The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

(Italicized line from Birdsong For Two Voices by Alice Oswald)

Ma’am

Two gentlemen at the front window of the shop:

‘Don’t rush me.’

‘What about that there?’

‘No, don’t rush me. I’m not one for reading. But what do you think of this fellow?’

These gentlemen, obviously friends, were outside and leaning over the sill display. The lucky “fellow” was Lee Child. They came in, and one of them picked up the book and brought it to me. They adjusted their masks trying to speak clearly.

‘Lovely day, Ma’am.’

It is.

‘Can you look after this for a bit?’

I can.

I looked up later and saw them in Cooking. Silent, both reading standing up, hats held under an elbow, breathing quietly, as you do. Later again, one of them in the chair, the other leaning against the shelf, still reading, still reading.

They finished eventually and returned to the counter with The Book of Sauces.

‘This is wonderful. Will you put these through?’

I will.

The man who paid handed the Lee Child to his friend.

‘Here. Happy birthday. Didn’t get time to wrap it.’

‘Wrap it. You better wrap it for me.’

But he was already reading it as they left. No time for wrapping.

They said, ‘Thank you Ma’am, much obliged. A lovely day.’

It is.

Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

Checking in

Everybody’s fluent entry into the shop is checked now. The door is darkened with hopefuls doing their phone. They are, without exception, patient and kind.

‘Shall we check in?’

‘It’s not working.’ A lady swayed and bent over her phone, but her group were looking into the windows, faces on the glass, eyes screwed up.

‘Look at this.’

‘MARK TWAIN.’ Said in a scream.

‘Weird guy him.’

‘For sure,’

‘This isn’t working. The lady on the glass is turning her phone around and around.

‘Turn it this way. What are you doing? Turn it this way.’

‘No good.’

‘God. Government probably changed it.’

‘It’s worked.’

‘Get in then.’

‘I think that lady at the counter’s going to give me a dirty look if I try and take this coffee inside, so I’ll wait out here.’

I heard her say it, as I pretended not to hear her say it.

Then she crept in. ‘Can I have this?’

I said, oh yes, drinking my own.

They all stood and whispered. The rain banging away outside. Everything dark. I couldn’t place them, family or friends, hard to tell; a kind of magical people, especially the lady with the orange coat because the others all gathered about her, and they held up books for her to see, but she only wanted Charlotte’s Web; I heard her say it.

‘These are good.’

‘So are these.’

‘Look here.’

Are you getting that Twain?

‘Nope.’

Charlotte’s Web?’

‘Yes.’

And they all laughed.

Illustration by Outcrowd

How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Gargantua and Pantagruel

A man bought Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais from me. It was a heavy book, and old. An oblong.

 He and his wife and another man stood outside the door on the footpath and looked down at it.

She said, ‘Good heavens, are you going to read that?’

‘He said, ‘It’s very good, it’s funny. It was banned once; in France where it was published in the 16th century. It was banned. Said it was obscene.’

The other man said, ‘Is that the one about the giants?’

‘This is it.’

‘Hilarious.’

They walked away.

Now I want a copy.

I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

Three women with backpacks

Visited the shop this afternoon hoping to get ‘a small book, but a good one because we only have our backpacks to carry everything. Oh we’ll have fun here!’

They all had stout backpacks. They were of a very experienced age. They had solid trousers, leather belts and useful scarves. They spread out around the shop on large confident boots.

‘Oh no.’

‘Where’s Marie? Look what I’ve found her.’

‘Oh no.’

‘Oh, I do admire this person.’

And they dug in, these ladies, as though scaling the side of a mountain. Their sunglasses led the way. I admired their trousers. They were experienced readers, too. They had no need to go on and on about things. They just announced things briefly, only the necessary details that other explorers must know in the snow.

‘That’s something.’

‘Yes.’

‘I might get this. Eva Peron. Evita.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is sharp.’

‘What?’

‘That pilot. The woman.’

‘What’ve you found?’

‘D.H. Lawrence.’

‘Strange man.’

‘Oh my goodness, what’s in there?’ And they went, the three of them, around the corner into the last room, not checking for danger or the weather.

‘My word.’

I could see the boots and the waterproof socks and the end of a hiking staff leaning against literature in translation.

‘It’s The House of Spirits. Allende. Doesn’t that remind you of when we were young.’

‘Oh, she’s fine.’

I listened to them surveying the coastline. I heard a book fall to the ground.

‘Look out. Look out.’ I listened to them dodge an avalanche.

‘This’ll fit.’ I heard them discussing Travel.

They came to the counter to purchase their books. The Virgin and the Gypsy by D. H. Lawrence. One lady said, ‘It’s for travelling.’

Another lady said, ‘The thing about the classics is that there are no swear words in them.’

The third lady, passing behind her, said ‘That’s not true.’ And they adjusted their glasses and passed out of the door, back out onto the Himalayan slopes.

Photography by Elias Goldensky

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.