Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

What I did in the bookshop today

Shelved vampire books. Sorted the Cat Warriors. Put the biogs back into alphabet. Gave Robert a mask because his got lost. Bought a pie. Ate it crouched against a fence on the way back from Pestka’s because it started to rain again.

I listened to most of a furious theory of a one world government, which the teller didn’t finish because I put Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit through the speaker as a soft drowner. It worked. The angry person moved their head backwards in a slight duck movement. This is because Gregory Porter sings jazz, and jazz is already angry.  Liquid Spirit outranks any other noise; it is organized.  It pricks at rich rage and lets it all out with brighter and more useful colours.  The arguer against masks and government, who is actually a really nice (and tired) person, looked at the dictionary they’d just bought and said that it was a really good dictionary. Then they nodded a couple of time, and they nodded in time to Liquid Spirit. That’s ok; how can you not. Whatever they are, it’s probably me, too.

Another man near us began drumming on his book. He’d been looking through engineering. He tapped his credit card on the books. In time. And banged his books together. In time. How can you not.

Some kids roared past the window, going back to school? and one of them yelled, give it back you fuckhead. Well, why not!

The other person left without finishing their story. It wasn’t that they were wrong.

It’s just that Gregory Porter tells it a different way.

Portrait of Gregory Evans by Colin Able

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.

The stuff we find at home when there’s time

I found a tiny plastic box with tiny library cards that I made for my dolls. There was a tiny pencil and erasure. There was obviously no greater outing than the public library. So my dolls must’ve gone there and borrowed stuff.

I found a large mandarin coloured glass ball that my brother dug up in our chook yard and gave me. He said it probably had something to do with Merlin. I tried to glue it to the end of a long slender piece of wood, but no amount of aquadhere would do that. But what can you know when you’re eight years old. Except that I wasn’t eight. I was about fifteen. Weird.

I found an old diary with “I wish I had a boyfriend” on the first page. But there was no one interested in me, except maybe useless Merlin who didn’t even bother to turn up. Bastard.

I found a little jam jar full of pebbles from Lake St Clair in Tasmania. I found gumnut cups that I’d kept as proof that the Banksia Men were real. I found three matchbox cars and a cloth bag with a coat hanger about one inch long. A daughter made that. It was to hang up  a mousie’s jacket.

There are marbles, nappy pins, pieces of glass, pencil sharpeners, memory sticks and nail files. A man made from a cork with clothes glued on and a nail coming out of the top of his head. A box of little fragrant candles too valuable to use. A jar of sapphire blue glass too beautiful to give up. Photographs. A tiny metal duck. An essay written by a 7 year old about why we should never give pins to babies.

There’s a glass jar filled with strips of paper carefully cut out. On each one, a thought printed in black pen. It was a birthday gift. I pull one out:

“Dear mum, thank you for the glasses gene.”

There are cross stitch kits, embroidery books, mosaic instructions, packets of seeds, knitting needles, a long stitch kit never even opened. My mother saying, ‘Finish something.’

There are about 12000 books.

Have a clean out. Declutter. As if.  

The reds

I put small shelf of reds in the front window. It looks good. It looks warm. It’s just a random selection of reds.

People go past and it catches their eyes. Their heads swivel so they can look at the shelf as they walk past. Finally they are looking at it over their shoulders.

Somebody said, ‘That’s nice. Did you see that?’

The books are random, chosen because they are stout. The one on the end is Les Misérables, and people know this one. They read the title out loud. They are walking past, and they stop and lean in and read it out loud, ‘Ley Miserabels’, wasn’t that a film? Pretty sure it’s a film.’

‘My brother’s read that.’

‘Ley Miz.’

‘ God. Imagine reading that.’

‘Want to go in?’

‘Na. Already got too many books.’

‘You do.’

‘Get fucked Ryan.’

‘My God, babe. Love you.’

I image Fyodor listening in from Russia and enjoying it.

Some people stand and stare at the books, silent. Then they walk on.

Some people come in and pick up the books and examine them closely. Then they say, ‘Thanks’, and leave again.

Once a child ate a bag of chips outside, staring at the shelf through the window and nodding and nodding at the books as he ate his chips – as though listening to music that nobody else could hear.

I imagine the books lit up at night when I’m not there. Catching the midnight pedestrian and shocking them into walking properly. Forcing motorists to slow down as they drive past and stare into the window at Fyodor Dostoyevsky who sits burning on the end of the shelf, still troubled by his death sentence and six years in a Siberian prison camp. Maybe it shows.

How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Regarding our own stuff

They are becoming too many, and I know I won’t be able to read them all. Think about that. Why did I get all these? But this is only some of them. Why are book collectors so mad? What it is? Where’s the grip?

My library. It lines every wall. It’s on fire. It swells and shrinks, puckers and protrudes; puts ankles in the hallway, spills books onto the beds of grandsons, ‘What’s this Nanny, it’s got bees on it, it’s got rips in her, it’s too heavy, it’s not my book, it’s bent, but I didn’t done it.’

My library stands with its spine against all walls, shoulders back and watching the family drama. It breathes out. Books land softly. They are trodden on; they brace their cardboard ribs and make it through.

‘Who’s Arthur Ransome?’

‘The Lakes. Heap of kids in a boat. Fabulous.’

‘Is this racist?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Whose this?’

‘Jamaica Kincaid.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Nanny, I saw Paddington.’

‘What’s this Mrs Pepperpot?’

‘It’s mine.’

‘It’s not.’

‘Should I read Margaret Atwood?’

‘Yes.’

My sister bending strongly and in no mood for argument, examines my shelf of Terry Pratchetts. She finds something that might be hers. She straightens up with an accusing face. It is hers.

My dad returns my copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Tea Tree Gully Library.

The grandsons have a go at Asterix.

‘Mum, read Nevo Zisin. Because you don’t get it.’

I read and read. Everything implodes, and my library rocks back and forth holding things upright for me, knowing

I still have my mother’s collection of Monica Dickens. I won’t let it go. It’ll come with me. Which of course it will. Once, a customer, Robert, said ‘all the books come with us, my God, they do.’ Imagine not reading. But I can’t.

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson