Everything for eyes

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There’s a lady here at the shop choosing books for her foster daughter. She is piling up a hopeful stack, a rainbow lot. Actually, the lady is all colours herself. Crimson, blue and garnet and lemon; this is her dress.

She describes the books she needs. Fantastic, romantic, historical, significant and beautiful. Not rubbish, please.

And her hair and her shoes, and her bag and she… swirl, keeps swirling from shelf to shelf. Everything offers something for the eyes, a dazzle of glass and hope and a foaming of light from the skin of the sea. She keeps adding to the pile, colour upon colour, her razzle raspberry hair warming the shop. I am drinking the colours, thinking of mandarins and deep richy hazelnuts and outside lavender, delicate, rough. Then she is standing there, ready at last. Choosing bookmarks to go with the books, and then, unapologetic for the richness of her presence, pays and leaves, ink, silk, burst and gone.

Artwork by Maia Ramishvilli

My Friend Peggy

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Is not doing so well. I went to visit on Tuesday.

I remember when she first came to the shop. Irreverent, outrageous.

She has still read more than anyone I know. When I first met her I was surprised at her interest in science fiction. Her other interests are crime and thriller fiction, but across her long life she has read a staggering amount of other things. I always try to find something she hasn’t read.

Sitting there on Tuesday in her clean, blank room I brought up The Jewel in the Crown. She’s read it (but will read it again). I had brought her three other books; one fantasy, one crime (this pleased her) and a thriller that she said would be rubbish. I took that one back. There was a stack of crime on the white unit next to her. She has read all the Game of Thrones, she rushed them, she said, not wanting to die before finishing them all.

She said she wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. That she couldn’t get any bars on her phone; when she tried to get outside, the doors were all shut. She asked me to get her a door code. She wouldn’t mind a glass of wine. She said they made her get up and do stupid things down in the dining room. She asked me if I’d come back. She thinks I am going there for her sake. But being with Peggy sustains me!  I’m there for both of us.

She complained to the staff about the cup of tea that never came.

I remember her telling me she always carried books with her for the boring places, like church and the opera. She thought nothing of reading during any event, if it was boring, she would read.

Peggy only has one eye, a doctor once made her a glass one, produced it triumphantly, but she threw it in the bin. She said she had one eye and would stay that way.

When she lived in Woomera, her (ex) husband burned her library.

When she was a child, she spent a long time in an orphanage.

She thought she was ugly. She isn’t. She is striking, tall, spectacular, a bonfire.

She described a good day as one reading, at the pub, on the reds, a roast and a pile of paperbacks, and her. She was comfortable to turn her back on everything and read… so how come she always saw everything.

But now she thinks I am only visiting her out of kindness. But I’m not. I’m there to warm myself. I complained to her of all the work that I have to do at home, unappreciated, no peace and quiet, no end in sight, etc, etc.

I saw her listening to my litany of self-pity, saw the sun break through on her face, saw the grin. She was pleased with the never ending work, my sulking and self-indulgence. She was hungry for real.

I warmed myself for as long as I could and then went home. Have to find some more books for her. Not Lee Child (rubbish), not the classics (Oh God, no, read them all). Something real.

Artwork by Isidre Nonell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ladies on the corner

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There is a commotion on the corner outside my shop. I am out emptying my bins so I can observe. And I will take my time.

There are five ladies there of a brilliant age. They have met because they were going to see something. But it is gone. It has been shut down.

I linger, cleaning my windows, taking part. Because, what has been shut down?

One lady is too close to the road. She is holding forth, outraged. Her handbag is livid. Because, it’s been shut down. She looked at each friend, until the disgust had registered on each face (which it did) and one friend said, never mind it Sandra, there’s plenty of other things to do.

One friend said, get back from the kerb, come, you girls.

One friend obeyed.

But Sandra, with the angry handbag, uses it to indicate the entire town. What’s the use of coming here then? I ask you. Strathalbyn.  It’s always been here, that place. It’s the council as has done this.

Let’s get a cake, I’ll have a tea.

I wouldn’t mind a look up High Street. What about the gallery? Is that still there?

