Nice little bookshop

That’s me. I heard it spoken as people walked past the bookshop this morning. They walk so quickly I don’t get to see them. I just see what they think.

He said, ‘Nice little bookshop. Amazing that it’s still going.’

And somebody answered, ‘True!’

I think, well, maybe not so amazing.

Back to Mark Twain. Somebody wants his autobiography – the University of California Press edition in three volumes. As if I could find that and then let it go to someone else!

A group of four sweep past the window. They are all talking hard.

A lady says, ‘Is that sexist?’

He answers, ‘I think so.’

Seven teenagers in a row, loud and clattery. Bent underneath school bags. They are all talking too loud for me to hear it, but I do hear:

‘Uluru. It’s Uluru.’

Then they are gone.

Back to Georgette Heyer and Harry Potter. Back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Back to Marcel Proust, Alice Munro, and Irene Nemirovsk.

The door opens and a man leans in and looks at me, retreats abruptly, closes the door. Ok.

Back to Patricia Cornwell. Back to The Odyssey.

A lady I know comes in. ‘How are you, my dear?’ I’m not coming in. I just want to know how you are.’

A man tells me all about The Barossa Valley.

Another man wants to know all about Clayton.

Back to A Gentleman in Moscow, which I have stolen from my own shelves.

Painting by Carol Marine

My books at home

Many people ask me about these. So here they are.

I have books in every room. I started collecting books at age seven, but I don’t know why. I now have about twelve thousand books. I am going to read them all. They are shelved by colour.

They were once shelved beautifully in alphabetical order, but when I moved the shelves each country lost most of its citizens. Now Terry Pratchett sits next to Margaret Atwood and does not mind. The histories and books of immediate interest are shelved bum down and pages up so I cannot see who they are. I don’t mind. The children’s flats are out on the floor, hundreds of them, where the grandsons squat and lean over them, point, and shout, and drop bits of ginger biscuits over the pages. The books lay there flattened, creased, and joyful. Every single room has shelves of books. Once, a friend’s family gave me their library, and it lives here, has braided itself amongst those already here, Russian history and Judy Blume, Greek Myths and Harry Potter companionable every night.

One room has a shelf with books that earned a place there because of their colour. One must be bright and weighty. Thus the Cairo trilogy is there. Also Carpentaria, and a set of Trollopes in peacock blue, a fat boxy collection of striped world classics and Geronimo Stilton, that wondrous mouse and his sister, Thea, even more astonishing. Another shelf is of books I’m going to read. This is a good category. It has 954 books.

One shelf is all red. One is books from when I was young. That I’m still going to read. I have a guest room for guests. It has literature and guests are expected to read it if they are still sober when they go to bed. Books dressed in leather have a shelf. Old stuff has a shelf. Books too big to shelve have a table. Books I am going to part with have a wall. These have been there for twenty years.

Books I just got have a chair. This has become two chairs, and here is where I carry books home from the shop in case customers get them before me. I look at these to remind myself that I have a problem.

That child

This child came in just on closing. Entered by herself. She was carrying an enormous chocolate muffin, holding onto it’s rear end with a paper bag, and she walked at me, like herself, her own walk, with an orange drink, and another paper bag full of clinking coins. She stared at me over the jumble, holding the end of my afternoon gaze with bright direct and unalloyed eyes. I had to sit back and reassess. I looked for a parent. She didn’t.

Her hair had escaped the morning’s organisation, framed her head in soft snakes, as alive as she was, ready to strike at my disinterest. She said,

‘Hello.’

I answered, ‘Hello.’

She hesitated, and helped me out, me, the one needing assistance.

‘How’s the bookshop going?’

I said, very well, thank you’, a limping answer like the ones from my childhood when I used to be questioned about school.

The child was kind. ‘That’s good. Is cash ok here?’

She stood there looking directly at me, not breaking the stare, the chocolate framing an active oval around her mouth, her hair poised in spikes and loops, her eyes dark and joyful, hopeful that I would allow her something.

She indicated her paper bag of money with gratitude. That’s good, I was worried, I want a bookmark, that one, that sorting hat one. Today at school there wasn’t much to do, so I sorted the whole school into all the sorting hats, and I knew who to put into Gryffindor. It’s easy. Do you know how to?

I said I did, hoping she wouldn’t know that I didn’t.

She was delighted and rattled the paper bag of money. The chocolate on her face gleamed. Her hair relaxed but still watched me. She said, thank you for the shop, have a good day and afternoon. She struggled with the door, keeping the half-eaten cake upright, the orange drink calm, and her overwhelming face fixed straight onto mine, slid out, was gone, a spark of something, gone now.

