Sarah has seen the Jura Mountains. She said they are north of the Alps and very beautiful. I have never seen them and she said that I ought to. She herself plans to travel again, this time by ship because this will give her time to read on the way. I approved of this – I always plan the slowest way possible to anywhere so as to bank up some reading hours for withdrawal later.
Sarah has not had an easy life. But having had no other, she carries it around tenderly for what it’s worth – which is a great deal.
She was raised amongst books, many, many of them, mostly the English classics because England is where her mother was born. She will recite them off: Wind in the Willows, Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Louis Untermeyer, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Moomins, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, Little Women, The Borrowers, The Water Babies, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens….
Sarah is an only child.
When she was 15, her mother took her to France and they stayed at Saint -Claude. They saw a film there – Casablanca – in subtitles. She loved it. Her father didn’t come, he was an accountant in Adelaide at John Martins and he stayed home to look after Sarah’s dog Bruno. Also, he didn’t like travelling.
Now she is reading Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright – the one about the suffragettes which she told me is an important part of our history. Sarah is always reading. She told me that it has helped her through the more difficult times of her life. Which has been most of it.
Reading was one of the last things her mother gave up before she died.
When Sarah was 15, and her mother took her to France and they saw the Jura Mountains, they stayed with cousins at a vineyard. And her cousin gave her two beautiful French dolls for her birthday and she tasted French wine and it was summer and it was really very, very beautiful.

sonder – n. the realization that each random passer by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig


I don’t know how these places even keep going…


Outside, some passers-by look through the window at the biographies and one man says: I don’t know how these places even stay open. Fucking hell, we can just get books on the internet, just as easy. His friend says: yeah…

It is a public holiday here in South Australia and Strathalbyn is full of people on their day off.
I am reading The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield and looking up every now and again wondering if anyone will come in to the shop and buy a book. Maybe no one will, but Dorothy Canfield makes this all ok.

The door does open though, and two old ladies come in and they are confident and bright and a propelled onwards by their solid and purposeful cardigans. They know already, what they need to say:
There’s your Ken Follett.
I’m not usually one for that kind of thing.
Oh, see the Ray Bradbury…
I wanted to get on well with it but…
There’s a relation somewhere there – some one with Dickens, a grand daughter or something.
I’ve got most of the Dickens.
I’ve got all of the Dickens. You’ve seen them.
I don’t hold with that sort of writing.
What do you mean?
Clive Cussler.
Oh, good heavens, we don’t bother with him. I told you that.
I like Bryce Courtenay.
Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes…
But that film –
No, that’s all right, of course it is –
I’ve read some of those
I’ve read all them all.
Oh nonsense…
Isn’t Herriot still very good
Very good indeed.
Gracious and serious…
I have a problem with that.
I’m one for having books around me.
It’s the way now isn’t it, though, to have no books.
Look at this rubbish.
Well, yes but why make a whole new film about it… 
Well, that’s right.
I think we need to give all the young people one each of all these grammar books.
Well, you can try can’t you….
I shouldn’t just blanket across everything, I know I’m judgemental.
Yes you are, now look at that…I’ve got that…
Yes, I’ve got that too
Yes, I’ve got all of hers.
Gradually they pass by, they don’t see me, they don’t need to purchase a book and they pass by and out though the door, they confront the solid spread of bikies that are gathered on the footpath outside and part them like butter with a hot knitting needle and they go on home.

And then  –

The skateboard family is back! The oldest boy has a book which he carries around and carries around. His mother is within the novels, his brothers are by and by, here and there but mostly with Star Wars. One brother is eating from a paper bag –  sherbet bombs. He is looking at the roof through a haze of sherbet, he is in sherbet bomb heaven. The oldest brother is waiting outside, balancing on his skateboard and staring significantly through the window at his family that are keeping him waiting.
The boy with the book presents it to his mother, he is staring upwards into her face, in an attitude of prayer. She looks down at her son. She says: you got that book last time.
He says nothing at all.
She says: but you gave it to your friend. We should get that one for you this time. He looks at her, astounded by her memory. He hugs the book to his chest and leans backwards under its enormous valuable weight.
They all weave around and around and here and there and then eventually purchase their books and leave together, with skateboards and sherbet and the book of life and one brother saying: get out the way…and the boy outside saying: thanks for taking a thousand years.


A Royal One


Thelma said she can’t take to Charles Dickens.

David said he can’t find anything in Wilbur Smith.

Ursula said there’s no point in reading Somerset Maugham.

I read a comment describing the pointlessness of reading Great Expectations, as there was no plot.

Tyson said that he lost a few months trying to read Atlas Shrugged, time that he never got back again.

I was told that Middlemarch was not worth finishing and that Dante, even Jesus Christ himself would not read that Inferno shit.

I like to give everything a go. And I like to be free to put anything aside if necessary. I am reading Great Expectations, an unexpected choice and a royal one. It has taken me a long time to get to Charles Dickens and this book, Great Expectations, which I am reading slowly, is proving to be the most engaging appeal to the senses and the most tantalizing description of everybody I don’t like. And the most accurately hammered out observations of what we do and why! I am anxious not to reach the end too quickly; it is an experience that is causing me great joy and consternation….Miss Havisham, the awful and chosen decay…the astounding way the story has been all put together.

Thelma, at the shop today, said that she can’t take to Charles Dickens, never has been able to. She had in her hand Graham Green and Hans Christian Anderson and Hilary Mantel and she was also looking for Colin Thiele. And she also had for me a Christmas gift, she had bought brown paper and painted it herself, in bright purple to match me, she said. She has also painted some string bright gold and made a card with a silver and gold angel on a deep purple background of night sky and stars. She has written on the card in gold. It is an unexpected gift and a royal one.

I am instructed not to open it until Christmas.

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

I’m going to read every book that has been written …


Robert is anxious that he will die before he finishes all the books he has at home. He said this morning: oh my, oh my, there is not enough time. I agree. I am reading Olga Masters and Hal Porter and there is The Count of Monte Cristo still waiting.

Robert left, carrying his book in a bag, high above his head, a trophy.

There is a man outside the window talking on his phone. He doesn’t know how loud he is. He says: I have a caravan and I’ll be staying in that. Don’t worry about it, I told you I have the van. It’ll do.

Then he closes his phone and goes into the bakery.

I am asked for To Kill a Mockingbird, Smoky Joe’s Café and Photoshop Elements 15.

Then: Charlotte’s Web, The Wounded Woman  and The Big Sleep. A man is collecting the complete set of The Great Writers library, he tells me there are 52 books in the set and he once had them all but a careless friend stored them for him and got them wet. He looks at me bitterly.

He found four of them and placed them on the counter. He said he was still not going to read them; he just wanted them all back.

Two girls asked for the Divergent series.

A small boy asked for the Bear Grylls Mission Adventure series.

I am told that at least the weather is improving.

A vey young reader demonstrated for me how she can speed read and I am very impressed. At home she has her own reading chair and it’s really good. She tells me she is going to read every book that is written, except for the ones that are not very good.

Sharon and Lauren


Sharon and Lauren came to the shop to pick up two books that Sharon had ordered in.

But Sharon has not a single defence against the yelling of the other books that crowd the shelves and lean impudently outwards. She moves from shelf to shelf in an agony of indecision. Lauren, however, is younger and wiser; she has birthday money but is not going to spend it here. She knows where she can get a new copy of The Treehouse books for a really good price. I admire her self-control and ability to plan because I have neither of these things when it comes to books or liquorice. Lauren, who is nine years old, moves serenely around the shelves, considering and thinking and planning her day.

Sharon has found a copy of The Last Days of Pompeii, a singular beauty, but I don’t mind as I already have a copy. She is anxious not to miss out on The Art of War. She finds volume one of an Aristotle but not volume two. She finds Ben Hur. She finds The Arabian Nights, a weighty volume with beautiful illustrations that I coveted for myself even though I already have a copy. But I allow it to go to Sharon; it will have a fine home. She puts aside Anne Frank and Confucius and Ruth Maier’s Diary. She spends some time in Art and becomes upset. She recognises The Silver Brumby. She is limp with love for the silver and blue Snow Queen and other Fairy Tales but I do not encourage it because I also want this one for myself. If it does not sell, if nobody wants it…..obviously it may have to come to me. I will have to advise Sharon that she does not want it. But she has found George Orwell, the complete novels of Jane Austen and then she returns to Art.

Lauren stands serene. Her pocket money is intact. She moves near to the door, a signal for her mother to stop looking now. But Sharon has found an autobiography of Ernest Shepard, she cannot leave just yet.

But Lauren stands firm, she opens the door and they are out, down the street and Sharon calling back thank you, thank you…


Gin and Tonic


A man came into the shop and told me that he is reading Henry Miller as an experiment. That he was documenting his own reading as a history of his own reading and so far it was amazingly erratic.

His little girl said: ohhhhh is Henry here?

A young man said: I am going to read the Harvard Classics. The whole lot, all 51 books, I saw them in a list and they are all very important: He was pushing a pram with an infant daughter beaming from inside,  watching as he found a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

He was hoping to get His Autobiography by Abraham Lincoln as this is the first one in the list but was content with the others instead. He angled the pram out expertly, his books stacked on the top along with a copy of Possum Magic, the first volume of Baby’s Harvard Classics.

An old lady came in with her friend and saw me drinking from a water bottle. One of them asked me if it was a gin and tonic.

But I had to tell her that it was just water.

She said that the river in The Wind and the Willows was just water too…

It is September but visitors are already thinking about Christmas, they argue over books, intending to gift them to that family member or this family member. One boy said: dad, don’t get it, that book is shit. He won’t want it.

A lady bought two Asterix books, one for each grandchild. She was laughing and laughing, she said that Asterix is just so funny.

Another old lady tells me that motorcycles should not be allowed in Strathalbyn anymore.

The steam train comes in, the bakery is busy, the street is warm, three young boys pass the window with skate boards on their heads. There is an altercation between small dogs tied up outside and the owner comes in and tells me that he wished he had not brought the bloody dogs down the street, but his wife makes him. And have I got a copy of Spartan Gold by Clive Cussler?






…all that light…


I visited the Flinders University Library last Wednesday instead of opening the shop. I went there not as a student but as a visitor but I can borrow the books through my daughter who is a student there. So I do not have to borrow as a student, but as a borrower and reading where I please.

And so I am not really there at all, although I am somewhere. The agony of choice available to me in a university library when I am not a student is so indulgent that it became impossible to remember the day or the place.

It is being away in some place that contains immense possibility and invitation which it does because it is a library and a really good one. And there is also endless provocation and endless comfort, like friendship, no matter where or how the friends are placed.

I can choose as I wish and never come to the end of it. It is a pity that I am not earning a qualification or gathering a thesis with my reading but I am not. This seems gloriously wrong and terribly wasteful.

It is a diabolical experience to meet a thousand books at once and only be able to choose a few.

I chose fourteen senseless volumes for absurd and important reasons and these are those:

Chapters From Some Memoirs by Anne Thackeray Ritchie: she is the daughter of the Thackeray who wrote Vanity Fair. It contains a memory of the day she met Chopin as a child, she writes absurd lovely romances. This book is small, bound with red tape, the boards and pages cut precisely, it had no barcode; had not been borrowed since the application of any barcode,  it had to be carried gently out the back to receive a fresh tattoo.

A Lame Dog’s Diary by S. Macnaughtan, another palm sized very old volume, bright red and no barcode. Why is it there? Who has read it?

From the Porch by Lady Ritchie – this is Lady Thackeray again; in green and gold, rough cut pages, dusty, humble.

