How many, maybe twelve

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

It’s not often so many readers visit me at once. But this group came in, swooping, nodding. Young people reading. Oh happy Saturday.

Swaying, hoping and asking the shelves…. ‘Have I read this?’

Stooping and thinking, shaking heads, no, no. Not that.

Magnificent sunlight conducts the outside of the shop. But is irrelevant. It can stop trying now.

One girl has piled books up, carries them around, keeping order with her chin.

There is a phone conversation. Giving directions. Head back outside (not happily), and shout to someone in the street (fool!)

The rest of the group enter.

Then more.

Diary of a Nobody, Inkheart, Treasure Island, John Steinbeck, Eoin Colfer, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Black Beauty, Kidnapped, wondering, hissing… ‘You already have that.’

‘How many teeth does an Aardvark have, who knows that?’ Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Lost Necklace of Amber or something like that. Someone has lost a water bottle. The light on the darkened windows of the parked cars outside the window dazzles and hurts. Sherlock Holmes. Anais Nin. D. H. Lawrence, Eric Carle.

‘I love Anais Nin. And Harry Potter.’

Somebody is called outside because they have too many books. There is a brief, respectful silence.

Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls….. ‘What’s her other name?’

Are you getting this?

Pride and Prejudice.

‘Do you have Tarka the Otter?’

‘Do you have the sequel to Sweet Thursday?’

They move and murmur, gather and turn. Read on knees, in silence. Gather up the chosen volumes, phones, a scarf, a sister, a book that will  help them read Proust, and slowly everyone is leaving. It is the end of the day and they leave, file out, eyes like jewels.

 

Illustration from The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Errol Le Cain

 

 

Smooth

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‘It’s cold.’

‘No, not cold, it’s just me, I’m always cold.’ He smiled sideways. This young man, springy and bouncy with glasses that were always about to fall off, was in my shop,  looking for any book that is really good.

He swayed from side to side, sighs, smiles. He said he could spend a long time here. He holds a book and stares down at the cover. Doesn’t move. Stares at the title, turns it over and stares at the back. Says, yes.

Then he heard the saxophone.

Customers always take some time to hear the music. The music drops, clean and delicate, down on top of them from a speaker above the Wordsworth classics. Some people stare up at it in amazement. How did that get there? Today, it’s saxophone, and he heard it. Accepted it, as an extended part of the books. A continuing of Pinocchio. An addition to agony, or Primo Levi. An impossible, possible blend of Edward Abbey and Margaret Atwood.

He leaned into the curve of it, eyes closed, moving his ears up and down the shining notes. He said, smooth. He said, Smooth, with a capital S.

He said, ‘I haven’t had lunch yet. I haven’t even had breakfast yet.’

So he left, to get some food. He had red hair.

 

Sculpture by Adam Binder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rome

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There is a new customer here today, a child, a boy who has sat reading though three volumes of Minecraft while his mother is in plays and poetry. He eventually came to the counter and held up the books. He said that his brother reads them but really only looks at the pictures. He smiles at me, thinking  of someone so little as to only look at the pictures.

He tells me that Minecraft is about Vikings and swords and armour and trading. You have to trade. He says that it’s history without you knowing. His face is lit with ideas and kindness, wanting to share, hoping I would get it. He said that reading the Minecraft books made him want to read Emily Rodda and Rowan.

He tells me there are stones and ropes and you have to help yourself, it’s about the old days and it’s clever. Some kids just play it. But you have to know that it’s history without saying it. I know about the history. Then you will get it. You can build with it, build things like Rome.

