Young people when it’s really hot outside

Slide and glide. That’s how they come in, and when I look up, there they are, pale and cool and never complaining. Young people stand humbly, looking up at the shelves, and then glance quickly and apologetically at me as if they shouldn’t be in here. Unfailingly polite.

It’s very hot this morning. But you’d never know it. Young people don’t comment on the weather; they just let it lie around outside and pile up at the door if it wants to.

A boy wanted a love book by an African writer, but I didn’t have it, and we couldn’t even order it, except from France. He looked at me sadly. And a girl swung about with a pile of 7 waiting for her grandmother who only had 2.

And another younger girl sat in the bird books just reading them as if they were novels. She was about 13, and wore a curious beanie, and she bought 3 books, one about The English Plover, because she loves birds.

Then it got hotter, and all the young people left, passing out into the heat without comment, and the bird girl carrying her three books in a pile on her head.

10 reasons to read Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf

I just read it again, which will make the 8th or 9th time. It was my best book when I was 9 years old. Luckily, I’ve still got it.

1. The first line is One day Polly was alone downstairs so you know where you are and what’s going to happen when the doorbell rings.

2. The third line is There was a great black wolf and he put his foot inside the door and said: “Now I’m going to eat you up!” so you know where Polly is and what she has to do.

3. Everything that happens in between is correct.

4. Polly, like Pippi Longstocking and Mrs Pepperpot, is a forerunner of some of my best female heroes: Julie (from Julie of the Wolves), Harriet (from Harriet the Spy), Ramona (from Ramona the Pest) Matilda Wormwood (from Matilda), Laura (from Little House on the Prairie), and Dolour (from Harp in the South), Currency (from One-a-Pecker, Two-a-Pecker), and Tiffany Aching (from Wintersmith).

5. Polly and the wolf fight psychological battles that a child can totally understand

6. Polly always wins

7.The wolf never stops trying

8. In the end, Polly is still winning, but the wolf is also still trying

9. It’s hilarious

10. You can enjoy it over and over for 45 years (so far)

The difference between working in a book shop last year and every other year I’ve been here

There is no difference between last year and every other year I’ve been here. There were small things, like mask wearing and checking in, but people, and my shop, basically remained the same:

  • The quality of customer-peering (through the door) remained the same
  • The record number of books held under one arm while browsing stayed the same (9)
  • The same books fell off shelves and tables in the night and dented their own covers
  • The streams of conversation passing the door were as intense, rich, and deeply textured as in 2014
  • Dogs still urinated just outside my door
  • Children still read on their knees and replaced the books backwards
  • Window books continued to draw clear, crisp and authoritative comments from passers-by.
  • Young people gazed through the front window at a single book on the table with the same unreadable facial expression.
  • Readers still bought bookmarks
  • Everyone still turned to open the door the wrong way
  • Readers still went silent when they find a book they really want and then breath slowly outwards
  • People still come in thinking I’m the bakery

What didn’t stay the same:

  • My landlord died

This was sad because Malcolm liked my shop and used to leave books for me in the storage room. It’s only because of Malcolm and Ann that I’m still here.

I’ve been really lucky for a long time.

Sculpture by Eudald De Juana

On the way to work in a bookshop

Two minutes away from the driveway, and I need to think about what I’ve left behind. I can hear books sliding across the back seat and thumping against the boot, but the one I need won’t be there.

And it’s not. I left it on the edge of the kitchen table next to a small container of peanuts, a fowlers jar preserving ring and a set of keys not mine.

So, Anne won’t get Hubert Wilkins today.

I stop at our general store and complain to Jake about Australia Post and he agrees.

I drive to Callington trying to avoid the galahs that scribble all over the roads in small groups of about 8 million.

Through Callington hoping no train comes through and holds me up for a year so that one carriage can come through at a perfect walking pace.

Through the farms, which are all perfect slabs of golden toast at this time of year.

Woodchester, stone walls and quietness and the row boat on the corner made up into a Christmas display.

Weave around the farm machinery going from paddock to paddock, one with silver tinsel tied to each door handle.

