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