The coffee people

Come into the shop with extra muscles and more blood than other people. Come in grinning. Eyes sparking humorous energy. Can get down to the bottom shelves even when balancing hot coffee; the bottom shelves are fun. They get the music I’m playing, sometimes executing a few imperceptible dance steps next to Biographies.

When the sound of motorbikes shaves the air away from the inside of the shop, the coffee people don’t notice. Coffee is a hot fragrant cushion. The young couple nursing steaming hot coffee look at me and nod happily. There’s another family in here too this morning, flushed and fresh from cold grass and junior soccer. They are on their way to get coffee.

One of their children bought a book about chocolate to the counter. His two golden coins were hot clutched. He handed them to me, hot, clutched, melting.

A smaller girl appeared at the counter, just her face. Then a five-dollar note flapped onto the counter in front of me.

Then her book poked up slowly and was laid next to the five dollar note: Lego Star Wars. I gave her back a coin and her eyes widened, then softened.

The coffee people cross and re cross the floor, going from room to room beaming light, carrying Ernest Hemingway and Chaucer. Reaching for Johnathon Swift, The coffee illuminating and warming sudden new interests.

I can hear children quarrelling smally in the back room.

Now the green grass soccer family are leaving, everyone with a carefully chosen book, and mum with a paper bag, a newspaper, her book, and a son burying his head into her stomach as they bundle through the door and into the cold which isn’t cold for them.

The coffee people continue, ‘What about the collected works of Charles Dickens..?’

‘We’ve got most of them.’

She nods and dives at the lower shelves. Something else.

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 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

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.

Paul Keating has an amazing intellect

Somebody said this at my window, tapping on the glass to show his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. But they didn’t come into the shop.

That’s ok, it’s the school holidays and the readers are out leaping into the shop with narrowed eyes like hunters on the path of something. One young woman announced herself to me but turned midsentence, already at the biographies and not finishing the sentence.

But that’s ok, I needed to sit down after battling the autumn leaves in the doorway again. And again. Every morning they come back and wait for me. My broom is coming apart.

When I was out there sweeping, an old lady asked me, ‘Did you get that book I wanted and can’t remember?’ But I hadn’t found it. I couldn’t remember it either, and she patted my arm and said, ‘Not to mind. I’ll leave you to your sweeping up.’

Sarah came in needing a number for a taxi. She said that what was going on in Lismore wasn’t good enough.

Robert came in after a year’s absence and started right off where we’d finished last May. His newest news was that he’d saved a lot of money by giving up smoking. He’d saved thousands. So now he could buy some books. But then he remembered that he’d taken up smoking again, and he showed me a plastic wallet of tobacco which reminded me of my grandfather. I almost said Tally Ho, but I didn’t. Robert said that the tobacco cost him $150 and looked furious about it. But then he noticed behind me on a shelf, The Secret Doctrine by H P Blavatsky, Quest Book, Theosophical Publishing House. He read all this out loud. Then he said, ‘I’ll have that.’

We looked at each other, pleased, and then talked about tobacco some more. Then he rushed out to do other errands, and Jim came in and ordered an esoteric type of book that I’d ordered before – for Robert. I told Jim, and he said, ‘I know, Robert gave me a lift in to Strath and told me to get one.’ So I got one for him. I said, ‘How’s Clayton, and he said, ‘Yeah, well you know how it is.’ Which I didn’t, but I agreed anyway.

The girl who was amongst the biographies came back to the counter with a pile. There was 1 historical, 5 crimes, 2 biographies, 2 children’s flats and 1 art book. She bobbed up and down while she paid, flexing leg muscles and looking powerful. I said, indicating Wolf Hall, ‘This is good’, and she said powerfully, ‘I know, my mum told me about it.’

Anthony came in for science fiction. An ambulance and police car went past, and then a CFS truck. He said, ‘that sounds bad’.

A silent young couple came in and looked at just about everything and left silently. I said, thanks for coming in, but they didn’t reply. A lady asked for a book about a certain type of guitar. Another lady asked for spiritual Christian fiction and then left with nothing and looking unsatisfied. I went to the bakery for a chocolate doughnut and there were none left and I came back with nothing and feeling unsatisfied.  

Then someone tapped on the window and called out to his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. The friend nodded with folded arms not looking interested. The man remained bent over and slowly examined all the other books in the window. They didn’t come in.

All in all a satisfying day. Except for the autumn leaves. Lol.

Illustration by Konstantin Mashkarin

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

After a busy Saturday, it’s gone quiet again

But that’s ok, it’s usually the way. Days like today give you time to sit and think and notice what’s actually going on. So far this morning has yielded the following:

Four old men, clearly friends, lean against a ute drinking water out of a water pig, one of those old foam ones. There is one cup, so they share it. One man wants to go to the bakery but is advised against it. They have biscuits in the cab.

