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.  

Notable incidents about today

Robert came in. I was talking with someone else, a fabulous pair from Clayton, but I saw Robert outlined against the brightness outside the door, and I knew it was him: he has a spiky electrocuted outline and eyes like gimlets.

The pair from Clayton left on a bark of humour. We’d been talking about vaccinations. He reckoned he’d been vaccinated with the Calicivirus, but she said that was rubbish. That was when Robert loomed up behind them like a bolt of electric heat from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was precisely what he was there to talk about.

He tapped the counter and gave me a list of books to find. He is currently reading Zecharia Sitchin. We discussed the possibility of getting the books. He said obscurely, ‘Imagine people thinking money is the thing. Don’t they know it’s books?’ We laughed darkly over anyone thinking money is the thing. Then he said, ‘Leave them alone. Best they keep thinking that. Leaves more books for us.’

Then we became hilarious. Robert laughed his high pitched laugh. It’s a thin voltage, admirable and richly unhinged. People turn around.

Behind Robert I saw Russell looking through the window, and behind him, a brisk lady who called out, ‘Hello there!’ in foghorn font causing Russell to jerk toward the window and nearly collide with the cold glass.

‘Very good thanks.’

In front of me, Robert continued on. ‘I’m getting Herman Hesse. He’s significant and I’ve only got The Glass Bead Game. I need all the rest.’

We googled Herman Hesse. A noble prize winner.

‘Really? Wow.’

Robert always utters really and wow in reverent deep tones, which drop deeper as he talks. Suddenly I, too, am desperate to read Herman Hesse.

I ask, ‘How did you find him?’

‘Don’t know.’ We look at each other and Robert laughs, high pitched and lunatic, and people turned around.  Then we settle down to the real business of the day, which is criticising people who don’t read and Telstra in that order.

Behind Robert, a tradesmen in orange and blue strides toward my door, grabs the handle and swings it competently open. But we are not the bakery, and he reverses, turns skilfully, lifting a phone to his ear at the same time.

Robert continues. ‘I wouldn’t mind a copy of The Master and Margarita’, and I promise to comply. Two ladies have bloomed fragrantly behind him, and he straightens up to leave, courteous.

‘Ok, see you later.’ He is briefly outlined in the doorway. Then gone.

The man who wanted a book written by an old Australian rabbiter who possibly never existed

I remembered him because he stood so close to me when he asked me about this book written by an old famous rabbiter. He’d had the book a long time ago. Lent it out. Never been able to find another copy.

He came around to my side of the counter and peered at my computer screen. Told me that his old grey matter wasn’t working any more. Said that the book may not have existed. He wasn’t sure anymore.

We couldn’t find the book. I said, ‘Never mind,’

He nodded and went into the back room, and I heard him talking to his wife. She was back there with books under one arm. She had a turquoise blue jacket and iron grey smooth hair and bottle green winter weight trousers.  Her face was strong and humorous. I thought this because she when she looked at me she was there.

Some people aren’t there. They look at me with half of themselves. The other half is busy with something else. That’s ok because I’m like that most of the time.

But she was there. She said, ‘We’ve come in before. We always come in to stock up again. It’s part of our trip to drop in.’ And I thanked them for it. Then she looked at me again, and that’s when I saw something else, some extra energy or a decision reached, or a way of going about things that was actually working.

Her husband came back and stood behind my counter again. She said, ‘Rex, come over here.’ He did. He picked up her books and took them over to the door. She said, ‘Bring them back, we haven’t bought ‘em yet. What have you got?’

He looked at me seriously and then asked me about a book he used to have about a flock of sheep. Probably can’t get it any more. I looked it up and he watched closely, but nothing emerged on the internet that was of any use. He said, ‘Well that’s technology for you.’ He said, ‘My old grey matter’s not working anymore.’

He and she looked at each other. She said, ‘Come over here.’ And he did and she squeezed his elbow. She bought the books, and then they left. When they went out of the door he was looking at her and she held his arm and their hands were clasped together.