It’s the council. It’s typical. They don’t care about people. That’s it.

Check the brochure.

But the ladies remained knitted in a tight and useful square, too close to the road and unwilling to navigate the pattern of a new plan. The traffic edges wisely to one side.

(I don’t want to go inside, it seems dull. The discussion is small but it is an opera. And their facial expressions are scorching the failed council, which, as usual, is never good enough).

One lady is called Mavis. Her shoulders are urging the bakery. She has a fabulous hat of scarlet felt. But nobody listens. She turns so magnificently that the others pause and check for offense. Then they all move away from the edge of the road and look unwillingly through the window of the bakery. They look in a critical and unforgiving way because it will not suffice.

(They do not see me, or my shop, or the traffic. They only see each other, they make eye contact with each other’s eyes because, despite the years, these are still brilliant, smoking with ideas and resources, scornful and powerful.)

But they are moving on now and I have to go inside. It’s cold. They are not interested in my shop; they haven’t even looked my way. But there they go, moving up and down as they walk and checking for handbags and outrage. I hope they find something wonderful to do to replace their plans that were so thoughtlessly ruined by the council.

 

 

 

 

 

Alone

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This morning, when I am unlocking the door of the shop and balancing books and tasks, there are three friends waiting there, leaning, waiting for another friend who is at the bakery. They wear school uniforms but not of the local school. They are all watching their phones. The missing friend arrives while I am setting up, he carries a guitar case. One of the boys says to him: are you playing tonight? And he answers, yes, but not basketball. The other boy leans backwards and angles his phone as though to take a picture of such folly. He says, you are man! You have to play. The boy with the guitar says, I am, but not basketball. Playing this, by myself.

Artwork by Pascal Campion

Russell Brand

ef8e2ee1f30d43b52e6b0c477ef666dc.jpgThere is an old man here leaning into the biographies while his wife searches for something significant in the spirits. She calls it exactly that, the spirits. She told me later that what she hoped for was some useful reading in numerology but at this stage does not know where to begin the quest.
Her husband does not say much, he spoke to me about the weather and the dust and then turned back to the biographies. He is looking at a biography of Russell Brand.
His wife returned to ask him what he has found and he silently holds up the Russell Brand. But she says, well, we aren’t reading that are we…
He doesn’t reply so she slants in silently, moves in on the shoulder where he is not expecting an approach. She says briskly, not that book! And he, weaving backwards in alarm, farts loudly enough to wake the dead (this would please Russell Brand no end) and hurls the book back onto the display, and she backs off in disgust and they leave abruptly, purchasing nothing, and leaving me with numerology and Russell Brand.

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

…and then he just threw everything into the creek…

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A customer told me this: when he was young, he read all the stuff in school. But his cousin, his good cousin, he didn’t read anything. Well, they are still mates. And his cousin said only the other day: why do you read stuff Rob, you don’t need to read, all you need to read is just one instruction book man, like a manual, like the engine manual of your car man, life only needs a couple of instruction manuals.
Rob told me that on the last day of school, long time ago, they were going home and he had in his school bag all his stuff, all his books and that. And he has kept them all until this day because he loves them, even the book on how to type, and the book on how to spell and the book on how to do other stuff, BUT his cousin, he threw all his stuff in the creek.
When Rob told me this story and told me about the part about the creek, he looked at me and we both thought about the books in the creek, the slap against surface, the heavy sinking, the triumph, yes! And everyone thinking, yeah, free…whatever…
Rob said that he kept the books on how to type. He loved those books. He always saw things a bit not like the others and all that.
Now he reads and read many things – he is reading Faction Man because he is not sure that Bill Shorten is all that he’s cracked up to be, reckons that that guy never had a proper job yet. He should of worked at MacDonald’s or something and leaned how it is. That’s what reading books told him about: work a proper job until you are despaired of it and then you can get famous. But if you don’t work a proper job, get your hands black and all that, go home owning nothing except a bad job then you’ve no right being in government and that’s why they are all wankers.