The Empress

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I’m just going to look in the bookshop.
A woman said this outside the shop, she said it to her family, or perhaps they were friends, but anyway, they were all male and all young except one, her husband maybe.
Are you serious….one boy said this on a note of desperation, his voice slid around on the word “serious” trying to find something positive to stop the downward slide.
I won’t be long. I thought she was calm and good and I hoped she might come in. They had stood for ages in the doorway, they looking down (at phones), she looking in.
Are you serious…this said by another boy, he had headphones and long black jeans that rolled underneath his shoes and were worn away like old matting. He had a black singlet and on the front of this was the word Satan.
Just get into the car. This was what she said next while I was hoping she might come in.
… are you serious… This again from the first boy who swayed back and then downwards, marking the agony of his life right now.
Get in the car. And so, like that, she trimmed the arguments and parted the agony, opened the door and came in and I was pleased. She was serene and upright, pulling the summer in after her and needing nobody for attendance.
Outside the window were her menfolk, family or friendfolk, slumped in a sort of comfortable defeat, dropped against the window, one boy hoisted his shoulder against all new ideas. The headphone boy stood still in his own private response, eyes closed anyway. Another, a third boy made binoculars out of his hands and telescoped her through the glass, his orange T-shirt stained the light, and I saw that his eyes tracked her from shelf to shelf and sometimes he made his eyes desperate  thinking she was looking at him. But she wasn’t. He wanted to go home but she didn’t.
All those boys drifted over to their car and I watched them. The car was parked right outside the shop, it was white, they opened the doors and left them open. There were chip packets all across the back seat.
One boy lay across the back seat. One boy sat with his legs on the dashboard and the other possible brother slowly baked his evening plans, sitting on the footpath.
There was a father too, he was already in the car, was reading the newspaper and not bothering to question the rather beautiful afternoon.
Inside the shop it is cool and nice and she, (the empress), is leaning with Janet Evanovich, leaning against the cool wall, an empress, not hurrying, not concerned with outside.
When she left, much later on, she paused in the doorway and re entered the summer exactly in the way she wanted and all the sons stared at her wordlessly and she stared back at them in exactly the same way. It was excellent.

 

Artwork: Red Shirt on the Steps by Darren Thompson

Rick and Lenore

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Rick and Lenore came into the shop before I had opened for the day: they came in accidently (they said) and stepped over the vacuum cleaner and said sorry, sorry, sorry mate…and kept on going around the shelves, shedding enthusiasm and criticism and telling me that it was going to be a grey old day. Every time Lenore found something of stupendous value she said: Rick, Rick, Rick, Rick there’s more of it ‘ere.
And Rick said: Yeah, yeah, yeah, ha! Don’t rush me, mate.
And Lee stood impatiently, the air around her became impatient, the whole gray day became frustrated until Rick came to his senses, sensed the atmosphere, sensed the danger and said: …all right, all right, all right…mate! All right. Mate!
Then she looked pleased even though he had not yet looked at the pearl she had found, she moved to another shelf, she found Footrot Flats and she said: Rick, Rick, Rick, look what I got… and he kept her enthusiasm and discoveries protected in the same good way while he distributed his own fervour from shelf to shelf with narrowed eyes and a questing face. He found the Westerns, that poor, limp, worn out collection that live near the counter, and he himself became limp with delight and he whispered to himself: God, look at this lot, he brought five of them to the counter, he seemed to bow down with sheer approval.
Well, I’m goin’ in ‘ere. Lee said this loudly, winning back devotion, earning consideration and so Rick came to his senses again.
All right, all right…don’t go on…and he looked pleased.
Do you want to get this, remember we saw the movie…? Remember that movie…. I could of died.
Rick agreed with the movie. They looked at each other and drew the movie around them and they were together.
When they came to the counter to pay for the trembling westerns, Lee said to me that there is a frog shop in Goolwa and there are some real beauties in there too,
Then, like everyone else, they left, taking the Westerns, their movie, the frog shop and their rich, delicious life of they, themselves away again and they were gone.

Illustration by Korean artist, Park Dami

These will last one week

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They are standing very still, this couple who came into the shop in the early morning and she examines the books leaning first on one leg, then the other, still, always still. She holds one book against her waist and reads the back of another. He says something and she looks up at him, stares at him, doesn’t answer, they stare at each other. She looks back down at the book she is holding. He rocks on his heels and whistles a little. She has raised a stack. He looks at her as though she were raising hell and he looks proud, he looks at me to see if I have noticed that life today is a masterpiece.
When they came in, she came in first. She plunged into the books, into the choices, leaving the bright summer day outside easily and gliding in without looking at me. I thought she scanned the perimeters of possibility within a few seconds and favourably too because her face went from holiday to intense. Maybe he recognised the flags because he squared up and rocked on his heels and made ready to carry the world.
He carried some of these books over to me, set them neatly on the counter and looked at me and said: this isn’t all. And they’re not for me because I’m not that clever.
Then he went to retrieve more and suddenly he appeared backwards through the second doorway, just half of him because he was leaning sharply back and he said again: that’s not all. That’s not all – and those books for her will last……ONE WEEK.
When she came out to pay for the books, he was already stacking her world into his arms. And she looked at him with her head on one side, considering something and then they left, and she was leaning closely in with her arm across his shoulders so that they could not get through the doorway easily and had to jostle and wedge and they are nearly dropping the books and he is saying: don’t worry, I’ve got ’em.

