There were about six of them, they’d all been to the bakery, they all had hot food and coffee, and they’d parked outside my shop.
One man read aloud the sign on my door: “Second hand books. Something for everyone. Please Come In.” He read it in a sing song voice. Then he said, ‘Awwww. No way. Do you think anyone ever goes in?’
They all clattered past to their car, parked just past the verandah. Someone had on bright yellow, and one of them was trailing a bag with a long handle on the ground. One of them, an older man, had a newspaper.
There were two patient dogs on leads tied up under my verandah. They belong to a frequent bakery customer. They are very good dogs. One of the group, a lady, stopped to pat them.
She said, ‘Must belong to the bookshop. Not very nice having them tied up here all day.’
Then she looked through my window and saw Callie, who was working away at Young Readers, tidying up, and putting everything back into alphabetical order. The lady said, loudly, ‘Well there’s someone in here, the owner, I’d say.’
The don’t know we can hear them. We hear everything in here. The alcove doorway scoops up the sounds and delivers them to us in a teacup.
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.
“We are all a volume on a shelf of a library, a story unto ourselves, never possibly described with one word or even very accurately with thousands. A person is never as quiet or unrestrained as they seem, or as bad or good, as vulnerable or as strong, as sweet or as feisty; we are thickly layered, page upon lying page, behind simple covers. And love – it is not the book itself, but the binding. It can rip us apart or hold us together.”
“Buy books, then, that you have read with profit and pleasure and hope to read and reread. Buy books that you may underscore passages and write upon the margins, thus assuring yourself that the book is your own. Keep the books that mean the most to you close at hand, one or two, if possible, on a table at your bedside. Do not hide away your favorite books or keep them locked in enclosed shelves. Do not keep them under glass.”
Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure
A young man came into the shop and said, ‘Every time I come down here I need something. And this time I need something again, might be hard to find, hoping you can look it up and see if it’s still around.’
I waited for the title. He looked at his phone, scrolled through page after page, but couldn’t find it.
I said, ‘Maybe the author?’
But he couldn’t remember. Then he found the book. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’
I had it right there on the shelf. He lit up, surprised, and turned the paperback over and over. ‘My God, love your work. Too easy. Gee, I love your work.’
Then he paid for it. ‘$5.00, that’s so easy. Too easy. Love your work.’
Then he left but put his head back through the door once more to say, ‘Love your work.’
I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.
I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.
Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read. But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree, I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.
When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.
At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.
I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.
In high school, I didn’t do much better. I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.
I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.
But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.
I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branchin her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.
Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.
“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”
I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.
A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.
The books I am asked for every day represent the kind of reading that people are looking for right now in their life. The books don’t fit any category that I can see, except the category of The Reading That Is Needed Right Now.
The readers who have requested books recently are aged between 7 and 82. They are locals, visitors, and travellers. Some are students, and most are young readers. A few are requesting books for others but most are collecting for themselves. Most older readers say, ‘I don’t really need any more books, but I’m getting them anyway.’ Young readers say, ‘I need more, but I’m only getting these today.’ The requests never end.
Book requests include:
Asterix in Switzerland
The Pioneers of the North-West of South Australia by Norman Richardson
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Anything by Christopher Fowler
Winnie the Pooh
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Anything by Daniel Silva
All the Lucinda Riley Seven Sister books
The Hunger Games trilogy
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Any books about Paris
Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass
Book 3 of the Skulduggery series
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Any Wings of Fire books
Anything by Henry James
Dune by Frank Herbert
Possum Magic by Mem Fox
Absolutely anything by Pittacus Lore
Any atlas of the world – as modern as possible
Anything about Vikings
A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
The trouble with books is that they marry and have children.
I thought this morning that I hadn’t seen Sarah or Robert for ages, and they always used to come in to say hello and tell me what they disagreed with at the moment. Things don’t seem the same without this input.
I can hear the little portable fences around the bakery blowing over in the wind. People always walk faster when it’s windy, whether they are walking against it or agreeing with it.
Two teenage boys passed shoulder to shoulder, talking urgently: “She was just staring at me just staring at me like this.” I saw the other boy’s head turn to look, and then they were gone.
‘Fuck this for a stopover.’ Two tradesmen standing next to a dark blue ute just outside my door and discussing I don’t know what but it’s very loud.
‘…and then he pulled the rotary hoe out.’ Two gentlemen paused in my doorway to undo paper bags of hot food, and then moved on again into the wind, still discussing the rotary hoe.
‘I tried to talk to him, but he won’t talk to me.’ This is four girls from the high school. The speaker and a friend, and two more walking close behind and leaning forward to hear it all. One of them shrieked. Then they were gone.