Small things like shapes

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I wrote this in January 2017, on Australia Day. It was summer. Now it is winter, which always makes me think about summer.

“A child said to me that he likes my glass lantern because he likes small things like shapes. He said that when he looked into the glass he could see cars going past, and that the cars looked better in the lantern than they did going along the road as real cars. His mother told him there were Beast Quest books on the shelf, and he said, ‘Maybe’.

She said there were also some Star Wars, and he said, ‘Maybe’.

A lady was pleased to see a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She said it is on her to read list which has a thousand books on it already. She said the list is wearying. She did not see the lantern.

It is Australia Day. The family with the small boy who likes shapes are across the road; they have been to the bakery. The father is trying to interest the child in some food but he is standing with his nose pressed against the fir tree, he must be looking at more shapes. The father looks weary. The child drops the paper bag on the ground and looks down at the spilt food. He makes binoculars with his fists and looks down at the broken food. His knees are bent with concentration. The parents are having an argument.

Just outside the door of my shop a man has opened his esky on the pavement, and there is no ice. His wife asks him why he can’t even pack an esky properly. He raises both hands in the air and stands there motionless, but she has gotten back into the car. Then she locks all the doors.

I wonder if anyone else will come in for a book today. Then I remembered the small boy who likes shapes; he had chosen a book called Pharaoh’s Boat which had pyramids on the front. So I did sell a book today!”

Please come and look at these books…

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I did go and look at those books. It was a library of a woman who had died.

The lady spoke of her mother. We were standing outside the garage, shielding our eyes from the afternoon sun. There were fruit trees and two dogs, cardboard boxes, and a horse behind a railing – it was warm and quiet. I could hear the horse breathing. She was telling me about her mother; all the things she used to do, the gratitude of communities, the reading, her passion, her; the mother.

I could smell quinces.

‘The things a person loves are always, always recorded in their library.’ The daughter leaned back in amazement and pride as she said this. It was a delicate opera of grief, sung outside (to me) next to a bucket of yellow quinces. The daughter was wearing pink and white. She said, ‘Don’t lift those heavy boxes, you’ll hurt yourself.’  Her mother, Barbara, was one of my first customers. She read Don Camillo. And there they were, the books she once bought from me, right there in a box, in the sunshine, next to the quinces.

 

Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh

This is nonsense

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Over the last few months my mum, who is 84, has been busy. Last time I visited, I spoke through the front door and kept my distance. She said the coronavirus is no reason to be idle, and asked me to get her a box of saucing tomatoes.

I wrote this three years ago, when our first grandson was born. We are four generations alive all at once now. We are very lucky.

“I think that my grandson, Max, has super powers, but my mum says that this is nonsense, that he is just a normal healthy child. When she dropped into the shop yesterday I said that Max has survived his first hot summer, and she said that this is nonsense. That when she was born in Broken Hill her mum had to put the cot outside in the summer because the corrugated iron house was hotter inside than out. Her mother hung wet nappies around the edges of the cot so that the hot wind blew cool. Her mum always put the cot under the pepper trees. She said the dining room table bowed in the heat of those roasting dark little iron rooms.

I said I would like to put that story on Facebook and she said that Facebook is nonsense; who on earth would want to read about her.

When my mum was 14 years old she made her own dress at school and wore it for a photograph sitting. I have that photograph, and it is one of my favourite things. They were very poor and she only ever had one photograph taken. She said her dress was pretty good, probably the best one made, and her mum had told her that this was nonsense.

Max, my grandson loves colour. He leans toward colours and frowns. His head wobbles  when he catches the purple of my glass necklace. He leans in panting and dribbling, wanting that slab of cool glass in his mouth. But we have coloured glass slabs around the front door, too. These are wine red, mint green, champagne, butter yellow and icy pink. In the fading evening light they change character and jump. Max stares into the hot colours and is silent and noisy; breathing and ingesting colour. Soon the red becomes purple and the greens turn to blue. The yellow turns to cider. The pink fades to clear, cool water.  He stares for minute after minute at the thick glass, dripping with evening colours.

Then later, my daughter says that he won’t go to sleep, and I say that this is nonsense.”

“I would like to have your sureness…”

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Many people who used to visit the shop are now gone, and I know that some of them are no longer alive. I am glad that I recorded these memories.