The people who walked past the shop and who were obviously all in the same family  

I was outside. I was leaning against the fence next to the shop getting some good weak afternoon sun. This family came from the bakery all loaded up, and they passed me slowly all in a row. First son: an adult walking gracefully. More like loping, so that I looked down at his ankles, automatically wondering where the loping came from. It was his ankles. They weren’t tense. This is unusual. It meant he wasn’t in a hurry. It’s been many years since I’ve seen someone walking who is not in a hurry. Most people beat past with every bone tense and fulfilled, eyes stiff, and a list somewhere.

But he didn’t. His ankles were fluid so that his feet turned in slightly with each step, a small dip, as though acknowledging something hilarious and hopeless about the footpath. He had time to notice the footpath. He didn’t even hurry toward his car.

He wore charcoal jeans, shirt and shoes and had textas and pens in his back pocket. He held paper bags and coffee. He was followed by a small child, maybe 6 years old who had the same stride and the same ankles. The child turned with every step to survey everything being offered. There was the fence, some falling sunlight, a wet pudding of leaves rotting in the gutter, and me, looking on. But it was enough. The child’s head swivelled greedily from sight to sight. He walked with his small feet turning in on warm fluid generous and tiny hinges.

Then came Dad, or Pa, or Grandpa. He walked with the same lope. But there was stiffness in the joints. He carried more paper bags and a coffee and a small fruit juice. He wore the same jeans as his son but they were deep ancient green. They were new looking and very clean. I looked at his boots because his boots seemed to demonstrate the strange family ability to walk. This unhurriedness he’d given his son and grandson. I guess it’s passed from generation to generation: the ability to not hurry.

The thing is, it was actually their faces that stood out. They all had the same mouths. They had three generations of identical jaw. Their heads turned from side to side with a smile lurking behind the jaw muscles. Their faces were smooth and the teeth slightly protruding, as though acknowledging something humorous about to happen.

I heard Dad say that he couldn’t manage the car seat buckles for Grandson. Dad climbed slowly into the front seat. Son deposited paper bags onto the driver’s seat and jogged back around to the child. He buckled him in easily, and the child was saying that he had a giraffe in his hands, and he held his small hands up to show the giraffe. His dad said, ‘I can see it. Let’s get buckled in.’

Then he closed the door. They all drove off, and I stayed leaning against the fence to get a bit more sun.

Art by Roger Wilkerson

The ballad of people walking dogs past the shop door

I get plenty of time to observe. Most people with dogs go past the shop slowly. They look at the books in the window and their dogs stamp the doorway with nose prints and understand information left by previous dogs.

 Some dogs know what to do when walking along. They lead and owners follow. These dogs don’t stop at my door. The owner’s arms are stretched out and they walk jerkily, eyes on the ground, going faster than they really want to. These dogs are usually small with snaky sharp faces and blurry moving feet.

Other dogs pump it along the footpath turning back and forth following every noise and barking at other dogs and side leaping away from traffic. They have worn out leads and owners on phones. They piss on the side of my door, and the owners don’t notice.

When crossing the road, some dogs lead strongly and owners follow. Some sit and await owner signals and then stand and walk smoothly, often leaning into their owner’s thighs to feel for the next signal.

Dogs leap and writhe and stand upright on two legs when other dogs pass. Some dogs stand with eyes closed and doze while owners look through my windows. Sometimes a back leg shakes slightly and then goes still again.

Some people carry their dogs. I just see them as puddles of fur moving horizontally with flopping paws and the ears pointing backwards.

Some people don’t have dogs and go everywhere alone.

The small tasks that are done on long weekend Mondays

It’s just traffic driving past really, not fast or slow, just endless, and the sky’s dark and the air is grey and cold. Everyone’s going home. Only truck drivers are stopping for food from the bakery. They walk past checking phones and sometimes they look in see me sitting here: one driver smiled and waved. An older couple spend ages trying to park a caravan outside my door. She stood on the footpath waving directions. Eventually they walked past my door; she had a really heavy shoulder bag and stopped to adjust it. She looked cold and annoyed. They both glanced in at me and then away again.

The carpark across the road is empty. There’s just a lady with smooth pale gold hair. She’s coming across to the bakery. She has an evening bag with a long gold chain. She’s dressed completely in motorcycle leather, including the boots. She looks as though she could go anywhere.

