On this day

A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.

I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.

People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.

It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.

Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.

Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.

A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.

A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.

Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’

Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.

I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).

A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.

I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.

George

After closing up the shop last night I went over to Woolworths and ran into George at the end of the international cooking aisle. I was going for soya sauce.

He was standing with a modest basket of goods and a walking stick. I looked at the walking stick.

Behind him, three people clustered over a shopping trolley: two women and a man. They were fervent. The man, who a sweater hood over his eyes, was saying that he contacted Woolworths yesterday and they told him there was a three day wait. They exchanged significant looks.

George moved closer to me and raised his walking stick. ‘My God, I’ve had health things.’

I asked him, ‘But what have you been reading?’

He said, ‘Barbara Kingsolver. A giant. And you?’

I said, Evelyn Waugh.’

‘My God. A giant. What else?’

I said, ‘The Baron in the Trees.’

He said, ‘Calvino? My God. A giant.’

I said, ‘Albert Camus. The Plague.’

George leaned back and put his basket on the ground. The trio behind him were discussing salad. The man said, ‘Why the fuck is there no lettuce? And try and get oats.’ He balanced on the edge of the trolley with his feet on the rungs. The women agreed, nodding and nodding.

A lady next to me dropped a pack of instant noodles and apologised. A man walked gently behind us, leading a lady by the hand. He stopped at Pappadams. He said, ‘You love these Ettie.’ But she didn’t answer.

George said, ‘Camus. A giant.’

‘I hated him in high school.’

‘High school. My God.’ We agreed about high school and moved together to be out of the way of school children with wet shoes carrying twisties and coke to the registers. A man with a ponytail and wearing thongs said, ‘sorry mate’, to me because he needed sesame oil and I was in the way.

George said, ‘What else? What else are you reading? What about the shop? Are you still there?’

‘I am. It’s ok. But you know how slow I read.’ Then I remembered something: ‘I read Fleur Jaeggy.’

‘My God, who? Who is it? I’ve never heard of her.’

To find a find unknown to George was impossible. But I’d done it. I threw the bottle of soya sauce into my basket triumphant.  The trolley trio looked at me. A lady up the aisle said into her phone, ‘It’s the best air conditioner in the country.’

I looked at George and said, ‘My God George. Fleur Jaeggy’s a giant.’

He breathed, ‘Really.’

‘She’s Swiss, but she writes in Italian.’

George thumped him walking stick on the floor. The trolley trio looked at us again. A lady looked over from Indian cooking sauces. I saw she had Tandoori and Madras, one in each hand. I needed them too.

‘She wrote These Possible Lives.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s three squashed biographies of three of the biggies: Thomas de Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob.’

“I don’t know Schwob. Who’s he? And what do you mean by compressed?’

‘Thinned out. Spare. Carved with a potato peeler. But it works.’

‘My God. How?’

‘Don’t know. But she writes about each of them. Who were they? I don’t know, but maybe I do now. They wrote things. Each biog is a slice. Cut with a razor blade. That’s what they say about Jaeggy: that she writes with a razor blade.’

‘My God.’ George banged his walking stick again. A family with three giant packs of cornflakes in a trolley full of mostly toddlers in beanies all looked at us.

‘George, you never saw such a book. You can read my copy. You’ll die.’

‘My God.’

A couple passed us the end of our aisle, and the women said, ‘Get me some fetta, babe’, and the man turned back toward the refrigerated products aisle without looking up from his phone.

‘George, I have to go.’

‘I, too.’

‘See you soon.’

‘My God, yes.’

We parted, and I moved to the 12-item only checkout and waited behind a lady telling the cashier that the eggs in her carton had gone off.

Why are people so quiet when they look at books?

Sometimes customers are so quiet, I forget they are there. They’re in danger of being locked in, something that’s happened in bookstores before. But never here (yet). People can be silent when it’s necessary.

Browsers of books are always moving; it’s just that you can’t see the movements; imperceptible downloads of information and ideas so astonishing, that on the outside the reader appears as though paralysed. They move from shelf to shelf, giving back only delicate breath, and sometimes not even that.

An arm reaches. A finger touches a spine, asking something. The book is grasped and held, examined. Rejected. Or, held while the reader’s head tilts back, giving ceiling to the eyes, which need it because the memory they are interrogating is too large for this small shop.

Sometimes the paperback is placed under one arm and carried softly along.

Readers gaze into long barely lit thoughts which are ignited and hiss briefly before going out again, sparked by pictures on covers, images on spines, the dry smell of paper, the thick loving waist of a paperback no longer new, the cough of an opening sentence that you remember icily from high school.

Small children are the stillest. All the action happens in the small roaring rooms of their minds. Sometimes their eyes go wide and their lips compress. Then back to normal, all in a second. Once a child shook his head sharply as though trying to dislodge something back into the book.

Some readers press hands to hearts while they read. Others go up on toes and down again. Men jangle keys and coins and say, ‘HA!’ to the page. Readers come and tell me what they just found, and others place their books before me apologetically, as though admitting inferiority of choice. There’s no such thing.

 Sometimes readers just gaze at a book, neither touching nor opening the covers. Why? What are they thinking? They might turn their heads just slightly, and that’s all.  

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