That’d be a good read

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People are looking in my windows again, reading the titles of the books aloud, passing  divine judgements.

‘Churchill: The End of Glory. God, look at him.’

‘Gandhi Before India. That’d be a good read.’

It’s cold outside. The leaves continue to slide in under the door. People walk to the bakery and take food back to their cars, lean against the doors, blinking at the warmth. Gaze at my displays.

‘I think they’re all new age books.’

‘Want to go in?’

‘Nope.’

Small groups cross the road cautiously, lighting up when they see the bakery open and only a small queue. They tap my window kindly on the way past.

‘It’s open again.’

Another pair talked loudly as they sped past.

‘And we went around and around all over the place, and then we said…. stuff it. Nothing’s open anyway…’

‘Fair enough.’

A couple come in and ask me for permission to browse. They showed me their hands as though for inspection. I said, ‘Yes, please do. Take your time (take a year).

Andrew, who is 92, picked up his copy of Exactly, and said that it’s a strange time right now, but he’s known worse.

A lady came in and went out again. She said to her husband, who was still browsing, that she was going for a large bun so they didn’t turn up empty handed. He didn’t answer.

Each time a car passes, sunlight strikes its windscreen and sends a brief oblong of light against my door. This heartbeat is interrupted only when someone walks past. Footsteps, a cluster of shoulders across the window, a cooling of the light, someone saying, ‘Come on, you don’t need any more books.’

But they do, and they come in and ask for Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve or anything on mushrooms.

The structure of the day

alexandre-perotto

 

I wrote this just before Christmas in 2015. The shop had started to become something, and I was beginning to fit it. Again, I realise (now) that it was the regulars that made it happen, and that a small town is the best place to be.

“The structure of each day in the bookshop has become quite nice.

Each day forms, bulges out toward the afternoon, trims itself, and tries to return to normal by closing time.

Each day the flow of information is generous.

Each morning seems to be about Henry James.

At closing time, I am anxious to get home and keep going with Henry James. I am slow. Leon told me that I am slow with books, it is true. But I am justified – The Spoils of Poynton is a thicket. I have to go slowly.

Young families wash in on a tide of enthusiasm and spare time because the school holidays have begun, and it is summer. And there is a new Star Wars film. When they leave, the door is covered in fingerprints, and there will be an empty juice bottle amongst the Geronimo Stiltons.

‘Where’s that book The Cross Sections of the Man of War? Is it still here? Last week it was.’

‘Nanna is getting us books and we can pick our own. This one is about the war, but it’s book two, so do you have books one and three? I’m getting it anyway.’

‘Do you have William Gaddis? I’ve been looking for The Recognitions all my life. It’s up there with Gravity’s Rainbow and books like that.’

In my spare minute I have another go at Henry James. Not many people have ever asked for his books.

Karl came in with his book list and told me that his eyes gave way earlier in the year, which was disappointing as he has always been one for the written word. But now he is fine and ready to roll.

John complained that every time he went to the bakery his doctor would go pass the window and see what he was eating and then give him a rocket because of his health – his cholesterol is way too high. ‘Small town bullshit that’s what it is. You can’t even take a piss without somebody telling everyone at Woolworths about it. I’m enjoying that Dick Francis though, the only one of those crime mugs that can actually write.’

I am lucky to receive a consistent commentary on the weather. This is a topic with a satisfying variety of expressions available to share it.

‘How’s this heat? Keeping you busy?’

‘Cool in here.’

‘This heat is ridiculous!’

‘Good weather for reading, that’s what I say.’

‘Foul weather. And here I am out in it.’

‘Damn strange weather!’

‘Damn fine weather!’

‘This weather takes the cake.’

‘Don’t know how Christmas will go with weather like this.’

‘Heat’s bad but nothing like in the sixties.’

A lady told me that Gould’s Book of Fish has her flabbergasted.

All day I am offered suggestions for the best things to read. I free fall amongst the suggestions.”

 

Photography by Alexandre Petrotto

Dad

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I am at the shop, but it is not open. There is lots to do. There are spiders in here. I am cleaning and polishing, waiting for the day.

