actually some of us are staying. We all love Thai food.’

‘You don’t need me.’

‘Never did. Sorry Easto. We’re made of writing. Indestructible. Go read like hell and write your shit.’

‘Well, I’ll see you in the morning.’

There was no answer. The books were moving around me. The shop was all horse, flanks, and hinges, spinning and reeling, smoking, coughing. They were putting out chairs, tables, moving the smoke machine, setting up a market.  

I moved slowly to the entrance, pausing at the door.

‘Why the buckets of water?’ I ask.

‘So we don’t catch on fire during the party.’

‘Who’s on duty?’

They looked toward the buckets. The Greek Myths was on duty, leaning over the pails, gazing rapt into the pools at their own reflections.

‘God, they’re useless’. The New York Reviews shot off, rising furiously in the air to dong the Greek Myths back to the present.

 I left them to it.

Burlesque.

To be continued…

Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part two

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

An hour later I found a crowd of  books clustered around a YouTube video. They shooshed me. They were watching a demonstration on how to build a perfect guitar pedalboard.

‘What about the dance? Are you still doing it?’ I asked.

‘We’re doing it, East. We’re downloading Spotify.’

The Dickens collection had formed a considerable troupe and were ready to practice. ‘Here come the Dickies,’ everyone always said, whether it was Oliver sprinting across to the Beast Quest games, or old Pickwick waiting for the pub to open. Sometimes Charles himself came out, usually with Ackroyd, leaving together furtively, to avoid the vulgar Americans.

The Antiques and Curiosities were lining up cautiously, with bow ties, dusty coats, and mildew on the collar. Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers were setting up tables and arguing over a three sword centrepiece.

They all watched with thin faces, a Barry Oakly and a biography of Stephen Fry being sold.

The place was getting hot and busy and smoky.

The French women had set up a discussion table. Sagan, Sarraute, Beauvoir, Reza. They smiled graciously as the Canadians passed by. The smiles hardened though, when the Canadians had moved on, I saw that. 

The fantasies were stringing lights. The biographies had started drinking. The craft sat in silence because the main lights had been dimmed, and nobody could see their instructions for scrapbooking or how to make soap. A fountain had been found at the back of Art. ‘Who the cuck brought in a fountain?’ The Skulduggeries were dragging it out. ‘Cool. Get in’.

They argued over music; it was too loud, too strong, too low, too dark, not cultural. They wanted Spotify.

‘Gentlemen, we have Spotify’.

‘No we don’t, Maugham, the account’s been fucking locked.’ There was a collective and dismissive curse on technology.

‘Perhaps everyone can just dance their own dance.’ This from the Atwoods, I sat up to listen.

The political biographies moved in speechfully but were hushed by basically everyone. An Australian autobiography offered some kind of infrastructure promise and was told to fuck off out of it.

The Saddleclubs stood still with mouths open and ponies reined in, silent. They were called out of it, too.

But there was an unlikely agreement, fused out of fatigue, alcohol, and fear (of the Atwoods).

I soothed the political biography, and he said, ‘We believe in women too, of course.’

 I said, meanly, ‘Indeed. Although the menopause is a difficult time of course.’ I saw his eyes flicker upward. Hermione Lee was up talking with the Greers on the front table. They looked down. I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t.

Some books could not get a place in the dance.

No one liked the ex-library books much – this was because of the mess of stickers and tape that covered them.’ Sorry mate. Not in our group.’

The Ian Welshes laughed too loudly. They jumped too high and hard. They were embarrassing to dance with. Samuel Pepys, a massive biography, sat taking spiteful notes on everybody from the ugly angle and called for beer and oysters every ten minutes.

In the back room the Westerns had eased themselves around a small fire. They listened to music coming from the Natural Histories who were putting together The Dance of the Chiasognathus Grantii, which was some kind of weird stag beetle. The music came at them like chimes through smoke. They began to talk.