You only need to look with one eye.

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Now I am in Melbourne, in the city centre and in a bookshop myself and there are two notable things. Next to the political histories, two men are arguing over a book and the book is about the history of water, it is called Elixir, A Human History of Water by Brian Fagan. I know because after they had left I went over and looked at the book they had left there. There is trouble because both men are expert water historians and also expert readers and they are interested in everything. They left together, they walked with great energy, their faces, unhappy, showing the strain of maybe having to be interested in everything.

The other thing is in the area for comics in this shop. There are two boys there, about ten years old, they are sitting under the display of comics and reading one each, cross legged. One boy said that he didn’t get it. He didn’t get why they sank everything and how come the two main guys lost all their powers. How come that happened? How come they just didn’t take the rucksack with them the whole time? The other boy said that, no, that didn’t even matter, just keep reading, it’s pretty cool how the map comes back and it all makes sense, it’s pretty cool. What you have to do is only read out of one eye, just shut one eye as well. If you read out of one eye, you will get it and see the main things, you don’t have to see everything, just the main small things that you hardly see, like that door and how it points to something. Then he said: when you get to the end, tell me all the stuff you see because I need to know some more stuff to get the powers back, ok? They agreed. They both looked pretty happy.

 

Taylor and Jake

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…are the remarkable remarkables. They heave the door open and gust through, no time for greetings. Taylor considers all books, particularly horse books, Jake considers large books, particularly (today), books about The French Revolution or Madam Pompadour. They sail back and forth in the wind, hailing Grandma who waits on the beach and who greets all interests, all choices, as fine and wise. And so there is no place in literature where these children will not venture, and no shape, proportion, heft, vintage or bay that will stay unexplored. When they call out from another room, they call from far away, because they are. They are wise. They read what they want to read and reject what they don’t. The spread the books out and announce each title kindly for me. Their faces are lit lanterns.

No, I won’t read all of that, I only read bits…

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A lady is offering her husband this book and that book but he doesn’t want them, he says: I’ve no use for that! That one will go nowhere! No, leave it!

Still she keeps trying. Later, she tells me that she isn’t a reader and has always felt bad about it, all she can really do is try and help others.

Soon he brings The Complete Dorothy Parker to the counter, he tells me about the Algonquin Round Table and that she, Dorothy, was the loudest voice of them all…. he said she was great! He also had Ronald Searle and he tapped the cover, kept tapping for a long time thinking about Ronald Searle. Then he told me that he doesn’t read very fast but when he’s on to a good thing he goes like a dream. Then he turned and went back to the shelves where his wife was waiting with a new pile to offer him.

 

You can still see everything…

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Well, he came back to the shop, the man who had to allow his library to go under the hammer at the auction all those years ago.

He came back because he is going to build another library and he chose without hesitation copies of The Mill on the Floss, Tom Jones and Vanity Fair. And when I examined each one slowly to make sure that I could actually allow them to go ( as he had heartlessly chosen the most attractive copies in the shop ) he told me a story about each of these books – he had read them all, several times over! This customer was wearing a knitted jumper with leather patches on the elbows and he leaned on the counter, on his elbows to tell the stories, especially urging me to read Tom Jones which was exceedingly funny. When he told the stories of the story of Vanity Fair  he stood up and held onto his glasses with both hands, trying with difficulty to keep himself anchored on the mere ground which is far too ordinary a place to stand when you are trying to talk about Vanity Fair and Becky Sharp.

He said he now can only read with one eye.

He told me about Middlemarch, Far From the Madding Crowd and Madam Bovary.

He said that reading with one eye or three eyes, makes no difference when you are reading books as good as these. That you can still see everything.

 

Sculpture by Emily Blincoe