This is from my second year in the shop.

“Margaret told yesterday me that in her reading group anyone can choose the books. And these are the books she wants: Bel Canto, Gould’s Book of Fish, Tulip Fever, Birds Without Wings, The Commandant, and Still Alice (the one about Alzheimer’s), and also Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomelin. And that should do for now!! She said that often the members of the reading group are not even reading the same book, hahaha.

I do not often see anyone as happy as Margaret is when she lists off the books she needs. Her husband looks on with approval; he carries all the books out for her, beaming over the top of the stack. Sometimes he finds one for himself, usually about the Second World War.

Margaret sends books to her children who live overseas and observes that they never seem to get the point of the stories she sends them, but she sends them anyway. Like I said, I do not often meet people as happy as Margaret. I would like to have her sureness.

“I would like to have your sureness. I am waiting for love, the core of a woman’s life….”

June came over the road to lend to me her copy of A Parrot in a Pepper Tree, the funniest thing she has read in ages. She said that Writers’ Week was divine, and she bought ‘that thing on Keating, the one by Kerry O’Brien, and I’m telling you it is an absolute tome! It’s a winter read, can’t wait till the winter, it’s just the thing, and I’ll lend you when I’m done! But before that I’m doing the Gillard.’

Robert told me that he is wanting to collect volumes of myths and legends, tales of all countries because he cannot complete his work without them. He said he knows what he must read, his work tells him, his heart tells him, it is his passion.

He asked for a copy of Marion Woodman’s The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter. This is a Jungian study of the repressed feminine and also vital for his studies. He said that his own feminine light was put out when he was young.

“I would like to have your sureness. I am waiting for love, the core of a woman’s life.” Don’t wait for it,” I said. “Create a world, your world.”

A new customer told me that the books that had the biggest impact on his life were Jean Auel’s The Earth’s Children series. He felt that the author had devoted her entire life to the research and writing: an incredible achievement.  He said that he had a friend in France that once held up some road works there because he thought he recognised some ancient symbols etched into a cliff face they were excavating. This friend became hysterical and demanded that all work immediately stop and it did! He insisted that these might be runes of some kind, but, well, anyway they weren’t runes, they were marks made by the bucket on the road excavator. Everyone was mad with him.

 “I would like to have your sureness. I am waiting for love, the core of a woman’s life.” Don’t wait for it,” I said. “Create a world, your world. Alone. Stand alone.”

To find some fragment of something that makes you so happy that you cannot stop talking about it, is a great thing. Any small fragment of something that is dear to you (for whatever reason) gives buoyancy. But the visitors here at my book shop, who tell me their stories of what they love, do not seem to realise how their happiness quietly radiates. How they make their own world, on their own terms.”

“I would like to have your sureness. I am waiting for love, the core of a woman’s life. Don’t wait for it,” I said. “Create a world, your world. Alone. Stand alone. And then love will come to you, then it comes to you.” Anais Nin

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

A Swiss Watch will Keep Going Even if you Bury it in Cement

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The beginning of 2016 was very hot, very dusty, my visitors were becoming constant, and I knew I was going to stay. I wrote this post in February 2016, and most of the people mentioned still visit!

 

“Every day at the shop I am constantly informed of the most startling things – the stamina of a Swiss watch, for example.

Once I was told a long story about gunpowder and how hilarious it can be. And once about the history of the tulip. I have been informed of the origin of cobblestones, and about the problems of racism in Tintin in the Congo, which caused it to be removed from libraries all over the English speaking world.

I like hearing about the great writers and the Outrages they Committed. It is good to hear that everybody has Terrible Trouble with Ulysses and that Middlemarch is a Long Plod. And that Tom Cruise was a disappointment as Jack Reacher…

Dale said yesterday that he feels as though bookshops deliberately ambush him into buying something good when he clearly doesn’t want to. He said this unhappily. He bought Love, Again by Doris Lessing because Doris Lessing is ‘too strong a woman for him to say no.’ He  also told me not to live in Mt Barker because it is full of diverse elements. However, I should keep on with Anais Nin because she is brilliant and brave. I said that I intended to read all of her journals although it will take me a while; I am a slow reader,  and he replied that the diaries were written over decades, so I had plenty of time.

I was asked to find more South Australian poets and more Ernest Hemmingway.

Peggy told me that she didn’t read the Narnia books until she was old.

And Brian wanted a copy of the Truckie’s History, a book he wanted to read again. He wanted to take it to a family funeral this time, when all the womenfolk would be at each other like a pack of bitches, but he could just sit back and enjoy a read. (If I could possibly get him a copy, please.)

A young reader of historical novels told me that collectors of moths no longer have to kill them because now we have the internet.

A little girl (7) told me that her book Too Late Bendigo was for her to read to her mum.

A visitor with homemade anti-Islamic pamphlets asked me if he could leave them for me to distribute from my shop and I said no.

And finally, at the end of the day, I was asked to track down a book about tug boats that is apparently ‘as hard as shit to get.’ Two of the tugs were called Batman and Robin and these were his favourites as a boy. He lent his out and it was never returned so now he was on the hunt for another copy. He shared everything he knew about steamships. His own stories made him laugh.

At the end of the day, I still had 15 minutes left for The Royal Whore: Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine by Allen Andrews, which I only began this morning, and which is brilliant.’

The structure of the day

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I wrote this just before Christmas in 2015. The shop had started to become something, and I was beginning to fit it. Again, I realise (now) that it was the regulars that made it happen, and that a small town is the best place to be.

“The structure of each day in the bookshop has become quite nice.

Each day forms, bulges out toward the afternoon, trims itself, and tries to return to normal by closing time.

Each day the flow of information is generous.

Each morning seems to be about Henry James.

At closing time, I am anxious to get home and keep going with Henry James. I am slow. Leon told me that I am slow with books, it is true. But I am justified – The Spoils of Poynton is a thicket. I have to go slowly.

Young families wash in on a tide of enthusiasm and spare time because the school holidays have begun, and it is summer. And there is a new Star Wars film. When they leave, the door is covered in fingerprints, and there will be an empty juice bottle amongst the Geronimo Stiltons.

‘Where’s that book The Cross Sections of the Man of War? Is it still here? Last week it was.’

‘Nanna is getting us books and we can pick our own. This one is about the war, but it’s book two, so do you have books one and three? I’m getting it anyway.’

‘Do you have William Gaddis? I’ve been looking for The Recognitions all my life. It’s up there with Gravity’s Rainbow and books like that.’

In my spare minute I have another go at Henry James. Not many people have ever asked for his books.

Karl came in with his book list and told me that his eyes gave way earlier in the year, which was disappointing as he has always been one for the written word. But now he is fine and ready to roll.

John complained that every time he went to the bakery his doctor would go pass the window and see what he was eating and then give him a rocket because of his health – his cholesterol is way too high. ‘Small town bullshit that’s what it is. You can’t even take a piss without somebody telling everyone at Woolworths about it. I’m enjoying that Dick Francis though, the only one of those crime mugs that can actually write.’

I am lucky to receive a consistent commentary on the weather. This is a topic with a satisfying variety of expressions available to share it.

‘How’s this heat? Keeping you busy?’

‘Cool in here.’

‘This heat is ridiculous!’

‘Good weather for reading, that’s what I say.’

‘Foul weather. And here I am out in it.’

‘Damn strange weather!’

‘Damn fine weather!’

‘This weather takes the cake.’

‘Don’t know how Christmas will go with weather like this.’

‘Heat’s bad but nothing like in the sixties.’

A lady told me that Gould’s Book of Fish has her flabbergasted.

All day I am offered suggestions for the best things to read. I free fall amongst the suggestions.”

 

Photography by Alexandre Petrotto

Colours quarrel

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I wrote this in December 2015, when the windows were completed, but I had no image of the glass taken in the evening.

“Linden has given me some squares of glass for Christmas. These will be fitted into and around my front door which receives a drench of light every afternoon. I imagine a cathedral, but really this is just my front door. I had my colours organised, but the glass artist changed them because he said my colours were not going to obey me. He said that colours quarrel. My dark rich colours would go black and sulk.

He changed my panes to rose, champagne, sage green, ice and an invisible gold. I complained that now there was no colour. And there wasn’t. He said there would be, that now the colours would cooperate and allow each other a fair go in the light, and that they would change as the light changed and show all of their personalities. My dark colours would just turn their backs because didn’t have enough space.