When I look up again they are sharing scotch fingers around, shaking crumbs out of their sandals and saying that the town has come a long way. One man is staring into my front window.

Inside, a lady says that her library is alphabetical-  it’s A to Z, but her friends says hers is purely aesthetic. ‘Matthew Reilly is put here and Harry Potter is there. It’s about how they look.’

Her friends says, ‘That makes sense. I get that.’

‘I can’t have sets that don’t match, and I can’t have stuff without dustcovers.’

‘Mine are lined up in order of publication.’

‘You’d think that in a bookstore where we find everything alphabetically, we’d have that in our homes too.’

‘Nope.’

‘I know.’

Then they go into the back room. The old men have walked past my door toward the bakery. Guess they changed their minds.

Someone has parked in front of them and I can  hear a lady yelling, ‘You keep locking it. What are you doing? Stop locking it. Dickhead.’

And inside the shop:

‘Girl, this room will eat you alive.’

‘Is that Celtic or something?’

‘I think so. I saw it on my Tik Tok feed.’

‘The bee keeper community is strange.’

‘Maybe.’

Brenda rings for Wild at Heart for her granddaughter and I say, ‘Good to hear from you again’, and she says, ‘Oh I’ve been in hospital, not complaining though.’

A man pumps hand sanitizer all over his shoes but doesn’t notice.

Outside the old men are back with hot coffees, which they drink leaning against the ute and talk about the truck across the road – at least I think they are because they keep pointing at it and nodding.

Inside the shop, the ladies are still collecting:

‘Oh my God.’

‘Calm your farm.’

‘Look at this. The first one I got from a discount bin. It was a hard read.’

‘Russell Brand and I don’t see eye to eye.’

‘He’s a bit of a douche canoe, but I love him.’

Lorna rings me for James Herriot, second hand, please.

The ladies are leaving. The old men are climbing back into the ute.  The shouting lady has returned from the bakery with paper bags and cans of coke.  Walks quietly because she has no shoes on. The truck is gone. There’s a four wheel drive here now and the owner is walking around and around it, tapping the bumper bar with his keys.

Sarah goes past but doesn’t come in.

The man tapping the bumper bar is now talking on the phone right next to my door and saying, ‘Someone’s been at this.’ He listens for a long time to whoever’s on the phone and then hangs up without saying anything. Then he gets back in the car and drives away.

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

Pausing at the door to get the mask on properly

Visitors to the shop now have to pause and fumble about at the door before they come in because we all have equipment to manage.

‘Dale, your mask.’ This couple had to go back to the car. Then they went past me to the bakery and got coffees. Then they returned and came in, looking refreshed, and asked for good Australian political biographies and anything about breeding poodles.

‘Forgot m’mask. Gotta go back.’ This man left and came back with his mask in his top pocket, and left it there while he browsed.

‘Got yr mask?’ This man, who didn’t have his mask, was sent back to the car by his wife. I saw him reading the paper in the front seat. She browsed the shelves for another half an hour. They both looked happy.

‘Oh my god, where’s my mask?’ A young mum, who found it in the pram wrapped around half an apple.

A car went past and turned at the corner. The driver wearing a mask hanging from one ear.

A man passing the window wore a pink mask with a devil’s face, hanging sideways from his sunglasses.

A child walked by with an adult mask over his entire face, hanging onto the side of the pram so he could walk straight.

We wear them upside down and inside out, with faces drawn on, and the elastic knotted and twisted to make a snugger fit. We wear them as chin straps and wrist wraps. In pockets and wallets, in phone cases, shopping bags, shoulder bags and looped around coat buttons, thrust through belts. Clutched in one hand while the other hand manages the phone.

One girl wore an emerald green mask that was covered in gold and blue butterflies. She talked to me through the butterflies about reading and about the Divergent books, and she described her bookshelf at home.

A couple walking by paused at the window to take off masks and undo drink bottles for their small children. One child asked if you have to wear masks on the jetty.

Then he said that he’d lost his bucket on the jetty. The parents, still drinking, looked down at him. They were leaning against the window, and looking down at him, not saying anything, just looking at him with besotted faces because he is theirs.

Painting by Claire McCall

The couple who showed each other every book they found

I recognized them, they’ve been here before; they come through the door nonchalant and smooth, and head straight for their shelf.

They both lean into the shelves the same way, head on the necessary angle, flip the pages and look closely at the back of the book. If it suffices, they straighten and hold the book up for each other to see.

They lean back and grin at each other. They whisper and nod and examine book after book.

They cradle the chosen ones in their arms and move on to the next shelf.

Painting by Edward B. Gordon