While I work at the dust, I watch people go past. Little strikes of life, flaming up the windows, then disappearing again.

‘She’s got horses, she’s got bloody dogs, what else is there going to be….’ This was a couple, walking swiftly. Everyone walks swiftly, now, under obligation. He, the listener, was gazing down at her, showing concern, getting a reply ready. She was carrying a bag, leaning forwards, outraged about the dogs and the horses.

‘I’ve always had an interest in war histories.’ This was an old man who was hustled into a waiting car. ‘Get in dad.’

Keeping dad safe.

But dad was looking out at the books in the windows. His eyes the size of eyes, seeing books, unable to get them.

The dog man was over the road, standing at the BBQ, standing at the required distance. His laugh, which I can hear from inside the shop is still the same, up and over and not respecting the required distance. His dog sits patiently.

A couple came past (swiftly) and saw someone they knew. The halted. Their dachshund gave a small shriek as the lead gripped his neck. Then the couple remembered, and continued on (swiftly), mustn’t stop. The dog whirred into another trot, its legs circling like clock hands going too fast. The lady said, ‘Come on. Quickly.’

John cycled slowly past; on the back carrier of his bike was a bunch of carnations, tied securely.

‘Did you eat all your Easter eggs?’ This family passed (swiftly) all arguing. Someone has eaten more than their share of Easter eggs. Unfair.

Two people, maybe a couple, throwing keys. ‘You threw it on the wrong side, wake up fukr’.

A mother and two children, scurrying. ‘We can’t go in, its closed, but it’ll be open again.’

One day. For sure.

There is a body language for books

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You would think that people who come to bookshops just look at books.

No.

People become what they are looking for, and they cease to exist (here).

It isn’t about hunting for a bargain.

People stare. Young people inhale a sharp breath. Some readers rove silently and notice things like the noise next door, colours, shelving, fonts. Their backs go tense whenever they recognise something.

Some only look for one thing, and then usually leave without it, still cheerful.

‘Oh well, worth a try. I’ve been on the prowl for it for about, I don’t know, probably a hundred years or more.’ They rise up on their toes to show endurance.

On old lady, when I found her a copy of Lost Adelaide, said, ‘I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!’

She banged her purse on the counter and leaned back to laugh at the roof. She had lived in a cottage on West Terrace in the city centre as a kiddie. That old house is in this book. She comes to Strathalbyn every six months to have her car serviced and walks slowly up to my shop wearing shoes made of determination.

Many people whisper. Some say that certain books are shit. Conversations flicker; people talk to themselves, unaware.

There is a body language for books.

Linger, fingertip the books, stand on one hip, nod to nobody, hunch shoulders, shiver. Sing a few notes. Sigh. Die. Take the argumentative stance. Gaze in a daze. Drop down to the floor, read on knees in absolute silence.

Children bring their bikes and scooters in for safe keeping.

One small girl danced with a book balanced on her elbow. She swayed slowly, and the book rocked willingly with her. She said, ‘Look at this’, to her brother, who frowned and did not look up.

He kept reading, and she danced magnificently on.

 

 

The Unsquare Dance

Artwork by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)

Andrew has a journal with every book he wants written in a neat list. The other morning he showed me the next list – about 60 books.…. can I please find them…?

He reads history.

But now he has added John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and Solzhenitsyn, and he almost shouts. ‘There’s so much. So much. It’s so great. Where’s my glasses?’

He turns around in circles as he speaks, checking the other shelves, forgetting about his glasses.

He says, ‘My God, that’s Brubeck you’re playing. Good for the mind.’

His glasses are in his hand. He puts them on and stacks up his books to carry out.

I caution him. He tends to read as he walks.

Outside, some young men are walking past, leaning forward into the wind, moving fast. One of them is yelling to the other:

‘I’m not saying the footy oval, I’m not saying that…’

Andrew, eyes on Kafka, moves gently in front of them. They look up, surprised, and part abruptly to let him through. They resume.

‘It’s not the footy oval, it was the other way….’