I said I didn’t know. He replied that it was understandable, everyone is busy. But there is nothing so busy with its own concerns as a piece of stained glass. Each piece of glass thinks it’s right. They needed to be treated subtly and with cunning to get them to all do what you want without them knowing.

Well, my glass panels are up and fat with warmth and light –  and they are beautiful; the artist, with his dreadlocks and tools and dusty workshop was absolutely right. In the morning they are quiet and smooth and rich, in the evening they are hilarious, and show blue and purple even though this is impossible.”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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I wrote this original post on December 30th, 2015, at the end of my first six months in the shop. I didn’t, back then, realize how valuable these days were, or how important those first customers would become. I know that these days will return, and hopefully everyone with them. But it will be different now. What is important has changed.

It is hot today. Customers are exhilarated and expansive because Christmas is over, and the Hard Work is done.

A lady who suffers terribly from insomnia tells me that insomnia is lucky, as it gives her  time to read. Her husband said that he has no time to read, never has had. He looked at the volumes of Ngaio Marsh she had set aside to buy. He said he doesn’t know where his time goes these days. She told him that it has probably gone to the pub.

A little girl asked for Harry Potter but her mother reminded her that there would be no time to read it. So best leave it.

Kerry said he can get through one thriller a night. I asked Robert how long it might take him to get through The Gnostic Mysteries and he said he will never be done with that book, even after he dies he will still be reading it. And when the government discovers his body still reading it, they had better be worried.

A little boy said he could read a Geronimo Stilton in five minutes, but his sister said that this was a lie.

I have time to think about Henry James.

Fiona picked up her order and said that there is no technology yet that can track what happens to the human mind when we are reading. It can track the activity of the brain but not of the mind.

I tried to imagine what my mind was doing when I read Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees.

Robert, who is still here, said that if the government knew what his mind was thinking when he was reading they would put the watch dogs onto him. We asked him what he is reading (besides The Gnostic Mysteries) and he said The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is so he can find out what’s going on in the world. Better to read The Greek Myths or Homer to keep up with things because everything in the newspapers is an insult, including the weather.

There were some new visitors from interstate. One was feeling hilarious because he’d found a copy of The Unseen Academicals, which is the Exact Book he is up to:

‘I’ve got so many books to read, so many, just so many, we are always just buying other ones. I sit there in the caravan park,and I’m just laughing out loud, it’s so funny. I will have to read for ever. I think it’s possible, that’s why we get so many. I am collecting every book by Terry Pratchett, I read them more than once and they actually GET FUNNIER.

Then at the end of the day, a small boy asked me for a Christmas book that had been in the window last week. He saw it and wanted it, and when I brought out the stories that were left he pointed to a heavy green Faber anthology of Christmas stories. His mother told him that it was a book for adults. His father told him to leave it until he was older. But he gave me all his money and whispered that it was the one he wanted. He defended his choice patiently to his parents, told them that this book would NOT run out of pages. The other books there would run out of pages. He was six years old, and he convinced them; he got his book.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

Yvonne

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Yvonne was one of my first customers. When she came in, she apologised for using a kindle. She said, ‘You may as well know’.  She loved racy thrillers – Clive Cussler, and she said that when she was young, she was quite a dish.

Every day she walks the block with Marco. She rescued him. She said he’s a gem, but terribly naughty. She always asked after my family. When she was young, she learnt an instrument that nobody had ever heard of.

One day, she brought me in a glazed tile. She’d bought it up the road. It was a picture of my shop (as close as you could get) and she wanted me to have it. I was very flattered. I hung it on the wall. Every day, customers would ask, ‘Where did you get THAT?’

Yvonne said, ‘Gawd. You can get that picture anywhere.’

The day I closed the shop, I saw her walking calmly by, Marco clicking away at her ankles. She passed me when I dashed over the road for groceries. She said, ‘Times are grim,’ but she was squared up, ready for a challenge.

A devil for reading

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I remember this couple. They came from Murray Bridge, and they only visited once.  They spent the whole time telling me about their granddaughter. They laughed so much and they were so proud. That was in 2015, and I never saw them again. I remember they wanted the Tintin books by Herge.

Their granddaughter would be 20 now. If only she knew how they had collapsed in on themselves, silent, pained, because there were no sounds that could carry enough value to ease their contentment at having received her into their quiet road, wooden breakfast table, tomato garden lives.