The kids and the bookmarks and the owls and the cats

Jen Betton (2)

Two young children came into the bookshop with their father. They were on their way to visit their mother. The girl, who was nine, read Harry Potter. She liked magical things.The boy, who was 11, read biographies and books by authors from other countries. He chose I am Malala. Then they chose some bookmarks. Their father said that he didn’t read, but these two, they never stopped.

The children bobbed about and spun; they liked cats, too. And owls. And reading. Plus balloons. When she had finished reading all the Harry Potters, they were going to watch the movies, but not all in one night.

They were hungry. They cradled their purchases and crowded out the door. I could hear them reminding their dad that they were all going to watch the Harry Potter movies. He was nodding, saying, yes, yes. They stood in the doorway to watch a bike go past, and the boy said, ‘I love that bike’, and the father said, ‘You love everything.’ Then the father and the son looked at each other, and the boy held his book up, and they both laughed.

Artwork by Jen Betton

Do you have any books on sharks?

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Three children and their parents. They carry the books around, reading as they walk, reading out loud, spotting something else, kneeling down to see. Wondering and thinking, do we need it, have we got it? We do. We don’t.

Look at this.

Seen it.

Look at this.

I want it.

Three Harry Potters make it to the front. And then a book on sharks that they asked for and stood over, pointing and discussing, and which can’t be left behind. Very good.

Dad comes back, he just ducked out to the 12 Volt Shop (he said), and now has a good look at the selections. Very good.

Then they all muddle out, bumping and swaying, which is how you walk when you read at the same time. (Very good).

The little boy who looked through the window

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They were running past the window, a group, against the wind and streaming. The little boy, about six, darted at the door, bent low to look through, his face for a second right against the glass, fogging up, owl’s eyes, not blinking. He disappeared behind his own breath and then tapped the glass and flew away.

But he came back. His face, pressed to the door again, was all eyes and ideas. His family must have stopped and come back because somebody, suddenly, opened the door and in he fell.  There was a little sister with rainbow gumboots just behind. She put one finger in the air and said, Harry Potter. Her brother, breathing hard, said, book two or one. I gave them the books and they took them under a table to have a look. The parents drifted.

It was getting darker, quieter , and it began to rain.

There was a young woman here that afternoon, too, who sang while she searched for books. I remember the children gazing at her shoes, and then looking at each other. She didn’t know they were there. She sang on, they drew up their knees and hugged their hiding place, the parents drifted and outside, it rained on and on.

Artwork by Rebecca Dautremer

Reading in Winter

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Louis came back.

He wanted Marcel Proust, Alain de Botton, Jared Diamond, Karen Armstrong and Saul Bellow.

Louis walks slowly but reads fast. He has parked some way down the street and later, I help him with the books, pack the shining bundles into the back seat with the old suitcase and the eggs. He says, thanks very much, indeed, yes, for the winter reading. I love winter, it’s for reading. I’ll get that Shakespeare out you know, it’s been put to the back again.

As though his library was alive and doing things behind his back. Which they do.

When he arrived, he had stopped at the counter and breathed deeply a few times. He always does this, he says it’s to get in the stride of things. Of reading, which is active, chaotic and shattering, especially if you read like Louis.

He says I talk too fast. When I said, here are the Primo Levis you wanted, he says, wait, which ones are they? I’ll tell you why I wanted these. He tells me a story of reading and love.

When I say, here is the Botton book you wanted (about Proust), he says, oh yes, now I need Proust of course. Wait, tell me more about Botton, is he Swiss or French? He sounds French. But I heard he is British. I heard he is amazing. Remind me.

He also reminds me not to talk too fast.

He wants to read about Gandhi. He wants the best biography there is. He says that biographers are artists, artists of the world, artist of us, we MUST consider them. He lists  all the biographies of Mahatma Gandhi he has already read. It sounds like all of them to me. But it isn’t. It isn’t enough: there is another. He holds out his hands, making a cradle that rocks gently, perfection.

I agree, I will find it. He says, there is always time.

Then, finally, he turns to go, but only after an interview that detailed Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, (The Gnostic Gospels), A History of Water, who wrote that? Who wrote The History of Insanity? I saw it somewhere. Tell me about Barchester Towers, I saw it as a series, had the guy from Harry Potter in it, brilliant. Is it a series? I tell him it is, thousands of pages, a commitment, and Louis straightens up, tall with joy.

He will go home, lit with passion, for reading, for history, the earth, mistakes, insanity, water, salt and sand, Gandhi, why and when, how.