While driving, go through orders in my head not completed yet, orders not yet picked up, and wonder how to keep going with James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Into Strathalbyn and more galahs, white ones in clumps of one hundred, I can see them standing on the road and screaming in each other’s faces.

Then the ducks, quiet and always together and never knowing quite when to get out of the way of the traffic.

I watch huge trucks swerve at the last minute and somehow miss them all, and motorists swerving into the oncoming lane to avoid making ducky pancakes, and oncoming motorists nodding, fair enough, but I can see them all saying fukn ducks because I can read lips when driving this slowly.

Kids on skateboards fast and a lady with a walker slow.

The wooden Christmas trees on the corner. Ruby baubles tied to fences, a lady walking her dog with tinsel twisted through his collar.

At my shop, a caravan parked but has left just enough room for me to get to my tiny park next to the shed. A stack of bakery trays piled against the shed for some reason.

A black face mask on the ground and a small purple drink bottle.

Struggle around to the door and enter within with a good plan for the day. Decide against most of it.

Have another brief go at Ulysses.

Shelving, dusting, clean windows. Someone says, “she’s closed”, and I quickly snap the sign to open, but they are gone. More shelving, orders, book searches, message people for pickups, tidy displays, turn on the Christmas lights.

Have another go at Ulysses. Serve customers. More shelving, more orders.

A man tells me about World War 2.

I find a copy of The Incredible Journey for someone.

A young man wants a classic to read and I show him 20 possibilities, but he leaves without getting any of them. I take Grapes of Wrath, which I’d showed him, and begin reading it myself.

Someone asks me how to get to Woodchester.

Not a very lucrative day, but each day a gem.

No day is ever the same.

…cut snake virus in its doll’s house…

A selection of 6 opening lines I really really like:

1) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”
Perfume by Patrick Suskind

2) “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Brighton Rock by Graham Green

3) “It was Mrs May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me – a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth.”
The Borrowers by Mary Norton

4) “Upstairs in my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll’s house.”
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

5)”It was night when the Nargun began to leave. Deep down below the plunging walls of a gorge it stirred uneasily.”
The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

6) “The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town n the South.”
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian 

A couple looking through the door and wondering whether to come in

They almost have their eyes on the glass. I can hear them through the door.

‘Do you reckon this is mask-wearing territory?’

‘What do you say babe, want to go in?’

They adjust their masks and come in. She is serene and quiet and pearlescent and powerful. He is broad and outdoors. He bounces on his feet, cannot contain his energy, calls me ‘mate’, wears his mask crooked, and whistles with admiration at basically everything. He kneels down, stands up, bounces, straightens his shoulders, turns around, alive with purpose.

‘What can I get babe? I could go for this.’

He chooses Nicholas Nickleby. She already has a stack of Charles Dickens chin high. She said, ‘Mmmm.’ He said, ‘Babe, we should get out of here.’ Then to me, ‘Excuse me, what’s your oldest book here.’

He and I searched the books, looking for dates. He said:

‘Cool.’

‘Sick.’

‘Mate. Radical.’

Then he said to her, ‘We should get out of here, babe. I’m going nuts, look at all these.’

She said, ‘Mmmm.’

They come to the counter to pay for their books. I say, ‘Do you want a receipt sent to you phone?’ He does. I ask for his number.

‘Are you cracking onto me?’

I am pleased with his joke because he is young and I am not, but his partner gives a scream of laughter.

‘My God, as if anyone would crack onto you.’ She can’t stop laughing.

He tells me they want books for their library. For their caravan. And for their kids.

They both look at her stomach, just a flicker of a look, but I saw it.

Illustration by Deborah Dewitt

When the home library loses its mind

When I was young and had time to loll about, my brothers used to pull a random paperback from my shelves and ask me to identify it using only the gap it left. I always got them right. I knew where each book knelt as though in its own benediction each night. The Last Unicorn. The Incredible Journey. I Heard the Owl Call my Name, Josie goes Home. Every single volume of The Bobbsey Twins. When they weren’t there, I knew.