‘The thing is, I was normal. But did my father have time to look at a kid? No.’

The others looked out and away to give privacy. They stared into the firmament.

One shelf above, a lone book stirred, an Edward Abbey. Said nothing.

‘…and what have you ever done except murder all the losers?’ This was History, climbing down in an ordered line, harping at each other all the way.

‘Endocrine, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal….I could keep on but I don’t want to bore anyone…’

‘Neither do we.’

‘In ancient times, reading was one of the most….’

‘The witch is here; the witch is dead…’

‘Begging pardon my lady.’

At the counter, the little science fiction paperback had returned, was talking again, ‘We won’t end. Even pulping doesn’t end us. Look at old Gilman Perkins. There’s five of her in here. Look at Mockingbird. Can’t end her.’

To the Lighthouse was on the counter with me, lying on its back and writing, writing, writing, to the beat of a migraine. It said to me, ‘Did you know that manuals on life always subside after the preface? There’s a reason for that.’ Bang, bang, bang. I could hear her migraine. Still she wrote on.

But meanwhile,  the front room was not doing well.

The Algonquin group of classics was being forced to come up with their dance plan.….and they had to do it sober. They sat, sullen, not even one useful verb to be had.

Someone was on at the piano. The books had ransacked the music shelves and dragged out anything with music in its title. They had found a pianist. The music was coming from the top of a shelf, a beautiful little piano by the sound of it, and a cello, that ran barefoot and lightly underneath and then over the notes of the piano.

There are books gathered up there. I can see them listening to the piano.  A copy of Cards of Identity, gazing away into some unknown basin of solitude.

The German classics, dancing, elegant despite their rectangular suits. They bob and dip, a court dance, touch hands, exchange longings, move out again.  The others watch.

The Saul Bellows sitting back, shading their eyes from the melody, and needing a drink.

Someone shouted, ‘Piano Man, play Piano Man, man.’ They are getting mellow. As usual they then begin to discuss things.

Jeffrey Eugenides held forth on The Pilgrim Hawk. He likes books with animals in them. He says, ‘Wescott has courage. And in the morning, I can only open one eye. Also, a dog got to me once.’ He repeated this three times.

I pictured a dog eating the book, biting into the soft ideas inside of it.

But the Murray Bails liked The Fish Can Sing. ‘Iceland is perfect, he said.

But someone answered, ‘Who wants to read about that frozen slab of geyser holes?’

The Murray Bails became bitter. ‘You are all afraid of Iceland.’

The Kenyon Review suddenly opened its covers. ‘Serendipity is no accident.’ it shouted.

‘Shut up Friedel.’

‘That wasn’t Friedel, that was Butler.’

Nobody liked being corrected. The conversation broke up.

Poetry and Plays were still arguing (because Poetry has more shelves). There is nobody else in the store even remotely interested in this conflict. Mostly because they can’t understand anything that the poets are saying, even in an argument. On the way back to the counter, I saw the Shelleys, sitting on the edge of the sea, smoking and not taking part.

The Shakespeares have joined the conflict. This always causes uneasiness because everyone claims to have read Shakespeare, and this makes any argument risky. When Robert was here once, sorting through Astrology, he overheard the Shakespeares quarrelling. Robert said, ‘Good on you all. Fuck Centrelink.’ The Bard was immediately interested, and they had a long dark discussion in the corner.

‘Look at the Lemonys. Aren’t they adorable!’

I stood up. The whole set of Lemony Snickets was moving into the middle of the room, into a square formation, Hostile Hospital at the front.

 ‘STOP!’ commanded Hostile Hospital. ‘You are all wretched. You are all woeful.’ They continued on, happily.

‘Weird!’ Said Salinger. ‘But I like them.’

‘Great dance guys!’ This from the Vladimirs, who have painted themselves black. They are pleased, and in a mood to be kind. Vampire books were selling well.  The other groups looked at them blankly. ‘Can we even see you?’