 

 

Twirling

Duy Huynh-www.kaifineart.com-6

There is a little girl here and she is 8 years old. She has placed a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on the counter and is twirling slowly around and around, waiting for her sister, waiting for her father, waiting for her grandma. She tells me that she can fly.

But her younger sister, who is 4, is causing a consternation. She has rejected every book her father holds out. Though he is hopeful, she still discards every one. It is easy to think that a small child will read any book. This is wrong.

I think that with reading, with stories, in libraries, in book collections, wherever the books are, there is always someone searching, someone concluding, someone triumphant, someone refusing and someone twirling, who can also fly.

Artwork by Duy Huynh

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

The Ideal Reader

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A fisherman from Kingston came in looking for Terry Pratchett and told me that once he bought a Terry Pratchett in Mt Gambier. He said the beach along the Kingston coast is a mess but that is the fault of developers and the council. He said that Terry Pratchett would have said a thing or two about that! Hahaha! I agreed with this and he went out very pleased.

I remember one morning this week, a man was waiting for his small daughter. But she had found The Lightning Bolt by Kate Forsyth and this book is book five of The Chain of Charms series. She was about seven years old, kneeling on the floor to read the book and her father was moving impatiently. His work boot nudged and toppled Animalia and she rebuked him silently with a lifted finger. He stared through the window, rattling keys, obedient. Suddenly she stood and showed him the cover; she was radiant and suddenly, so was he.

A man said that his hallway was lined with bookshelves and it was the length of a cricket pitch. His wife said she did not think it was this long.

I have finished with the Edith Wharton and I read the best stories in this book twice over so as not to miss anything. I am not reading anything else, not yet, because the story Mrs Manstey’s View will not let anything else in.

I was asked for Batavia by Peter Fitzsimons and Secret Servant: The Life of Sir Stewart Menzies by Anthony Cave Brown. This reader told me that Nagal’s Journal, which he found here last time, is the best thing he has ever read. He said that the diaries on the ships, as kept by the captains are the best reading there is. He squared his shoulders and stood back to see if I might disagree.

Three teenage girls were talking and talking. One asked for Sherlock Holmes. She hopped up and down when she told me how much she loved Sherlock Holmes. But sadly, I had none. She said: imagine this, imagine Sherlock Holmes in hardback. I really want to find this…Oh my God.

Her friend said: look at this, I am so into this. Oh my gosh guys. What will I do? Oh my God, I am going to have this.

What is it?

It’s Harry Potter. They all bent over the volume, close together and suddenly speechless. They whisper: it’s a hardback, it’s in another language. Oh my God. They place the volume on the counter and look at me dazed. She says: I collect them. Then they left, leaning on each other, hilarious, rapt.

A tall man in front of me examines the Wordsworth classics and is intense and frowning. His wife is amongst the Art. He leans back; as usual there is nothing for him! He returns to Art but his wife is not finished. She says: I’m not nearly done. She is frowning now too; he moves away and she stops frowning.

One man was intent upon the histories. Then he came away abruptly from the shelf and regarded his son who was texting angrily outside the front door. He said he might come back another time. He closed the door politely but also angrily.

I was told that Dick Francis wrote better books than his son. A lady told me that her fifteen year old grandson loved to read fantasy series but she was going to buy him a biography of a yachtsman instead.

A very tall and smiling man bought Martin Chuzzlewit and said that Charles Dickens had the most extraordinary way with words. He said he was reading them all, he did not like Bleak House but the rest, just marvellous indeed.

I have only read two books by Charles Dickens and they are not easily forgotten. I told him that when Daniel Quilp drowns in The Old Curiosity Shop I was glad! He said: yes indeed!

Two men together were talking about their teenage sons. One man said that his son would not show him how to use the remote for the television because he learns too slowly. His friend said: hahaha.

They asked me for a copy of Watership Down.

I was asked for books on card tricks and a young girl showed me a plaster dragon she had just bought from the goodwill shop. I was asked for the Wind in the Willows.

A man said he had a lot of time for Willa Cather. He asked me had I read her. I said that I planned to but right now I am with Edith Wharton and he said …AHHH…and he looked very happy. He told me that when I get to Willa Cather to read Death Comes for the Archbishop first.

I am floundering and falling amongst all of the titles, all of the must reads and the best reads and the don’t miss reads. It is a good way to be.

 

“The ideal reader is the translator, able to dissect the text, peel back the skin, slice down to the marrow, follow each artery and each vein, and then set on its feet a whole new sentient being. The ideal reader is not a taxidermist.”

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader by Alberto Manguel