 

Artwork by Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)

 

 

Reading a children’s book slowly and reluctantly

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A lady had bought three children’s books (for grandchildren) and tried to leave. Christmas things to do etc. But she was sabotaged on the way out. The Smallest Bilby and the Midnight Star on the window shelf stopped her exit. She came back and picked it up. Looked at the cover. Brought it to the counter. Outside, people rushed past. She read it though slowly, thoughtfully. Then she said, ‘Damn.’

We looked at each other understandingly. The book had won. She carried it out, I watched it go.

 

Three ladies look through the window at the political biographies

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The political biographies occupy the window in an arrogant and useless kind of way.

Three ladies are out there, together, come off a bus across the road. I can see the driver sprinting for the bakery.

I can hear the ladies. They are bent over, peering in.

‘Sue was reading one of his books…’

They laugh wildly. (I wonder, who is Sue…?)

‘Caroline read it, too. When she…you know…’

I knew she wouldn’t lend me, so I asked for it at the library.’

‘They take an age though.’

They all agreed that libraries take too long. I still don’t know what they are referring to. I remain still. Eavesdropping is rude. It would not do for people to know. Is it Paul Keating? Surely not.

‘I wouldn’t mind it. She said it makes you feel good.’

(Paul Keating?)

‘You know you can read it and…’

‘Enjoy it.’

Whee yes! That’s what she said.’

‘I’m going in.’

‘Anne’s going in, bless her’.

“Anne” poked about amongst the political and knocked Keating to the floor. She picked up The Happiest Refugee and brought it to me. She said, ‘A hardback, no less. That makes me happy. It’s Anh Do!’

She opened her kind handbag and found the money. She looked at me and said richly, deeply, ‘Read it read it read it! You must read it. It’ll make you feel good.’

Then she left, thrusting the book at her friends, who bobbed up and down and exclaimed, ‘Anne, you’re a one!’

And they walked on, Anne with the book, and the others talking about having a colonoscopy.

Artwork by Pat Brennan

Dutch

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A group of people came in off the train. There were about fourteen of them, all friends and all speaking English and what I thought was German, but turned out to be Dutch.

They loved the books. They moved from room to room. They knelt to read the children’s books to each other, in Dutch and in English, a working counterpoint that swam in bright notes all over the shop.

The husbands were shouted at. They were too slow. One man wanted a certain picture book with a kangaroo on the front. They stood in a circle around the book, tapping the pictures, talking about the kangaroos and the fairy penguins. Then he couldn’t find his wallet, or his phone. He was shouted at again. The words were beautiful, effective, unfamiliar. The wives waved bags in the air and made shushing sounds. They made sounds of impatience. They made sounds of derision. Fluent cascades of words and argument clattered about everywhere, Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, Asterix were all examined. A John Grisham book was thumped back into the shelf.

No, no, no, no! A husband offered a possibility. But, no!

Two husbands went outside and stood with their shoulders raised against the shop. A wife tapped the glass, and they swayed but did not turn around. They looked across the road.

There were so many conversations. So many books. So many opinions. Somebody brought some books to the counter and said, ‘We’re from Holland!’

Then it was time to go. The husbands were shouted for, ‘The train, the train.’

When the last person had gone, it was quiet.

 

Painting by Kenne Gregoire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Bored…maybe…

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Yesterday a customer came in to dodge the rain.

He swayed in the doorway nonchalantly. He doesn’t mind the rain. And he’s a reader (he told me).  Leaned back and then forward, examining the books. Shrugged, uninterested. Looked at The Shorter Pepys and said, ‘God! What is it?’ I said nothing. Pepys can take care of himself. I won’t defend Pepys. His behaviour with the maids etc.

This customer took his glasses off and examined Pepys again. He said, ‘Not really reading material. Not a short one either.’ (1154 pages).

He put Pepys back and stood still, whistling, hands in pockets. Bored. He disappeared into the other room. I kept on working away at the counter. He came back and picked up Pepys again.

He rolled his eyes and rocked back and forth. ‘I don’t have time to read. Don’t understand how people do actually. Didn’t really come here for a book, but….. ok. It’s mine.’

He paid, and he and Samuel lurched back out into the strange November rain.