The horse books were dancing in dressage under the window. Very impressive. I went to have a closer look.

‘Watch it East, they’ll trample you.’

‘Thank you, Philip. But they won’t. I tell you that horses can dance”.

“Not these ones.”

The horse books stopped and announced that they are heading for the lodestone. There was an uneasy pause – this meant the greatest book in the shop. It was agreed that there was one, but not who it was.  

The horse books all turned in a single movement and cantered over to Pinocchio. Most of the books in the shop, I knew, had read Pinocchio, and still remembered Pleasure Island.

‘Carlo Collodi you old….’

‘What are they playing at! Bloody little Saddleclubs! They haven’t even read Pinocchio!’

And then Ibrahim Nasrallah stood up and said, ‘God made horses from wind, my friends.’

 Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is a beautiful book, dressed in gold, cinnamon and black, a wrought iron spine, and always with a layer of fine clean sand following its leather shoes. The other books came forward, made to shake hands, backed off, move in again.’ Hello Ibrahim. Nice coat, man.’ They all nodded quietly, ‘ok, man’. Nasrallah smiled and moved gently over to examine the horse books.

We are, I thought, a perfect representation of lust, gluttony, loneliness, sand, aggression lunch and nomads. There is nothing from life that is not in here. No wonder it was so hot in here. We will be thrown out one day. There had been nine customers all day.

A few Saddleclubs, forbidden to take part in the dance, have moved sulkily back to Young Readers. I see them angle in behind the Enid Blytons to take off makeup and change clothes. Obviously, the riding teachers have forbidden certain outfits.

But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.

To be continued…

Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part one

I always liked the word burlesque. I thought it meant a horse when I was little because it sounded smooth and flanky, with nostrils somewhere and legs on hinges. Like this book shop. All angles and legs and flared outraged noses. I first read of a “burlesque” when I was fourteen. It’s a type of show, one that is provocative, comedic, and distorted. In the book I read, somebody danced one in protest against a ruling establishment. Something about it made sense. They danced it as if they were a horse. And it trampled the thinking of the day.

Is this story inside or outside of my head. Is it distorted? I wouldn’t like to say for sure because I work in this bookshop by myself.

There’s an alcove directly outside the door, a dip in the shopfronts where people stop to search bags, answer the phone, eat food. They look through the windows and say things:

This place won’t last.

Doesn’t look like a bakery to me!

Sandra, get a kindle.

But when you come in, it’s beautiful. The books are lined up, tight, obedient. They look organised, oblong rows of colour and form, table sales of language, literature, and scorn. But really, there’s no obedience in a bookshop, and nothing lines up. 

The books here are spiteful little bastards. They are self-centred, arrogant, and alive with gossip. They are shelved in such dense slices that I can smell them.  They call me ‘Eastwick.’ I know they also call me ‘Updike.’ They think my husband left me and I let it go. Keeps them predictable. There’s 18000 of them, and it’s hard to stay in control.

Each morning I clean up from the night before, fix the counter, check the shelves, rewrite the signs, and make sure each section has gone home.

I hear the books talking behind the customers’ backs as they enter the store. The customers tell me about Their Best Book. From the shelves comes sniggering and derision. Sometimes the books come out of the displays and do a physical imitation of the customer, legs up, elbows out, a mini burlesque of the eager reader.  Everyone cheers. They topple deliberately, high dive into a customer’s nerves and drown the day. They encourage the encyclopedias to put out a hip, cause a fall – they have a tally for injuries. The winners have their name put onto an old library card which curiously, the entire shop regards as some kind of holy relic.

The classics are the worst. They think they have the most experience, are derisive of every other genre (this is mutual), and they drink too much. In the morning, I hear them coughing, and as soon as the first customer comes in they start on what they know about that customer, which is nothing.

But now we have a new problem. My lease is ending and my anxiety about this dilemma is not shared. The books don’t care that the landlord may have a new, more lucrative client. But they should. Especially as each book also has its own anxiety – that it hasn’t been sold – which applies to every book still here. They call out to each other:

‘Are you sold?’ This is vindictive.

‘Wyndham’s been gold sold.’ – this means traded or swapped.

‘Keneally just got dumb sold.’ – this means discounted.

To be thugged (or stolen) is the highest honour.

‘You’re sold.’ This is ‘congratulations,’ but said so mockingly that the receiver wishes they were unsold.

They call the landlord a ‘Scudderless Old No Read’, or ‘Moby Dick.’ When he came to fix the door lock, the shelves rocked with high pitched invective, the anthologies loudest of all. The anthologies here are called tradies. This is because when you talk to an anthology you never know who will answer. You have to ask, ‘Who’s saying that? Who’s opinion? Which author?’ The tradie will say, ‘That was James Thurber’ or ‘Ezra Pound’. Or ‘Cynthia Ozick.’ Finally they’ll say, ‘Who fucking cares?’ Sometimes the tradies get witty. They say, ‘Enid Blyton,’ to everything. Then they want me to get them a beer or a gig.

The books, as a collection, are openly contemptuous of people who come in with other books to sell. They call out, ‘Go back to your own place. Not enough jobs here.’ They hate people who ask for discounts, ‘Get out, you bloody riptides.’ I am never sure what these insults actually mean.

One day a young reader bought twelve horse books at once. They lay in her arms, breathing warmly, whiskery with happiness.

The others watching with curled lips of derision.

Today, I have ideas of my own. ‘Let’s clean up and look good. A tourist attraction. We need a good month. We don’t want this shop becoming a Thai takeaway.

The books become interested.

‘What sort of takeaway? Genuine or that noodle box shit? Eastwick, got a menu?’

I am disappointed. I sit there. I tell them that the world thinks the days of books are numbered.

‘What will you do, Eastwick?’

‘Write. Write about how none of you give a shit.’

‘Why not! Do it! Put me in it’. This hooting came from the classics who were drooping about, leaning over the edge of the shelves, examining their leather shoes, and looking for trouble.

The Henry James stand up, regarding me. ‘Literature cannot end, Eastwick.’

‘Shut up Henry, you old bookend.’ It was H. G. Wells, behind him, a copy of Boon, stiff with delight.

The Henrys step back, outraged. The European classic paperbacks begin to cheer and chant, to taunt the science fiction, and push each other from shelves. The Steinbecks begin writing. The Encyclopedias begin to drink.

‘Why do you call me Eastwick?’ I asked the Wordsworths, who were filing past into the back room.

‘You know.’

‘No.’

The Witches of Eastwick. God, do you read?’

‘Not that. Have you?’ (The classics all claimed to have read everything).

‘Saw the film. Liked Cher in it.’

‘Still don’t know why you call me Eastwick.’

But the Wordsworth were moving on, heading to their editing class. They had been told it was healthy to cleanse. It was actually a writing class. I’d helped write the flyer for Carmel Bird. The Wordsworths thought they would show these Australians a thing or two. Once I heard an Upfield ask, ‘what’s Langley doing?’ And the Wordsworths said, ‘Picking Peas.’ Then they laughed unkindly, until silenced by the Tennants.

It was already late morning. A few browsers. I imagined myself without a bookshop – this bookshop, that the books referred to as trade school. Preparing them for life. ‘Not an academic life’, they said with contempt, ‘A working life’.

I said, ‘you don’t work.’

‘We’re not labourers, no.’

I ask, ‘What are you, then?’ There was a chorus. I suspected they been on the internet.

‘Powerhouses, Millwrights, Riggers, Tools, Marble setters, Commercial pilots.’  The Fantasies called their vocation Magnetized Pointing. The young readers were all going to be Pirates, or Jon Snow. The encyclopedias, already rinsed in gin, did not see themselves with a future. They did not see any need for this conversation either. The art books refused to answer. The poets were quarrelling amongst themselves.