Families with small dogs on endless leads: a father has to untangle terriers and little children who won’t let go of the leads, and he says, ‘All right, let’s just do it slowly. Bridget let go a minute, come on.’

A man walking past fast does an about turn and stares at my door. He stacks two coffees and enters hopefully. ‘I’ve lost someone.’

She’s here, looking at books in the back room. She comes out. ‘I’ll be here for ever.’ He hands her a coffee and says ‘Keep looking. Keep looking.’ They stand side by side with their heads on the exact same angle, hugging hot coffees to hearts.

A mother and two small boys sweep past, but the little boys come back and press noses on the window. Then they move away, but the older boy comes back and stares through at something again. Then he disappears, but returns again, and then again. I cannot work out what he is staring at.

There’s a young man eating a pastie. His shoulders are hunched and he keeps one hand in his pocket. He glances backwards without interest into my shop window and away again. A young woman meets him and he says to her, ‘What’d you get me?’

She says, ‘Nothing.’ And he throws his head back and laughs and says, ‘Mate!’ Then he throws his arm across her shoulders and they walk on, and an old man with a grim face and a green Woolies shopping bag walks up behind them, and then a young woman steering a huge pram with just one hand. Her other hand is steadying what looks like loose apples on top of the pram. None of the apples fall; she is so focused on this one important task.

Illustration by Valentin Rukunenko

What was said this morning

I’ve been away from the shop because I’ve had covid. I drooped at home and read books. Sometimes, I went outside in the rain and looked up and down the road to see what other people were doing. I mostly ate instant noodles. I read a book about Queen Elizabeth I caught in the tower of London and doubting the future. Now I’m back at the shop and watching people pass the door, sometimes coming in but mostly not.

Visitors approved my covid reading choice. There’s something about Queen Eliz 1 which catches the ear. ‘Oh yes. She was amazing. And that Mary Queen of the Scots. Were they related?’

A man bought all my Asterix books (except the one in French) and said he’d inherited a stack of Tintins from his dad. He told me about a lecturer who did a thesis on Tintin. He went all around the world to investigate the stories and research Herge, or Georges Prosper Remi, who wrote and illustrated the Tintin books. He said, that’s a thesis people would actually want to read. Probably the only one.

A couple passed the window and stood in the doorway to make some adjustments. He said, ‘The trouble with these straps is they don’t work’, and she said, ‘You’ve got something on one of your thongs.’

A child went past, holding a parent’s hand and wearing a beanie with rabbit ears. They turned their head and I saw their eyes bobbing along, looking in at me before disappearing past the window.

A couple told me about the difficulties of teaching: there’s no support. Someone they knew had a pair of scissors thrown at them. They left their school. There was no support. They said the most destructive thing about schools now is the media. Once they get hold of a story, the truth will never be known.

A woman turned in my doorway and called loudly to someone out of sight. ‘Leave it there, we’re getting lunch.’ Then she walked back towards them and disappeared.

It’s cold and dark. People are dressed thickly. I saw a dad walking past my door, rugged up, scarf, beanie, everything, and his son next to him in shorts and t shirt. The child said, ‘I’m getting chips.’

Colin came in for a while and said he was getting into digital photography. We watched a couple cross the road in front of the shop: they began it together, holding hands, but then parted in the middle and went in completely opposite directions. He looked back and she waved him away. They went into separate chilly areas of the park. He sat down on a bench and she went to their car and threw her bag on the front seat before getting in.

A young man stared down at a copy of Moby Dick.  He had a bottle of coke clamped under one arm. His friend came over and they both stared down at the book. Then they went into the back room, talking about whales.

A very small child handed me a book and told me he liked peacocks. When his family left, sweeping him out through the door with them,  he was singing: dad dad dad dad dad. His dad said, ‘Come on mate. Back to the car.’

Liking the new spaces in the shop

There are two rectangular bookshelves in the front of the shop, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, bone to bone. The books are not related. But they still get on because they’ve been shelved so precisely that they must. They take up and face out, exact squares of meaning. Customers say, ‘This looks nice.’

I think they’re referring to order. Order is nice right now. When you open the door to the shop, there’s a big new free space. We moved the counter back out of the way. I prefer to be out of everyone’s way. You can get your pram in now. The space is bordered and held by bookshelves holding all kinds of possibility. That’s what I call it because you can get in the door so easily that the rest of the shop seems possible. My assistant, Callie, came in and saw the new arrangement for the first time. She said, ‘I like.’

The books sit tight and obedient. But their contents don’t. There are all kinds of strange books sitting there looking at the visitors coming in. When visitors come in, they move their heads from side to side, fast and interested. Then they say, ‘This is nice.’ They look carefully and softly at simply everything. Spike Milligan. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Blinky Bill. A Biography of Judy Dench. Longfellow. Asterix and the Soothsayer. European Trains in the 19th Century. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Rabindranath Tagore: The Complete Writings.

‘Just get it over and done with…..like…hello?’ I overheard this from two teenagers passing the door and discussing getting things over and done with. The girls walked shoulder and shoulder, heads together, dragging schoolbags.

A man came strongly through the door into my new space and then backed out again. He said, ‘Zen moment. Sorry. Books here. Sorry.’

When visitors come in together, they stand for a little while and whisper to each other. There’s no need to whisper though. It’s not a quiet place. Books are not quiet.

A mother and child browsed a while and left looking happy. The mother had bought The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She said, ‘I want to cry’. At the door the child said, ‘I’m going to die from holding in my pee’, and the mother screamed with laughter. I thought that was good.

On the inside facing directly outward so I can see everyone going past and everything that happens

Now it’s even harder to miss people. I’ve had my counter moved so it sits facing the door. I’m facing that outside space where everything  happens. I don’t have to turn my head anymore.

Things happen at lightening speed. Sometimes a person passes so fast that all I catch is an expression. The thing is: I recognize the expression even though it’s tied to their life and their shopping lists. But it’s good to be part of such a rich and filthy diorama: no solutions, no control, all cream and vinegar and colour.

Sometimes all I catch is a body movement: a shrug or a gesture. And I recognize it, and it looks good. We aren’t aware of how precise our muscles are. Or how delicate. A cheek muscle can express at least a couple of years of solid participation.

All sounds are caught in the scoop of my doorway. Sometimes it’s sheep, caught up in their own private woollen hell, squashed into a truck parked outside so the driver can get to the bakery.

Once two tradesmen (there are always tradesmen) argued at the back of their parked ute. They wore the obligatory orange and blue. One man was talking. The other looked at the ground and shook his head. I liked the way he shook his head at the ground rather than at his friend. This is how I knew they were friends. The road outside was quiet that morning. There was just them. They couldn’t see me. A bookshop is the most invisible of shops. The man looking at the ground said, ‘Jesus. Just hand it in then. Tell ‘em to get fucked.’

The other man nodded and nodded and nodded. Relief.

Once a walking floppy child went past hand in hand with mum. They stopped to look at my wooden smiling cat that guards the front window. The child was turning to soft sad tired rubber. Mummy was trying to cajole her home.

‘Look at the cat. And look at this. It looks like you.’ The child’s face, dripping downwards, suddenly solidified and turned warm. ‘Is that me?’

‘Yes, do you think?’

‘It’s me. Can I have him?’

‘No, he lives here.’ And they moved slowly on, a shopping bag and a jumper dragged along because they were necessary too.

An old man limped past; a lady next to him: his wife. He was being scolded by his wife. They were working hard at the walking but were going slowly. Suddenly he lifted both arms into the air, a gesture meaning that he had no words for it. He eyes flicked sideways and saw the gesture. Then they were out of my sight. Do you get to an age when there  are no adequate words for it? Imagine outliving language.

Once three ladies came in, taking ages to get through the door because they were bringing books in for me. One lady was bent over arranging the bags. They were Woolworths green shopping bags full of books. When she lifted her eyes to me to see if I was pleased with their gift, her eyes were there. Looking at me and at nothing else. The ladies bowed to each other and to me and to the shelves. The kindness of it defeated me that day. I didn’t know what to say.