“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.”
Portrait by John Claridge
“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.”
Portrait by John Claridge
Always useful to know.
It was busy today. I don’t know why, just a usual Friday with ducks on the road. I had to dust all the shelves. There was a tiny nest in a hollow in the dust where I usually park. In it were two small hopeful blue eggs. I parked carefully so not to disturb. Over the road people are slewed about on the lawns with cans of coke and paper bags.
A mother came in with her two children. An older boy in sunglasses and earphones. A younger girl in a blue sweater. They bought a stack, and one choice was a leather bound volume, The Complete Shakespeare in black, gold, and toffee. Heavy. Gold edges. I said, ‘Who gets this one?’, and the child answered, ‘Me’, as if I should have known.
I was impressed. She volunteered nothing more. But on the way out she turned back to me and said she was making a library in her bedroom. It would have hidden shelves. One shelf would open because it was actually a door, and inside, another room, and in that room another shelf would open because is was actually a magic door, and in that room another magic door, and in that room another one….
I sat back stricken with envy.
Image by Elina Ellis
In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.
An hour later I found a crowd of books clustered around a YouTube video. They shooshed me. They were watching a demonstration on how to build a perfect guitar pedalboard.
‘What about the dance? Are you still doing it?’ I asked.
‘We’re doing it, East. We’re downloading Spotify.’
The Dickens collection had formed a considerable troupe and were ready to practice. ‘Here come the Dickies,’ everyone always said, whether it was Oliver sprinting across to the Beast Quest games, or old Pickwick waiting for the pub to open. Sometimes Charles himself came out, usually with Ackroyd, leaving together furtively, to avoid the vulgar Americans.
The Antiques and Curiosities were lining up cautiously, with bow ties, dusty coats, and mildew on the collar. Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers were setting up tables and arguing over a three sword centrepiece.
They all watched with thin faces, a Barry Oakly and a biography of Stephen Fry being sold.
The place was getting hot and busy and smoky.
The French women had set up a discussion table. Sagan, Sarraute, Beauvoir, Reza. They smiled graciously as the Canadians passed by. The smiles hardened though, when the Canadians had moved on, I saw that.
The fantasies were stringing lights. The biographies had started drinking. The craft sat in silence because the main lights had been dimmed, and nobody could see their instructions for scrapbooking or how to make soap. A fountain had been found at the back of Art. ‘Who the cuck brought in a fountain?’ The Skulduggeries were dragging it out. ‘Cool. Get in’.
They argued over music; it was too loud, too strong, too low, too dark, not cultural. They wanted Spotify.
‘Gentlemen, we have Spotify’.
‘No we don’t, Maugham, the account’s been fucking locked.’ There was a collective and dismissive curse on technology.
‘Perhaps everyone can just dance their own dance.’ This from the Atwoods, I sat up to listen.
The political biographies moved in speechfully but were hushed by basically everyone. An Australian autobiography offered some kind of infrastructure promise and was told to fuck off out of it.
The Saddleclubs stood still with mouths open and ponies reined in, silent. They were called out of it, too.
But there was an unlikely agreement, fused out of fatigue, alcohol, and fear (of the Atwoods).
I soothed the political biography, and he said, ‘We believe in women too, of course.’
I said, meanly, ‘Indeed. Although the menopause is a difficult time of course.’ I saw his eyes flicker upward. Hermione Lee was up talking with the Greers on the front table. They looked down. I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t.
Some books could not get a place in the dance.
No one liked the ex-library books much – this was because of the mess of stickers and tape that covered them.’ Sorry mate. Not in our group.’
The Ian Welshes laughed too loudly. They jumped too high and hard. They were embarrassing to dance with. Samuel Pepys, a massive biography, sat taking spiteful notes on everybody from the ugly angle and called for beer and oysters every ten minutes.
In the back room the Westerns had eased themselves around a small fire. They listened to music coming from the Natural Histories who were putting together The Dance of the Chiasognathus Grantii, which was some kind of weird stag beetle. The music came at them like chimes through smoke. They began to talk.
‘The thing is, I was normal. But did my father have time to look at a kid? No.’
The others looked out and away to give privacy. They stared into the firmament.
One shelf above, a lone book stirred, an Edward Abbey. Said nothing.
‘…and what have you ever done except murder all the losers?’ This was History, climbing down in an ordered line, harping at each other all the way.
‘Endocrine, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal….I could keep on but I don’t want to bore anyone…’
‘Neither do we.’
‘In ancient times, reading was one of the most….’
‘The witch is here; the witch is dead…’
‘Begging pardon my lady.’
At the counter, the little science fiction paperback had returned, was talking again, ‘We won’t end. Even pulping doesn’t end us. Look at old Gilman Perkins. There’s five of her in here. Look at Mockingbird. Can’t end her.’
To the Lighthouse was on the counter with me, lying on its back and writing, writing, writing, to the beat of a migraine. It said to me, ‘Did you know that manuals on life always subside after the preface? There’s a reason for that.’ Bang, bang, bang. I could hear her migraine. Still she wrote on.
But meanwhile, the front room was not doing well.
The Algonquin group of classics was being forced to come up with their dance plan.….and they had to do it sober. They sat, sullen, not even one useful verb to be had.