‘Where’d you get this information?’ I asked.

‘We are the information. Information is everywhere, Eastwick,’ they said, as if I had just said it wasn’t.

 ‘A Gale is Blowing in From the East.’ This was shouted from the Travelogues in the next room. The Classics leapt up in delight. The Travels were always good for illicit alcohol and a few other things. There was an exodus.

The yoga books began to chant. The Biographies went on with speeches, research and looking out the window. The Spike Milligans told the Yogas to shut the fuck up!

When the shop was busy, I could still see them going at it, regardless of customers. Fighting, running about, organising demonstrations, meetings, strikes. Cocktail parties, Comicon announcements, and today, a dance.

‘What sort of dance?’

‘A burlesque.’

I was startled. Had I said that out loud?

‘Not appropriate at the moment’, I said. ‘We need to be serious; we need bookshops. We’re dying out.’

‘We won’t die out. Although you might.’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

There was no reply. They were all busy.  The Fantasies had put out all the shelf lighting because the Vampires were trying out a play. At the front, C. S. Lewis, and Dr Seuss, smoking pipes and criticising even though the play hadn’t started yet. The others all ignored me and began arguing amongst themselves.

Strangely though, there were three customers who could see them, and hear them; Robert, India and Dave, and there were certain customers that silenced them; Glenda and Morgan.

When Glenda comes in, there’s a pause. This is because she wears dark glasses. They can’t see her eyes. The Joan Dideons look at her and smile and lean against each other. In Poetry, the Anne Sextons nod, yes. Glenda. The classics are still and quiet, uneasy, unwilling to be clever. Glenda says, ‘Oh God,’ and they all shuffle slightly, hoping she is talking about them, which she isn’t.

When Morgan comes in, the biographies (near the door) shout Ancients as warning. This allows the ancient histories to get organised and display themselves to be sold. They stand tall, flatten stomachs and lick at turned down pages, aiming for the big turntable, or, in their words, a proper library.

I learned later about the bribes offered to door books to give a signal for certain buyers. I also learned of the resentment toward the no foes, or the Fucking Ciceros, which is considerable. They tell the penguin Ciceros that they deserved it (to die). They say that Morgan is Moving On and wants Russian history for now on. The Russian histories stir and try to sit up against last night’s vodka but can’t.

When India is here, they all stand to attention, straight with chests powerful, stretching their narratives until the muscles give way. India is kind. She strokes their spines and murmurs, reading their backs out loud. She is thirteen. She chooses books with strong women. She loves Pippi Longstocking and Tiffany Aching. The Viragos look at her with approval.

Dave, they make fun of. They don’t like his anxiety; they say he is Wrong about Art. They don’t like his shoes. Dave is mostly glum, his life as a psychiatric nurse has bled him dry. When he comes in he says, ‘Restore me for God’s sake’. He says, ‘Writing is for what you can’t say’. The books agree with this but just don’t want him saying it.

Robert, they watch carefully. Sometimes I see them twitch with admiration. I am not surprised that Robert can hear them. He lives on the outskirts of the appropriate. On the edge of a lake, in a rental, without a car, a phone or the internet. He has a staggering library. He has read everything. He is writing a definitive work, a history that will expose the source of all evil, which is Moses. He will also bring down Centrelink. He knows the CIA have him under a radar and he has been the victim of magic attacks, twice.  I like him so much.

One morning he was kneeling down in Ancient Histories, hunting for a copy of Western Asia, India, and Crete by Bedrich Hrozny. I didn’t have it, and he said, not to worry, he knows the government are hiding these books. The Ancient Histories gaze at him in amazement. I look at them, noting their interest. Robert came over to talk to me about Marie Louise von Franz. He steps over a pack of Connelleys and Baldaccis leaning against the doorway, and says, ‘Watch out boys.’ They nod, and keep smoking, eyes thin and ready, looking around for the next murder.

