The book had been written

“…the book had been written with winter nights in mind. Without a doubt, it was a book for when the birds had flown south, the wood was stacked by the fireplace, and the fields were white with snow; that is, for when one had no desire to venture out and one’s friends had no desire to venture in.”
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Painting by Brad Relish

Young readers check the weight and shape of a book

This is what young people do when they are choosing a book.

They don’t just read the title and note the author. There is much more going on than that . That alone is far too mere for today’s young readers. Who, of course, don’t read because they are always on their phones.

Young readers turn a book and hold it flat in the palm of the hand. There is information to be gained by doing this. They weight the book up and down. I have seen them do this while looking away into space.

They consider the back, the front, and sometimes, the extreme edges of the volume. Young people are not pressed flat by time (yet). They apply fingertips to pages and corners as though seeing into the writing this way. They purse lips and breathe energy into decision. One girl folded her hands under her chin and clenched them tightly. Staring at a volume placed at an angle to catch two kinds of light.

‘Bitch, I’m getting this.’

The friend agrees without looking. She has her own dilemma. A hardback copy of The Virago Women Traveller.

Sometimes they consult information via iPhone. They look from phone to book, screen to page, text to text. Ah… not so different after all.

They whisper, Anne McCaffrey died in 2011.

They assess something by holding a book by the spine with just two fingers. They turn their face from side to side to get at every sensation. They place fingertips on titles. It’s as though they are handling holy things.

Father and daughter hugged

There was a small group in here, a family by the way they talked to each other, and they must read a lot because they shuffled around without checking where they were going; they didn’t mind running into each other. That’s how you know it’s a family.

Anyway, the father and daughter, both stalking the same reading material, collided softly in front of writers and writing , and stayed together hugging, but still looking down at the books they each held in one hand.

Reading hard books

This was really good. A customer, looking for Anthony Trollope, said,  ‘I’ve read all these.’

We looked at each other.

I said defensively, ‘I’m having a go at Ulysses.’

He lit up. ‘Oh yes. Oh yes. Good. Good. Do you have help?’

I admitted I did. A website, chosen at random, to get me through every word of it, one paragraph at a time. A guide with a torch lighting a path and smashing the overhangs out of the way. When I got to Leopold on the toilet, I was hooked. When his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease, I was committed to the book. Don’t care how hard.

The customer said, ‘Oh. Good. Good. It’s just what you need. James Joyce. Strange man of course. Ireland’. He looked at the floor as though looking at Ireland.

Once, a young woman said, ‘Oh, James Joyce, he makes us look around and look at things.’

It’s true.

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

The customer admitted to finding Anna Karenina difficult. The names. The Russian names. ‘But after all, in an affair, there are only three names. The rest are of no consequence.’ He looked down at the floor, staring at something, possibly Russia.

“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” Says Joyce.

The customer stayed a while looking through the classics. He would take a book and stare at the cover for a long time. He read the first chapter of Madame Bovary before putting it back in the wrong place. Eventually he left.

Outside, somebody passing the door said, ‘Every time I go past this place it’s shut. What’s the point?’

That’s right. I’m shut because I’m home having a crack at Ulysses and humid nightbluefruit.

Above image of my shop. Not really. It’s actually a rare book library in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

The books I want they don’t have

One morning a family streamed in. They were one constant weaving process that went in and out, and in and out, a big family with the nucleus gathered on the footpath outside the door. They represented about four generations. They came in slowly, but one teenager strode past them all, had a quick look and then left again, fast. They all listened to her at the door.

‘They had two of the most popular series in there, on the middle table, but the books I want they didn’t have.’

Another teenager said, ‘They had Spiderwick. Yeah, they had Unfortunate Events. Yeah, they had Alex Rider. But no Witchers. And no Camelot Rising.’

‘Nothing in there?’

‘Some.’

‘Not a new boyfriend even.’

‘Omg.’

‘Have you got Divergent?’ One of them had stopped at the desk, and luckily I did have this one. This child went back out. An adult came in from the group. ‘Do you have ‘Charlotte’s Web?’

I do. I find it, and he shows it to a niece, nephew, daughter, son –  I am not sure, but the child calls out, ‘I don’t want it.’  Three small children come in with perhaps Grandma. They want Hairy Maclary, but I am all out! ‘I used to like The Cloister and the Hearth’, says Grandma.

‘Mum, we’re going.’ Grandma hurries out with small children hanging onto her knitted sensible cardigan in sage green and dragging it out of shape.

There is a shout: ‘Alright…everyone hold hands.’

But no, two boys come back in, followed by an aunty perhaps. ‘I want Fords. Or motorbikes. Or Super eights, or something.’ They go into the back room. An older gentleman enters and tells me about Charlie Dickens. I guess he is from this family. They all have the same cheerfulness. Then he asks me, ‘Where is the bakery?’

The group of three, the motorbike group, suddenly flow back past the desk, all talking to each other.

‘They had like books on cars.’

‘But no motorbikes.’

‘Naa.’

‘Hold on. Lets look a bit more.’

‘Naa.’

They leave, taking the older gentleman with them, and mill into the group outside.

‘Kwee go to the bakery? Kwee go to the bakery?’

And then they are gone.

Painting by Soraya Hamzavi-Luyeh