The Honey Flow by Kylie Tennant because the first line is this: Chapter one: Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads.

Dawn Powell Novels 1930 – 1942, dressed in green and black, The Library of America, heavy, fine paper like white silk, dense and divine, a thousand pages sumptuous. And the first novel (Dance Night) begins like this:

What Morrie heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far, far away. This was like no other music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood….

A Long Time Dying by Olga Masters – because of the way she describes Australia outside of the front door.

My Butterfly and Other Tales of New Japan by Hal Porter – I have been advised not to miss out on Hal Porter.

The Stolen Soprano by Compton Mackenzie- this is because in The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett,  the Queen was reading Compton Mackenzie and I always wanted to, too.

The Story of a Non- Marrying Man and Other Stories by Doris Lessing – this book is brown and gold and it was on the wrong shelf, it did not care if it was chosen or not. So I chose it.

Southerly – Volume 68, Number 2, 2008 Little Disturbances, because it has short fiction and poetry by Australian writers unknown to me, and it has Indigo in Absentia by Kirstyn McDermott which I  do know and need to read again and again etc.

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon – because it is blue and silver and massive and is the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

The Power of Delight: a Lifetime in Literature by John Bayley, which may be dull but maybe not. Dark blue, and huge, it looked so new and wistful, anxious to be read.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller because I have never heard of it or her.

The Journal to Stella by Jonathon Swift although I am not so fond of him. But I want to know what he wrote in his letters to Stella.

And then I went home to read.


Photography by Joshua Hibbert






The Handmaid’s Tale

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I am about to read The Handmaid’s Tale. It is written by Margaret Atwood and I have never read it before, I have been told it is confronting. A lady also told me this morning that it is disturbing and she said by God, the Canadians have some good writers!

It is endlessly interesting to be on the unread side of a book. And to consider it from its smooth side.

Another lady told me that everybody should read it. I said that I had only read The Blind Assassin so far and she said urgently that this isn’t enough, that I must read more, that we should all be reading more Margaret Atwood.

Bill saw my book and said he had never heard of her. He said that Bryce Courtenay was good enough for him. Robert was tremendously impressed when I described the book to him. He said he should read it but is very committed to the ancient Greeks right now.

I heard that there is a TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale and that it is brilliant, but I am advised to always read the book first. Leanne said she might give it a go. She said: well done for trying the new stuff!

Most books are new to me because I am not a fast reader and the more I read the slower I go. Every good book insists on a new way of regarding basically everything. I am expecting The Handmaid’s Tale to be good because The Blind Assassin, which I read years ago has still never left me alone.

Moby Dick


aaron-burden-236415.jpgA young boy came in to the shop with his father and was anxious for a copy of Moby Dick, which was his favourite book. I only had a volume that contained Moby Dick and Omoo and Typee and Israel Potter. I was doubtful of this 1700 page volume but the child reassured me that this was ok, he had already read all of these and they were as good as anything. He said that Moby Dick was a good book, as good as Star Wars or anything like that.

His father stood patiently by.

The child then said that Moby Dick is just more exciting than the other versions, it is just more exciting….than…the other versions. And it is as good as Uluru. He did not explain this last statement but instead went to another shelf to get a Star Wars Encyclopaedia which he was getting for his teacher.

I’m getting this for my teacher. He’s a really really really really big fan of Star Wars. He’ll really get into this.

He stood there, confident, pushing his glasses back to the correct position, squared up and facing the world, his enormous world full of enormous books, glowing and supreme,  and his father stood patiently by.

Photography by Aaron Burden



Louis came into the shop to find Modern European History. He said that last time he came here there was a book he wanted and as he reached for it, someone else got it first. I could not remember this happening; there are never crowds in front of my shelves. But Louis was dismayed, he said the book was so close…I asked him what the book was but he couldn’t remember.

