What readers do with books in a bookshop

It’s a good sign when people come into the shop with eyes that zing straight to the shelves. Cannot focus on much else, and they scan the Covid app backwards, without looking at it. Kneel down immediately, in everyone’s way, to look at a  small dark red volume of Cranford. Holding it gently as if it were alive, which it is.

Children stand and look down, one finger resting on the book they look at. They read the title out loud, many times as though testing it. Which they are. They stand on one leg and wrap the other leg around the standing leg as though this gives extra information somehow. Which it does.

Young men in backpacks kneel and bend easily, squat and yoga their way around the shelves, tapping paperbacks on their chins while thinking. Young women tip their heads to the side and ponder, tap the paperback on one wrist as though assessing its reliability. They say to each other, ‘Look at THIS.’

Old ladies frown and bang books on the table, expecting the same sort of strength that they are now made of. Old men shuffle and jingle coins in pockets and hesitate to ask me about Clive Cussler in case they are a nuisance. They aren’t. Young people sit cross legged and gaze at rows of books in awe, in love, in a mood to plan a library, in a passion to read the great people. They pull out volumes of poetry and plays and hold them open on laps, frowning, wondering, but who is T.S Eliot…they read lines out loud in whispers, pegging themselves to greatness without realizing it.

Some readers fan through a book with their thumbs, looking for…what…? Other readers turn a book over and over, test its weight, gaze into its face, rub its spine, read the back, the front, a page about halfway through, add it to their pile where it lays flat, smiling.

Others cradle books in their arms, stack them down by ankles, hold them in armpits, balance them, wipe them for dust, turn them around and around, squint at the contents, sprint to the counter to pay. They photograph the books, argue about them, check them against lists, smile delighted, look disgusted, bring them to the counter and argue about their merit. Tell me to find them, buy them, post them, get them, for God’s sake read them, read them, read them!

So I do. I try.

Photography by Rubee Hood

The little girl who is planning a magical library with hidden bookcases

It was busy today. I don’t know why, just a usual Friday with ducks on the road. I had to dust all the shelves. There was a tiny nest in a hollow in the dust where I usually park. In it were two small hopeful blue eggs. I parked carefully so not to disturb. Over the road people are slewed about on the lawns with cans of coke and paper bags.

A mother came in with her two children. An older boy in sunglasses and earphones. A younger girl in a blue sweater. They bought a stack, and one choice was a leather bound volume, The Complete Shakespeare in black, gold, and toffee. Heavy. Gold edges. I said, ‘Who gets this one?’, and the child answered, ‘Me’, as if I should have known.

I was impressed. She volunteered nothing more. But on the way out she turned back to me and said she was making a library in her bedroom. It would have hidden shelves. One shelf would open because it was actually a door, and inside, another room, and in that room another shelf would open because is was actually a magic door, and in that room another magic door, and in that room another one….

I sat back stricken with envy.

Image by Elina Ellis

The old couple trying to cross a busy road

It’s hard out there. There’s more traffic outside my shop now. There’s a bus stop, a train station, a bakery and carpark exits. Endless rushing to somewhere. This couple held hands. They wore similar bright red shorts, running shoes and white t shirts, and she carried a bottle of orange juice, and she led him. As they made their way through a gap in the traffic, she led him. They were not fast, and several cars had to slow down, one to stop altogether. The man looked at his wife, stared at her face as she led him along, and although there are horns and hurrying all day long, nobody sounded their horn at them, or otherwise insisted they hurry along.

Painting by Benjamin Bjorklund

The family on the footpath and the mystery of the keys

There’s a parked car outside my door. It’s hot out there.  The passengers of the car climb out to meet the passengers of another car parked up the road, out of my sight. They meet up outside my window and mill around, talking and shouting, and swinging bags around; then they abruptly part because there is a problem with a bunch of keys.

‘Dad’ is holding them in his open palm, standing at the back of the car. Another man, younger, moves close and looks down, and there is a discussion with their heads close together. The older man shakes his head, no, no, no. The younger man turns and raises his eyes at another man who is standing against my door. I can’t hear them. It’s too windy.

Two women approach from the other car and look closely at the keys. All the men move in again. Intense discussion, shaking of heads. One man makes a phone call, and as he lifts the phone to his ear he is shaking his head.