 ‘Give it back. I never said you could.’

I kept my library tight and worried about it at school. I imaged wrongly that it was of value to everyone and that everyone was dazzled by its kaleidoscope of broken skies and the urge to not travel anywhere but through it.

I was mistaken. Everyone has their own dazzle. What was actually dazzling was only my infatuation with it. But I continued collecting. Later, when I had my own bookshop, I would meet fellow dazzlers. They range from the age of five to ninety five, and I would know them by the way they turn on an axis and can’t decide.

Now our home has been rinsed through with family; a thousand summers. L plates. Exams. Crying, and broken microwave plates. Near misses. Calamity, and needing to reorganize the towels. Grandsons that read and climb and fall out of the mulberry tree and come for a bandaid. The library standing back and looking on with approval.

The collections continue, swollen and mixed, with broadened shoulders and matchbox cars around their ankles. Books have moved. The children’s flats have burst upward like pancakes and newcomers stand around waiting for a place. Joan Didion, Alexis Wright, Lahiri Jhumper, A Gentleman in Moscow, everything by Marie Darrieussecq, Kim Scott, Gerald Murnane. Books have gone; don’t know where.

The library has been forced back into order, but it didn’t last. I pushed all the shelves to new places to make new spaces, so now D is next to T, and Asterix looks at Beatrix Potter, and I can’t find anything, but so far that’s ok. I know where Bill Bryson probably is, and I know where the Text Classics are because I just read The Women in Black and put it back. There are plastic monkeys clustered underneath Little House on the Prairie where they are having kindy, and Owl Babies is always out on the floor.

A library whirls around its readers; it is never still and never the same, and its life can never end.

Image by Vladimir Fedotko

When The Book Keeper’s grandsons stay the night

Here they are, organized; in the reading room, which they call their room and then place beanies and other things of value on the shelf over the bed for in the morning.

The bed belongs to one of the aunts. You can get under there when you’re called in a tone that suggests trouble.

There’s a sensible plastic sheet on the bed in case of accidents.

The third grandson is in the bed of another aunt. He’s asleep already; he did not last to the end of the Hairy Maclary omnibus.

But in this room, where the four year old seniors sleep, the evening was lashed with argument. In Handa’s Surprise, the ostrich took the orange.

‘No, she didn’t.’

‘Her did.’

‘No, it was a avadcardo.’ The winner of this discussion stretched avadcardo to its final length. It worked. When you are four, words that turn into food in your mouth outrank the need to continue talking.

‘Ok.’

In King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, (the old paper pages worn away to silk), the King said, ‘trout, trout, trout.’

‘He didn’t pull the plug.’

‘Yes, she did.’ There was silence. They both wanted this bath that held battle ships, fishing rods, and party food with purple fizzing in gold goblets and sheeps made of cake, and iced swans with lollies in their eyes.

They read There’s a Sea in my Bedroom.

‘He got scared of the sea in his ears.’ Noah read. Max listened and argued. But they like things about being scared. They looked approvingly at the boy being scared. They looked at the sea that came into his bedroom (out of a conch shell).

‘There’s a conch shell at kindy. Beryl said the sea’s in it.’

‘Is there any sea in it?’

‘Yes. Beryl said.’

In The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the discussion became fierce.

‘What’s supper?’

‘It’s coffee.’

It’s not coffee.’

Ok, it’s curry.’

‘It’s not curry. It’s carfeey.

It’s not carfeey.’

There was silence; they stared at the illustrations.

‘She can’t have a bath because the lion ate all her bath water.

‘It’s a tiger.’

‘I know.’

‘So they go out to the café for tea.’

‘It’s the pub. It’s a pub. It’s my pub.’

‘So they go out to the pub for tea. I want to go there.’

‘Nanny, can you read to us?’

So I stop eavesdropping and go in to read. But first there is a song they want to sing about a fish. It lasts for fifteen minutes. Then we can read. Because I have told them that anything less than one hundred books before sleep is unacceptable.

…this is my way of reading…

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”


Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Image by Kyle Brock

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson