I remember

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Before I had a bookshop, the idea of having one lit up the back fence like some kind of unwanted answer from the past.

I remember looking at empty shops. When I found one, I thought, well! I never expected any kind of commercial success, but I did hope to survive. What the shop was to look like was paramount. It had to look like Diagon Alley –  because this was what I liked. Thus, the shop was based on what I wanted, what I liked, what I thought was good. A good selfish start.

(I had a lot to learn.)

Once a child said, “This is like Diagon Alley’, and sealed the happiest day of my first year.

I was surrounded by thousands of oblongs, each one containing an unexpected rich fuse. I felt so wealthy that I had to lie down and cradle my head.

It was not possible to explain such an abandonment of logic.  I remember experiencing it early in life; after reading Tubby and the Lantern. This was because Tubby and Ah Mee had a bunk bed.

In Little House on the Prairie, there was snow.

In Sam and the Firefly, there were lights, gold gems stinging an emerald blue sky.

In Whispering in the Wind, Crooked Mick could sit on a horse and drink two cups of tea while it bucked.

Later, Helen Garner, John Steinbeck, Dal Sijie…. uncovering the diabolical ache of life without solutions. So much. So little time.

Then, repeated visits to Jeff’s Books to learn how to do it:

What happens if…..

What do I do when…

Who is…

What is…

How do I…

What should I….

How can I…

Finally, back to my shop to actually do it. I had to learn how people read, and why. This was different, and it was difficult, and it still is. So much to learn, so little time. Luckily,  I recorded it all.

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A small business surviving

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Just a note to thank everyone around me who sends people my way. I can’t afford to advertise, so word of mouth it is.

Small businesses don’t survive so well anywhere these days – but everyone who drops in on a visit here, tells me it’s precisely because of the small businesses in Strathalbyn that they come.

And of course books are supposed to be “on the way out”. But books are always on the way out, or at least on the way somewhere (in people’s arms). And young writers everywhere are writing madly. And reading.

So, it’s worth staying on in a micro business that means no profit but endless joy. Not that hard to keep going!

And thank you to everyone who reads my stories. At first I was just writing them for myself – because I didn’t want to forget the people who came to the shop. But now, when there is something important to capture in writing, I am excited to tell everyone – look at this!!

Readers, and what they do – so astonishing to me. I am glad I am not alone.

This Couple

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This couple came into my shop but they weren’t walking on our earth. It was cold, freezing, but they weren’t cold.

They seemed to tread a path across some other realm of private joy, with all of tomorrow’s ideas.

They sing. Exclaim. They howl with joy. Call out to each other, did you see this, babe?

Do you want that? You should get it! Get it!

They remember yesterday, and the day before.

Look at this. This is great. This is so funny. They look at each other.

She kneels in art, bending over the books with the most tender attitude. He strides around, invincible. They look for each other.

‘When I was a kid, I looked up and up at books on a shelf. Now I’m that height. We’re going to have shelves. I love cats. This is how we’re going to be. Our kids are going to have books.’ They look at each other.

The shelves, the books, everything, leaning forward, listening in astonishment. The windows change colour.

Winter withdraws, a gracious defeat.

 

Winter and reading and a glass of wine

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Under the door of the shop there is a gap, and a thin straw of cold enters quietly, all day long. I have fingerless gloves. Excellent for typing. For looking up any possible gossip about Virginia Woolf that I may have missed. Winter is always bright with possibility because to stay in is acceptable.

One couple came in this afternoon and said, it’s warm in this little place.

He looked like Terry Pratchett, sort of intensely occupied. She looked like Vita Sackville-West, so was probably looking for Virginia Woolf.

They stayed in the room furthest from the warmth for ages, but didn’t seem to notice it. They had, each, a mighty selection when they finally came to the counter and noticed me. I said wisely, ah, the winter reading….

He straightened up in surprise, well, yes of course. He had three Terry Pratchett books.

I said, with a glass of wine….

He straightened up again, this time with joy, well yes of course. We have the place for it at our house, an old place, space for books. The shelves are all bending. Her stuff. He looked at her with an expression of acute happiness.

She presented her Margaret Atwoods and nodded, nursing that private power that comes with Margaret Atwood and husbands like him, and said, it’s winter, time to stay in.

They bobbed back out into the weather, serene, parting the winter into two fields with their own bright path right through the centre of it.

 

Old House in Stepney, Adelaide (photography by me)

 

 

The Queen

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There’s a family at the front window of the shop. The child, a granddaughter, presses her nose to the glass, breathing fog. There’s a grandpa who does not want to come in.

There’s a grandma who does. She opens the door part way and says, are these new books do you think? He says, yes, meaning, so let’s not go in.

But she creaks the door a little further. He looms up unhappily behind.

You’ve got enough.

But Grandma indicates their grandchild. I mean for her.

He subsides. The grandchild (the Queen) squeezes between them, through the stone pillars of the family, through the gap, and passes regally into the shop. She asks me for Cat Royal. She is up to volume seventeen. But I only have volumes four and eleven.

Grandpa looks relieved. Let’s go then.

But the Queen has found Goodnight Mr Tom. She won’t budge for now. She repeats the title in a sing song (they have read this at school). She thinks she might read it to Grandpa, because it is about a Grandpa. He is standing near the door but she commands him toward the cane chair next to Gardening. He breathes out, longing for a coffee and one of those cream buns next door, and accustomed to his way. But the Queen slices his power into cubes and leaves them kindly on the floor. She will read and he must listen. He takes the cane chair, organises his enormous outdoor boots out of the way. The book is only some three hundred pages and will not take long. Grandma, in Art, looks at them and turns back to Hans Heysen.  Their granddaughter chooses Mr Tom and Grandpa, stiff with sitting, thanks me kindly, thank you very much, they all read except me, and then they all leave for the bakery, coffee and big cream buns.

 

You’re a liability.

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My husband and I had to make a will.

This is something we had intended to do for years. I gave the details of my shop (proudly). I thought the lawyer would list it as an obvious asset. But he didn’t. He described it as a liability and I had to correct him, the idiot.

But he said (kindly) that my shop is not an asset, that as it made no profit and the outstanding lease was probably worth more than the stock and plant, it was a liability. He said it was worthless (kindly).

This means to gift or will my shop to anybody else places that person at a disadvantage. This means best not include it in a will.

I thought, well, my shop is definitely an asset for my landlord. The asset just landed in the wrong place. And, when I was teaching and wanted to do a bookshop, and kept putting it off, it became a liability NOT to do it. And a town without a bookshop has a liability.

One definition of liability is: a thing whose presence or behaviour is likely to put one at a disadvantage. But Strathalbyn has two bookshops, me and Jeff’s Books, both of which give the town an advantage (I read this on Facebook so it must be true).

This makes both of us ASSETS. This means I am an asset in the wrong place (ie behind the counter), no salary, no superannuation, no holidays, no sick pay, work for nothing and there’s never been a day in 8 years when I can’t wait to get there and be a liability.

I win.

Artwork by Masahiro Sawada

 

 

 

Alone

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This morning, when I am unlocking the door of the shop and balancing books and tasks, there are three friends waiting there, leaning, waiting for another friend who is at the bakery. They wear school uniforms but not of the local school. They are all watching their phones. The missing friend arrives while I am setting up, he carries a guitar case. One of the boys says to him: are you playing tonight? And he answers, yes, but not basketball. The other boy leans backwards and angles his phone as though to take a picture of such folly. He says, you are man! You have to play. The boy with the guitar says, I am, but not basketball. Playing this, by myself.

Artwork by Pascal Campion

The Bookshelves

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Many customers describe their bookshelves as unfinished. Everyone tells the story with pride. One lady told me that all her shelves were double stacked. She said this with glee and gluttony, looking at me carefully, looking for disapproval. I said that mine were triple stacked and she screamed with happiness. Her husband looked at her and said it was time to go.
Michael said that he had books in Spanish, the most beautiful language.
One man said all his low shelves were broken. He has just wedged them up with beer bottles and old westerns, does the job.
Everyone says they should not get any more books but they do anyway.
All children examine a book from the outside in.
Young people who are friends and who come in pairs or triples stand in tight groups and say oh my god over every book that is good. They will do this for ages.
Old people who say that young people don’t read anymore are wrong.
Louis always says to me: what’s good at the moment? This means any book about Mahatma Gandhi or 20th century art. He has been given a new bookshelf and wants to fill it even though he already has more books than he can read in his lifetime.
One lady said that her husband threw all her books out when he left so now she is out to get another library together again. She said she is pretty happy right now.
One lady bought her son a stack of books for Christmas but then she kept them all for herself.
Young men say: sweet or brilliant or that’s really keen. One young man said that Freud is a radical and a sweet gone read. One boy said that the only one is Tolkien.
One lady said that she would not read Mark Twain.
One man needed a copy of the same book for his three adult children because otherwise they would fight. He said they were all in their forties.
Peggy is really sick and is going to read all her Game of Thrones as quickly as possible and this made me feel really sad.

The New Shelf

shelfI have a new shelf. It is new and handmade and for my birthday. It sits upright and tense, new, in the bedroom, rubee red, beautiful, anxious and ready to house the treasure for which it was made. I am lucky to have a husband who can make magic and that properly, so it lasts forever.
So, who was chosen? Books, this time, were selected and taken to their seats based on how they were dressed at the time of their publication. So, if lined up at the back door of paperback hell, well, no. If they still wear the soft leather of yesterday, then, yes.
If modern with a movie cover, then no fucking way,
If Easton Press, that superior leather bitch club then yes.
If with broken spines, dented knees, lost dentures, dandruff or a history of drunkenness, then no. (But they ( Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker) certainly wouldn’t want to be there.)
If beautiful in all weathers, then yes.
If a gift from afar, from friendship, from love, then yes. ( Letters of Henry Handel Richardson, complete).
Self-help books, those pretentious sons of. No.
From gifted, lifted libraries not my own but given to me, then the yes, voted immediately. The gold text classics, Australian literature, sit up the top tier and give sun. Yes.
A mighty thousand-page volume of literature by women. Obviously.
If clothed in the colours of the Arabian Nights, sapphire, emerald, gold, the dazzle razzle music of insanity and violet, and the sky between twilight and forbidden. Yes.
Dante. Ok.
Things I have not read, have read, might read, plan to read.
Night reads, mostly.

When I Was in Grade 4

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When I was in grade 4, I got into trouble for doing the wrong thing. This, back then, was to read all the readers in the box too fast, and then ask for more. The teacher said I was selfish. I tried to read more slowly, and I tried really hard, I ached with slowness and generosity and cooperation.

But then I committed a worse travesty. Our grade 4 task, back then, was to write a review of one of those books. I chose the best one: about a goat and possibly a wizard and there were white and purple illustrations and this little reader had been read a thousand times and not all by me. I believed that to review meant to write out the whole book, word for word and so I did, my pencil wearing down in spirals of ecstasy, the words printing themselves in disbelief.
The teacher said: is there anyone so stupid as you!
She made me jump and I crept back to my desk, wondering if I was still there. But I was and I was and I was. The teacher had handed me back, in contempt, my lovely copy, to keep.
And so at the end of the day the teacher packed her bag full of bad temper, fatigue and the end of summer in 1974 and I packed mine, choked it to the straps with treasure, my own copy of a book about a wizard and possibly a goat, copied out by me, and then I dragged its immense value home, dancing.