The books, although careless of their future, were fastidious with their insults.

‘Eat your kids, here comes old eat your kids’ – to Johnathon Swift, who pottered around, deep in thought. He called them all ‘filthy lawyers.’

‘In your raft’ – to Colette, although said with a respectful tone.

If I ask, ‘Where are the Whartons?’ They yell, ‘In bed writing.’

They called the Coleridges, ‘Old Kublas.’

They called Mazo de la Roche, ‘The Whiteoak Madam’, or ‘Madam Sixteen.’ She is popular though; all the Canadians are.

They called Virginia Woolf, ‘Landscape.’ Landscape upon landscape of dreams ideas pain life and breathing.’ This had been said to her in a drunken moment by the Fitzgeralds, who had been uneasy about it ever since. This is because the Woolfs were best friends with the Atwoods. The entire shop was careful of this women’s group, who could silence any of them with one considering eye.

Once an old lady went past the window very slowly. She was completely bent over. The Atwoods, who were down browsing, looked through the glass. So did everyone else. Looked out at the entire life that was being carried along. The Atwoods bowed. Everybody else, including me, also leaned over, making our own small movement of honour, to her, the old lady passing my window, carrying fatigue and a Woolworths shopping bag.

But still they wanted a Burlesque.

‘You ought to be serious,’ I said.

The classics were going out, it was nearly lunchtime.

‘We are serious. We’re everywhere. There’s no map on this planet we’re not on. We’re inside your shop, but read us, and out we go. The classics were gathering and swaying and shouting and stoned, like a weird dried out paperback version of Woodstock.

The art books, who were hanging around doing absolutely nothing, were tired of the classics and now wanted their stroke. They called the classics, ‘jam jars.’ This is why I had shelved them away from each other. Only the De Bottons could calm them all in a fray, but the De Bottonswere busy tending their website and couldn’t help. So the art books commanded the lit to clear off.

The classics clamoured through the door, shouting, and aiming kicks at a pram parked in the doorway outside. They liked Strathalbyn. There are four good pubs here and some decent coffee places. They were all, except the health books, into good coffee.

I know they often jogged down to Jeff’s books. Or to the booze shop. There was a work experience student at Jeff’s Books they liked. I said, ‘thanks for abandoning ship, guys.’ They said gently, ‘it’s not a ship Eastwick, it’s a bookshop. And their shop is better.’

I said, ‘there’s such a thing as loyalty.’

 ‘Whatever.’

This from Hunter Thompson who is always nursing a hangover. Later he will stand at the bottom of Vintage Beverages and shout for the cocktails to wake up and get on with it.

‘We’ve done some improvements to your shop though’, said Art. This was true. The Westerns had even tried gun twirling demonstrations until I had put a stop to it.

‘It’s not enough’, I said glumly.

‘Maybe get rid of…’

‘Let’s not go there again.’

Each genre thought itself the most significant and enjoyed advising me on which collection should not be here – shelf stealers. There was once an ugly scene in war history when the French Grammar decided to take one of the war shelves. Eventually Crowded Hours got told to back off and was flung from the cupboard. Was told he had a crowded arse. They had all looked at me sulkily – deal with that!

They played a game called Bolt which I didn’t like.

Chanting always precedes a game:

‘There was movement at the station,

For the world had gotten round,

And the BOLT from old Egret had gone away.’ Chanted faster and faster

On the word bolt, the participants dashed for the centre and collided front on. The fallen are then dragged out to be reglued. The David Attenboroughs run about taking notes and interviewing the losers. Today would be a short match because the Asterix books were lining up.

 I said to the Atwoods, ‘This shop is a story.’

They agreed.

‘But I may have to close.’

‘That’s also a story.’

 ‘Why do they want a burlesque?’

‘It’s for balance. Burlesque is an interlude, a jolt.’  

‘I don’t get it.’

‘It’s what art does. It’s what literature is for. The nudge. The jolt. The lightening – the bolt. We would die without it.

Weeks ago, a young mother browsing instructed her children to purchase Christian books only. Not C. S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll (who was a paedophile). There was a hoot of laughter from the shelves. I looked up sympathetically. The Sendaks were leaning over, pretending to vomit. They all loved this because they loved difficulties and controversies. There was nothing (they said) that could not be written about, nothing that is not already in a story. This included the end of books, a story that all the books here weirdly loved.

They also adore commotions in the street. They rush the windows, hopeful for a fight, and there often was – over the carparks. Today one motorbike had taken the entire space. The books rocked with the potential of it.

‘Look at that fuckhead’, said a copy of The Clockwork Orange, limp with admiration.

There were more annoying Classics milling around the counter.

‘No matter what East, we’re serious. Burlesque is serious. We make everything serious. If a burlesque isn’t serious, it’s to make something serious. You’ll get it. Time to get going.’

‘Are we going to the desert?’ This from a little set of Spiderwicks playing on the mat and listening to everything.

The Antiques looked down kindly. ‘No, little fellows! But I suppose you mean Ayer’s Rock!’

‘What’s Ayer’s Rock?’

‘God, do you kids know anything?’

‘We just want to look at Uluru.’

A Pascoe came out of the back room.’ Everyone ready?’ There was a galloping from the front room. Droves of young readers, novels, flats, and vintages crowding for a place in the line.

‘Where are they going?’ I imagined the art gallery or the visitor information centre across the road. Education.

‘Across to Woolies. Doughnuts.’

 ‘Burlesque is science fiction too.’ The sci fi who had spoken from behind the classics was young and hopeful. He continued, ‘Burlesque, the dance – this is what science fiction is ALL about.’

‘NO it’s not. Get out of it you bloody little silverspines.’ I looked at the shouting classics. They looked at me looking at them and slid out of the door, suddenly in a hurry as though late for lunch.

‘We’ve done everything in our genre,’ the science fiction paperback said softly to me.

‘You have?’

I didn’t read much science fiction myself. He began to list everything.

‘DNA. Done it.’

‘A history of witchwork? Done it’

‘Utah. Done it.’

‘Salt? Done it.’

‘Is that meant to be a summary of the world? Because I like it,’ said an Oscar Wilde Complete Collection in One Volume who had been listening from one of the counter shelves. It leaned down kindly, ‘Don’t listen to anyone.’

‘Oh, there’s more,’ the science fiction book said carefully.

‘There always is,’ said Oscar Wilde.

Although always claiming contempt for science fiction, the classics were always hanging around them, borrowing their devices to look up old quarrels, best seller lists, and Wikipedia to find the mistakes. They all claimed to be big in the digital underworld. They were all best friends with biographers. They loved iPads with those glowing clean clickable entries. They loved all devices except the kindle which was boring. Who wants to read!

They all knew every cliché in the book and what page it was on. They said this warily though, out of hearing of the older classics who claimed to have no clichés, and from the women’s lit who actually didn’t. But for some reason, be still my broken heart, raised respect throughout the shop. They all argued authorship of it.

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

…to be continued

Tonight

I bought Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond on Ebay for no reason. It’s for myself, a Folio edition, slip cased. I need it. He wrote a lot of books – Barchester Towers the most famous, and the funniest. Apparently the stories he set in Ireland, like this one, were not so popular. I must find out.

But when it arrived, I couldn’t get it unwrapped. It was covered, smothered, tied up in brown paper, string, bubble wrap sticky tape, more paper, more tape. Took me twenty minutes to strip it. But then, there it was, the captain, in black and gold, coffee and cream, the pages smooth. The words, mine. The slip case has strong shoulders, the book came out grinning.

Tonight.

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