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.  

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.

The family who read a lot

Two women and a heap of kids came into the shop. One of the women hugged an atlas. She kept looking at the front of it, turning her head to one side. A little boy chose one small Zac Powers book at a time and ran it over to me. Then returned for another one. Sometimes he took a book and flew it from room to room like a plane before adding it to the stack in front of me. He added 11 Zac Powers books. A little girl removed half the Zacs and put them on the floor in front of the counter. The boy added another one.

The women with the atlas passed the counter again in a serene ordered way. The other women had novels. She said, ‘I love novels’. Another child watched the atlas float by at her eye level and found her own atlas. She added it to the stack, standing, I think, on the Zac Powers pile, luckily left there for her small sandalled foot.

An older child piled a series of novels she’d found on the top of the Zac Powers.  ‘I’ve been looking for this a long time’. She added a Minecraft book. One woman said, ‘I don’t really know what this Minecraft is, but she does, so we’ll get it. The older child’s face became a lit lamp. The little girl added a book about snakes. Then one about frogs. The atlas passed us again, now with another smaller art book lying on top of it like a slice of something else. The Zac Powers boy zoomed and swooped and added a copy of Possum Magic. His mother said, ‘Oh good.’ And his face became the second lit lamp.

Every book should begin with attractive endpapers

“Every book should begin with attractive endpapers. Preferably in a dark colour: dark red or dark blue, depending on the binding. When you open the book it’s like going to the theatre. First you see the curtain. Then it’s pulled aside and the show begins.”
Cornelia Funke

The money exchange and the man who only got a coffee for himself

A reader in the shop needs money for her books. She calls her husband from the back room, and he comes slowly because he is carrying his own books. But he offers his wallet. Then he says,

‘You just snatched. You just took a whole hundred.’

‘Well get some more. Go get some more.’

The husband looks at me and says, ‘Oh My God.’ Then he leaves his books on the counter and goes out.

It’s a slow day. Two other people are talking about land development in the front room. One says, ‘Yes, but that’s very sensitive information.’

Browsers are moving slowly. We all have the autumn slows. The money lady is checking her phone against the books she is holding.

A group of three ladies, all wearing black jackets, pass the door, all talking fast and loudly. I hear one sentence:

‘How does she know about it none of us talk about it I mean settle down.’

Then they’re gone.

Then the husband comes back with more money and a coffee. His wife, the one checking her phone, looks at the coffee. He says, ‘Oh My God,’ again, and looks up at the roof, and then gives her his coffee.

Then they pay for all their stuff, all good books, even a copy of Cosmo Cosmolino, and go back out in the sun to the bakery to get another coffee probably. When they walk away, they are both looking down at their books and she is drinking the coffee.

Painting by Im Buchladen

We are all a volume on a shelf

“We are all a volume on a shelf of a library, a story unto ourselves, never possibly described with one word or even very accurately with thousands. A person is never as quiet or unrestrained as they seem, or as bad or good, as vulnerable or as strong, as sweet or as feisty; we are thickly layered, page upon lying page, behind simple covers. And love – it is not the book itself, but the binding. It can rip us apart or hold us together.”

Deb Caletti

Buy books then,

“Buy books, then, that you have read with profit and pleasure and hope to read and reread.
Buy books that you may underscore passages and write upon the margins, thus assuring yourself that the book is your own. Keep the books that mean the most to you close at hand, one or two, if possible, on a table at your bedside.
Do not hide away your favorite books or keep them locked in enclosed shelves. Do not keep them under glass.”

Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure

When I was small, I was bad at reading

I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.

I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.

Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read.  But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree,  I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.

When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.

At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.

I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.

I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.

But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read  H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.

I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branch in her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.

Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.

“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”

 I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.

A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.

“The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.”

The books I am asked for every day represent the kind of reading that people are looking for right now in their life. The books don’t fit any category that I can see, except the category of The Reading That Is Needed Right Now.  

The readers who have requested books recently are aged between 7 and 82. They are locals, visitors, and travellers. Some are students, and most are young readers. A few are requesting books for others but most are collecting for themselves. Most older readers say, ‘I don’t really need any more books, but I’m getting them anyway.’ Young readers say, ‘I need more, but I’m only getting these today.’ The requests never end.

Book requests include:

Asterix in Switzerland

The Pioneers of the North-West of South Australia by Norman Richardson

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Anything by Christopher Fowler

William Blake

Winnie the Pooh

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

The Odyssey

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Anything by Daniel Silva

All the Lucinda Riley Seven Sister books

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Any books about Paris

Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass

Book 3 of the Skulduggery series

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Any Wings of Fire books

Anything by Henry James

Dune by Frank Herbert

Possum Magic by Mem Fox

Absolutely anything by Pittacus Lore

Any atlas of the world – as modern as possible

Anything about Vikings

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961)

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.