When D. H. Lawrence fell

I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.

It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.

But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.

I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.

Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.  

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.

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

A day in a bookshop

A day in a bookshop has pretty much the same shape each time. But inside, the activity is varied, unpredictable, poetic, and never ending. It looks like this:

On arrival, look through the windows and admire own displays. Make note of books that have fallen down in the night.

Before unlocking the door, check for doggy wee on low areas for rinsing off later.

Look through bakery window and see how long the queue is. Dash in if possible.

Hide doughnut under counter. Sweep pavement and chuckle when every passer by says, ‘You can come and do my place now, har, har, har.’

Lights, fans, displays, bins etc. Sort and put out new stock.

Go through shelves and take away anything I might want to read in the future. Hide these. Clean windows.

Talk to customers about trucks, war, cakes, cats, pianos, aunties, injuries, the bank, the post office, children, circuses, glass jugs, crocuses, football, New Guinea, almonds, carpet stains, butter, Mazdas, Samuel Pepys, the geology of Mt Gambier, analogue clocks, ponies, Margaret Atwood.

Take orders, make orders, write orders. Check queue in bakery. Look out at the people over the road lying about on the grass, waiting for buses, fighting, eating.

Dogs go past and wee on the door again.

People go past and knock on the window.

I help people find books and remember books. Make records of all requests, sales, own purchases, losses, orders. Make a note to improve record system. Talk to people about Ken Follett, Bridgerton, and Sinbad the Sailor.

People ask for discounts, credit, free books, the way to Kangarilla, the way to the pub.

I eat lunch furtively between visitors.

On days that nobody comes I still do most of these things, but feel I am doomed.

On Sundays motorcycle groups circle about in groups, revving engines, following each other, and parking together. Then they do it again. Then again.

People demand my Covid square and then jump, embarrassed because it is right there, next to them, on the door frame, at eye height. Other people say, ‘Don’t you put me on that register!’ I try to cater for everyone; it takes all sorts to keep a bookshop going.

Older customers phone for a chat. Teenage girls sit under display tables and talk in whispers. Children walk past my open door and shout at their parents to go in, and the parents say, ‘No, it’s closed.’

I shelve more books. I charge batteries for the light displays using my new Ikea battery charger. I run over to Woolies for another bag of minties.

I go into the back room and stand up tall and stretch because I am getting lap top neck. Come out and watch couples in cars towing caravans arguing with each other as they park.

Phone people about orders I can’t get. Phone people about orders I can get. Answer the phone to people ringing to complain that I was closed when they came here. Answer the phone and hang up again on anyone who, after a long pause, says, ‘Are you the business owner?’

Look at books people bring in for me to buy. Accept books gratefully that people bring in for me to have.

Listen to the pigeons in the roof and wonder if I should tell the landlord about them.

Talk to people about all the books they (and I) are going to read. Watch ambulances fly past. Watch cars honking at the intersection. I go out and ask people to not park across the carpark driveway.

Check the shelves for gaps and make notes of what is always selling. Dust everything. Look at the cobwebs. Clean windows again. Get on with orders and requests. Tidy all the displays, replace books on shelves.

Start to plan the closing process which needs to be sharp because some hopeful shopper always comes up behind me just as I have my bag on my shoulder and the key in the lock.

Clean windows again, empty bin, empty till, turn off lights, bring in signs. Pack bag, exit, put key in lock just as hopeful shopper comes up behind me and asks for just ten minutes, please, please.

Places I used to read

In bed. Still do.

On the floor under the Christmas tree (Heidi, three volumes).

In the car, hoping we wouldn’t get there yet.

During church. Every Sunday. Every service, including during the hymns when I stayed seated not hearing the organ wheezing out the opening sounds, racing though Little Women while everyone else swayed through Open My Eyes That I May See. I was certainly seeing something. When the church goers in the pew behind may have glanced down, they weren’t going to say anything, and anyway, I got the book from my dad’s study amongst ten thousand others, most of which are now mine.  And he was the minister after all.

On holidays with relatives, ‘What’s she doing all this time?” I was reading The Wombles. I wasn’t there with relatives. I wasn’t even in Tasmania. I was with Uncle Bulgaria, putting a pin in the map and getting my true name.

At school, getting into trouble for finishing all the readers in the grade four box too fast.

During silent reading which went for a pathetic ten minutes.

On the school bus, bus pass as bookmark.

In the school library, the nerd, lurking in fiction, reading The Purple Plain by H E Bates, thinking that recess time has never been so good.

At uni, ransacking the library for books that had nothing to do with my teaching course.

Between children. With children, The Very Hungry Caterpillar still the same, during work, between jobs. Taking the slow bus to the city to get in another chapter. At the doctor, furious when the appointment is on time and can’t get on with The Hunger Games.

After work, before staff meetings. During staff meetings.

Then. My own bookshop. Reading between customers and boring them with the book. Hiding books from certain customers in case they make a better library than me. Shoplifting from my own shop. Getting home from work and reading. Reading.

Painting by Curt Herrmann

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 browser

A young girl in the shop is browsing. Browsing means to take a leisured survey, and in a bookshop, browsing is a slow dance, unique to the reader, the shop, and the shelves.

This girl takes a book, examines the spine, the pages, the top, the bottom, the back, the front. She carefully balances three books flat on her left hand, while turning to look for some more.

The lady next to her stands as straight at a doorway

The man behind her is bent like a bow. He is reading on the lower shelves.

The next man holds his hands and his phone behind his back and leans forward. Protrudes his head even further forward and reads titles with screwed up eyes, and every so often, nods. His partner follows behind him looking at her phone.

The browser, the first one with the careful balance of three books has added a fourth. A couple enter and turn in circles looking for the Covid thingo. They hold their phones and sunglasses in front of them. After checking in, she turns to the biographies and says ‘woooooo’. Her partner looks at her and then goes back out. A child going past says loudly, ‘Hairy Maclary.’

The movements of bookshop browsers can be almost imperceptible, but the flickering muscles of the eyes tell the real story.

Painting by Casey Childs

Notes on the year right now right here

The year went fast. It hopped about with anxiety many times. People came to the shop even when I was closed. People rang me and emailed me and texted me. People kept reading, increased their reading, and many people began reading.

Classic literature and poetry were purchased the most followed by history. Self-help sold the least. Fiction outsold nonfiction.

Locals and regulars became more and more important whether they purchased a book or not.

My landlord made it possible for me to stay even when I had to close.

Young readers bought the most books. Children still knelt on the floor and shouted to me that they had already read Peppa Pig, the same way they did last year.

Some customers purchased enormous stacks of reading to help me out, and thought that I did not notice this, but I did, and it did help me out.

Many of the visitors who came in angry in April were not angry in November.

It took three times longer to order in books for customers, but not a single person complained about it except me.

My fantasy and science fiction shelves need restocking. Everything by Anh Do sold out. I sold more Charles Dickens than ever before. I hardly sold any biographies except ones about dogs. I couldn’t get in any Asterix books.

I listened to a podcast about ancient Rome and took all the Roman history books home for myself. I discovered Iris Murdoch (and took all those books home too).

I was asked for Moby Dick about ten times.

A mother who loves reading came in with her son and said that mothers who read always have sons that read. Not so with daughters. Until much later.

Two customers died this year and left two holes there.

I never saw young people work so hard as the young people did this year in Woolworths across the road. This is not a reflection on Woolworths. It’s a reflection on those young people themselves.  

I cleaned about 3000 little handprints off the front door, same as any year.

Trucks still park across the driveway, same as any year.

People still come in thinking I’m the bakery, same as any year.

None of these things annoy me anymore.

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.

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.