An old lady is helped from the front seat of their car by a teenager, and she moves close to the group, not smiling, not hurrying. Everyone realizes this at the same time, and there is a tiny movement of surprise,and then they all move apart and look down at her, kindly. She says something and nobody answers, and then she takes the keys from the older man and puts them in her cardigan pocket. The teenage girl turns away from the group with her shoulders raised, grinning, and puts one hand over her mouth, and I hear her say, ‘Yes!’

Sculpture by Will Kurtz

Child reading

It’s a summer day, but cool outside and blowing rain. She’s in here. She’s silent. Such silence: her hair a polished curtain which swings once. I can’t see her book. She leans over the page. She leans back and gazes up at the page. She sits. Swings her feet. Stands thinking. Replaces the book and selects another one. Stands thinking. Her mother returns to tell her there is a magnificent dog outside, a wolfhound, a real one, a beautiful one, and the child shakes her head, the curtain of hair sways, the mother withdraws.

Stands thinking, sits, reads.

Christmas when you’re little

It was always really good. There was snow and lights at night even though the days were 42 degrees and leaned sideways to get out of their own sun, and it didn’t get dark anyway. Santa came in a front end loader down one end of the wide dusty main street where I lived. The front end loader was a sleigh. The sleigh must’ve landed on the beach. The reindeer were resting in the stables at the back of the bank. Santa was real even though all the farmers standing on the edge of the pageant made out they knew him.

We had a school concert and sang, ‘Turn on the Sun’, as loudly as possible, and the teacher said, ‘Not so loud but very good’, and looked tired, and we were told to wear orange T shirts for the concert, and one kid wore green anyway. And at school, we made coloured cellophane stained glass windows that always looked magical even if you messed up the glue and got told off for taking more than your Fair Share of the slipping cellophane that drenched the world in hot emeralds and lemonade and made the teacher not be there.

There was always snow, snowmen, lanterns, bonfires, and mice that delivered peanuts. We decorated the classroom with paper chains made from brennex squares from that cupboard, and the teachers talked in the corridors, watching their classes through the doors, ‘Four days to go, ladies,’ and us kids kept on snipping away trying to make the longest chain which was always won by Jennifer, whose dad was a doctor so that was why.

I got a copy of Heidi, from my Nanna, brand new, and I lay on the couch willing it to not disappear. The decorated tree caused sickening sensations because it was behind a closed door, and only glimpsed if the door was snapped open, only giving the mind an overheated look at broken rules, ‘You at that door again?’

‘I’m not.’

We drove to nativity services in all the neighbouring places because my dad was the minister, and we went past paddocks and farms and silos and sand dunes, staring through the car window at the impossibly black blue sky with too many stars, scoping for the sleigh which was following our car anyway, too close to be seen. At the little peninsula churches, the warm stone sitting comfortably against all the hard work, the back hall all lit up with the people making food, the tree decorated with their paper loops that were not as good as ours, and the service that you sat through waiting for your name called so you could go out and get a Christmas stocking that might have the glory of glories, a bubble blowing kit. It did. And the carols piled up massively with that many voices, and no one said, too loud to Silent Night, and all the adults quiet for once. And the nativity, the real hot blowing animals, the sheep with hooves that dented your ears, and wise men wearing magic genie colours and proper shepherd’s stuff and a baby doll that was ok, and Judith as the Mary (her again), and the stink of it all, and it shot through your body and your mind making it into your bones so you always had it in you, and you looked for it every Christmas.

‘Come on, we’re going home now.’

‘Can’t.’

Trying to get at the lamingtons, knowing you’d get another one because the minister’s kids always did. And beating Susan, whose dad had the bank who had the reindeers but so what.

Next year, all again.

Softly, softly past the bookshop

Softly is what the footsteps are as the walkers approach my windows. I can’t see anything, I don’t hear anything – and then they burst across the glass in swinging lines and elbow angles and singular bobbing heads, and there are swirls of conversation bits that all go upwards.

‘It was like, fifty bucks, on the sale section. I was like, yeahhhh.’

People walk past in rows and clots. A slow plodding adult will be followed by totting small shapes with softly moving spokes; I see their eyes flash enormously at the wooden cat in my window.

‘Quickly, come on…’

Bright orange blooming briefly against the glass indicates workers moving and eating and reading phones at the same time, even while crossing the road. They stop and start and spill soft drink.  ‘You got my keys? Troy, where’s the keys?

Once a lounge cushion was thrown out of a parked ute which then backed over it and drove away, leaving the cushion to be flattened again by the bus behind them. The bus driver looked out of the window and shook his head, not smiling.

A still shadow means someone has stopped and is probably peering in. A lady once stood writing the names down of the books in my window, but she didn’t come in. She kept biting her lip and frowning to see the titles.

Large groups are usually heading somewhere together. They darken the whole window and deafen even the traffic beside them. They make jokes, ‘Look, Joel, there’s a book about you here.’ Everyone looks at The Dork Diaries in the last window and exchange a bit of laugh with each other, then move on, anticipating the pub. The Dork Diaries will be hilarious then.

Older people go steadily and stop often and turn to each other to talk, sometimes for a few minutes. They check bags and tissues at the same time. They rarely check a phone.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. I heard her say that…she should stay there is what I think.’

‘It takes all sorts.’

‘Well I suppose that’s true in its way…’

This moving activity, like a single day-length message, never ends. It is endlessly comic, delicate, and alive.

Sculpture by Jurga  

The tall kids

…came into the shop this morning in a group, supple and swaying and swishing all about, looking everywhere before settling in front of a shelf, or being caught by something – as is wont to happen to young people; they go from shivering everywhere to absolute stillness. Then they talk in half murmurs and bits of sentences, and their friends answer back the same way, and nobody minds. They are young, and they can relax all their muscles, not needing to leave any limb still tense with yesterday’s banking. They fold their hands and their lips in the same way. When they leave, they thank me over and over and look back to make sure the door is closed properly.

Image by Pascal Campion

The Father and Daughter

He sat and waited patiently for her, who, like all reading children, took the necessary time. He sat in the only chair here, patient and alert. She chose and chose. He leaned back and yawned. He flexed his hands and looked at them.

He stood up and browsed for a bit. She read on the floor with her nose resting on her knee. He flexed his patient knees and turned to look at her. She was reading. He yawned and waited and looked at her again. She was reading.

Then she stood up, he swung round, and they came to the counter with her two books.

Suddenly he asked me about a book – but he couldn’t remember the author. He hesitated and thought. Then he said, ‘I’ll just look it up.’ The child, hugging her books close, leaned backwards. Her back is a slender wand. She is looking at the roof, but her eyes swivel and regard the father. She has a small smile.

We can’t find his book. We search the internet but cannot find it.

Then they leave, pass through the door and go back out to continue their life.

Painting by Darren Thompson

Kindles are better

A couple came in, and he said to me, ‘But don’t you think Kindles are better? This is what I do. I go to the shop, see the book, look it up and download. See?’

 He raised both hands in the air to show me how simple it is. ‘See?’ His wife looked at me and said nothing. He shrugged his shoulders up and down to show us easiness and simplicity.

He went on talking about kindles. His wife moved over to Art and knelt down to read. He walked around, relaxed, commenting here and there. He showed me a book (Sherlock Holmes) and said, ‘Look at this.’

I looked at it, and he said, ‘Would anyone want this?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’

He nodded, ‘Ok.’ Then he said, ‘I like to read but I want to save space. See?’

I did.

Then I said that I liked kindles, I admitted to using the kindle ap, which delivered me recently a rich and full copy of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. When choosing buses and bus routes, I search for the longest slowest path to the city so I can be with Isabella and see how she recruited her health in Japan. After all, I may need to do this too. Anything that delivers literature, I want. I want a kindle.

He was polite, ‘That’s good. But what I do is…..’ He told me some more incredible things.

Then his wife came back with an enormous pile of art books, and said, ‘Here, get these,’ and he quickly pulled out his wallet and paid for all of them; it was a considerable pile, high and aching.

The Letters of the Great Artists, heavy and boxy and seductive, was on the top of the stack. It took up a lot of valuable space in the world. In it, Claude Monet complains (in a letter) of old age. He slashes a canvas because he cannot reach the high notes of the colours he needs to reach. The book is a deep scornful red with thick cream pages done by Thames and Hudson (with 150 plates, 51 in colour) and a delicious bitter coffee stain stamped on the satisfying last page, As usual, I look at the buyer darkly. Maybe I should have kept it for myself. I am likely to never see another copy. I slash at my canvas because I cannot reach all the books I need to hold.

She marched out with her books, and he followed, checking his phone for reasons to feel better.