He came back again and considered The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a paperback student’s edition with useful notes. He carried it around for a while. I found it later abandoned in the biographies. He walks hesitatingly,  carefully but carries no stick, he is cautious in front of the shelves. He won’t carry more than two books at one time; he has a lot of trouble with dialling incorrect numbers on his phone and finds it difficult to turn around. He loves to read. He is polite, enthusiastic and unfailingly kind. And this time he found The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, a shining, warm gem of a book and from this book has decided to read Marcel Proust, the entire lovely series. He also wants a biography of Paul Keating and is keen to try Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps The Poisonwood Bible. He said to me: tell me some more great things to read….he said that his home is one mad library…

How astonishing, when the lights of health go down…


There is rain coming in the shop door, at last, rain for our winter. It’s cold but at least it is there.

Yvonne called out exuberantly: keep warm. She indicated her little dog Marco; he had two coats on.

Robert is excited because two more of his Art and Imagination series have arrived and these will keep his mind off Telstra. He said that Telstra do not care about him, an old man, a pensioner and they would cut him off from the world. Then he admitted that to be cut off from the world is exactly what he wants as then he can continue the book he is writing, but without electricity, because nobody here can afford THAT anymore.

I told him about Virginia Woolf because I want to tell someone about her.

He agrees that she was a pioneer and a stand-alone.

Dion is here and observes that everyone is feeling the cold, which doesn’t help. He has been sick for most of his life. And he says he is going to give up smoking again. Robert said that nobody is going to take his smokes away and then they both leave, back to their tricky lives.

A woman brings in some books to the shop but I am unable to take any more books. Her parents have both died of cancer and she must clear their library. She goes back outside and sits in her car for a long time.

A young visitor is examining Vargic’s Miscellany of Curious Maps and he looks at me and asks: how do they draw these maps…? There is a dispute on the corner outside the shop again. Motorists cannot agree on the courtesies of the intersection and there are voices, horns… the visitor replaces the map book and  leaves to view better the argument.

There is a small boy looking out at the rain through the door.

There are two tradesmen out on the footpath eating from paper bags and they are examining the sky and making predictions. They say that it won’t last.

Alex tells me that her Tupperware party was not so good because nobody came. She buys a copy of The Mandarins by Simone De Beauvoir.

A young man asked me for Inside the Spaceships by George Adamski. He said it is a true account of an abduction by aliens and he asks in every bookshop if there is a copy. But I don’t have one.

Another reader asks for Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.

John brings me a copy of Inferno by Dan Brown to read. He is struggling to walk now.


Photography by Ray Hennessy


“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul…”

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill

You are not having the keys.


A mother says: You are not having the keys. You are not having my keys. And the baby gazes back, tranquil. She speaks to a young girl who has come into the shop with her: Will you read this do you think? No, the girl shakes her head.

“He still wants the keys.” They both gaze down at the baby who is sitting on the floor.

The older girl has found two books and is holding tightly to them: Bulfinch’s Mythology and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Her mother offers her The Silver Brumby and then The Fault in Our Stars. The girl shakes her head.

The baby has the keys; he shakes them over and over again with his head bent to one side. He drops them, picks them up, drops them and leans over, he puts his small ear directly onto the keys.

The mother says: well, you should not be having my keys. They both look at the baby again. The mother leans back in the chair and closes her eyes. The baby shakes the keys, clenches his eyes, enchanted by the noise, the sounds, the music.

The young girl holds her books up in the air and away at a distance and regards the covers. She herself is away at a distance. She eventually drifts over to the counter and tells me that she is going to bring her dad here. Her mother stands up and follows; she tells me that she has no time to read anymore, you know how it is.

The girl asks me for Brave New World and the mother announces that she might wait in the car and the young girl turns back to the shelves, she holds the chosen books in front of her, both arms tightly around them, she gazes up at Samuel Pepys and Vikram Chandra.

Outside in the street the baby hurls the keys across the footpath.


Photography by Ryan Holloway

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