That’s ok, all my books are valuable to me…

Frank Donato

This little boy, 10 years old, came into the shop carrying a copy of Lord of the Rings under his arm, a bright red paperback with a bookmark about half way though.

He asked me for a copy of The Hobbit and I had one but it was an illustrated hardback and more expensive than the paperback reading copies. He told me he is allowed to spend his pocket money however he wants and he wanted that one.

His mother and grandmother stood back, wise, allowing him custody of his own reading life. They beamed over him their generosity and grace. Once his mother said: he’s read everything, he makes his own library. They said they did not know where this reading thing came from. They did not claim credit for it themselves. This is unusual.

He told me about Watership Down and The Little Grey Men. He asked for Goodnight Mr Tom and wondered if I knew about Tarka the Otter He wandered around and around, smiling at the books, happy with the choices even though he had read most of them. When he walked he kicked one leg up in front of him in a rhythm, round the tables and shelves he went, nodding his head at the books he knew. Then he saw a book with a pirate ship on the front, a blue one with a beautiful sapphire cover. I explained the book to him but he was not interested in hearing about the book, he only wanted to hear about the story. I said, this book is also a book to hang onto, it is valuable…

He said: I know, I know, don’t worry about that, all my books are valuable to me…

 

Illustration by Frank Donato

 

 

 

 

When Sarah Visited the Shop Again on a Cold and Dull Day

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Sarah came this afternoon to pick up her Faber Book of Love Poetry and a copy of David Copperfield.

She said she has a shelf this big full of books as yet unread and it was time now to get stuck in. She looked pleased as she thought about this.

She talked, as she always does about how her mum read all her life, and how it was when her mum died and how it is now and how she, herself, once bought a costume and wore it, walking around the block on New Year’s Eve which outraged her friend and scandalised the neighbourhood.

She said that she has always been a one for standing near the edges of things, and that most of the time she’s had no choice.

She spoke disapprovingly of the Liberals, of Telstra and of Tony Abbott and described her bitterness against Jetstar, whose online booking system is a disgrace.

She said: I’m glad you’re open, it adds a bit of colour to my days, it does.

And this is a bit like Sarah herself, a survivor on the ragged, steep edges of things without a trace of self-pity, armored only with individuality and a love for classic literature and political biographies. And she adding colour to my day.

Soon she announced that it was time to get on home and sort the laundry. She promised to return and tell me what David Copperfield is actually like as there is no point in going by the movie of it. And she left with her books carefully packed, swinging the bag and herself through the door, into survival and the rest of the day.

 

 

Noah and Max and Christmas

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Noah and Max are under the Christmas tree.

Max emptied the lower branches days ago and Noah gazes through the empty spokes with interest. He accepts an angel to chew. Both babies can now sit on a firm base with no toppling, they have crushed the nativity under their bottoms, they have pulled down the silver tinsel and it is their first Christmas. There is so much to do.

Wrapped gifts are, as yet, dull. Those smooth surfaces offer no angles or handholds, they contain nothing that can be seen and therefore nothing that they want.
An emerald green bauble that hangs from a branch, however, holds movement. And also light and shine that keeps changing. It has a promising surface that can be tasted. There is often an accompanying spoken warning which is predictable and comfortable.

The wooden Santa that contains another Santa inside it and yet another inside that is delightful. One piece can astonishingly go inside of another piece and come out again.
There is a bottle of good milk lying nearby which nobody wants.
It is possible to pull the loop away from every hanging element so that they can no longer hang at all. Max can jolt a decoration downwards with superb strength, it knocks him backwards and he must rebalance each time. Noah sits close by, supporting the work, a team.
It is hot, there are lists of things to do, there is still a week until Christmas, there is complaining and rushing and not enough carparks.
But Noah and Max are travelling Christmas from a stronger position. Willing to be grazed by new ideas, able to breath in colour, calling for contact and exchange, uninterested in efficiency.

Max is discarding each broken and lovely decoration to one side, he is sighting up the tree, reaching for higher profits, still out of reach. Noah is examining each shape consistently and carefully, tasting the edges, processing the contours, understanding the value.