Someone was on at the piano. The books had ransacked the music shelves and dragged out anything with music in its title. They had found a pianist. The music was coming from the top of a shelf, a beautiful little piano by the sound of it, and a cello, that ran barefoot and lightly underneath and then over the notes of the piano.
There are books gathered up there. I can see them listening to the piano. A copy of Cards of Identity, gazing away into some unknown basin of solitude.
The German classics, dancing, elegant despite their rectangular suits. They bob and dip, a court dance, touch hands, exchange longings, move out again. The others watch.
The Saul Bellows sitting back, shading their eyes from the melody, and needing a drink.
Someone shouted, ‘Piano Man, play Piano Man, man.’ They are getting mellow. As usual they then begin to discuss things.
Jeffrey Eugenides held forth on The Pilgrim Hawk. He likes books with animals in them. He says, ‘Wescott has courage. And in the morning, I can only open one eye. Also, a dog got to me once.’ He repeated this three times.
I pictured a dog eating the book, biting into the soft ideas inside of it.
But the Murray Bails liked The Fish Can Sing. ‘Iceland is perfect, he said.
But someone answered, ‘Who wants to read about that frozen slab of geyser holes?’
The Murray Bails became bitter. ‘You are all afraid of Iceland.’
The Kenyon Review suddenly opened its covers. ‘Serendipity is no accident.’ it shouted.
‘Shut up Friedel.’
‘That wasn’t Friedel, that was Butler.’
Nobody liked being corrected. The conversation broke up.
Poetry and Plays were still arguing (because Poetry has more shelves). There is nobody else in the store even remotely interested in this conflict. Mostly because they can’t understand anything that the poets are saying, even in an argument. On the way back to the counter, I saw the Shelleys, sitting on the edge of the sea, smoking and not taking part.
The Shakespeares have joined the conflict. This always causes uneasiness because everyone claims to have read Shakespeare, and this makes any argument risky. When Robert was here once, sorting through Astrology, he overheard the Shakespeares quarrelling. Robert said, ‘Good on you all. Fuck Centrelink.’ The Bard was immediately interested, and they had a long dark discussion in the corner.
‘Look at the Lemonys. Aren’t they adorable!’
I stood up. The whole set of Lemony Snickets was moving into the middle of the room, into a square formation, Hostile Hospital at the front.
‘STOP!’ commanded Hostile Hospital. ‘You are all wretched. You are all woeful.’ They continued on, happily.
‘Weird!’ Said Salinger. ‘But I like them.’
‘Great dance guys!’ This from the Vladimirs, who have painted themselves black. They are pleased, and in a mood to be kind. Vampire books were selling well. The other groups looked at them blankly. ‘Can we even see you?’
The horse books were dancing in dressage under the window. Very impressive. I went to have a closer look.
‘Watch it East, they’ll trample you.’
‘Thank you, Philip. But they won’t. I tell you that horses can dance”.
“Not these ones.”
The horse books stopped and announced that they are heading for the lodestone. There was an uneasy pause – this meant the greatest book in the shop. It was agreed that there was one, but not who it was.
The horse books all turned in a single movement and cantered over to Pinocchio. Most of the books in the shop, I knew, had read Pinocchio, and still remembered Pleasure Island.
‘Carlo Collodi you old….’
‘What are they playing at! Bloody little Saddleclubs! They haven’t even read Pinocchio!’
And then Ibrahim Nasrallah stood up and said, ‘God made horses from wind, my friends.’
Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is a beautiful book, dressed in gold, cinnamon and black, a wrought iron spine, and always with a layer of fine clean sand following its leather shoes. The other books came forward, made to shake hands, backed off, move in again.’ Hello Ibrahim. Nice coat, man.’ They all nodded quietly, ‘ok, man’. Nasrallah smiled and moved gently over to examine the horse books.
We are, I thought, a perfect representation of lust, gluttony, loneliness, sand, aggression lunch and nomads. There is nothing from life that is not in here. No wonder it was so hot in here. We will be thrown out one day. There had been nine customers all day.
A few Saddleclubs, forbidden to take part in the dance, have moved sulkily back to Young Readers. I see them angle in behind the Enid Blytons to take off makeup and change clothes. Obviously, the riding teachers have forbidden certain outfits.
But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.
To be continued…
Sometimes people come into the shop and I don’t notice. They just appear, and not through any door that I have. When I look up, there they are. A knot of teenagers, seated on the ground, leaning back, solemn, as though here for a meeting. I can hear the trailing ends of one idea after another.
‘The point he’s making is that….’
‘What people don’t realise….’
‘With my play, I had to…..’
‘Yeah, but that exerts…’
Someone is reading aloud. Everybody listens. The reader stands up. Finishes. Everyone dives forward with an idea….’I’ve got that on Instagram…not the book…it’s on something…’
‘No, no no, pretty much…..not that one…’
‘In The Uncommon Reader…’ Someone narrates the plot of The Uncommon Reader.
‘Listen to this…’
‘I was like…’
‘There’s this really long word in this play…’
More reading out loud. An argument. A selfie is taken.
‘Oh my God. I’m getting that.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘I love this.’
‘The exhibition was in 1910…’
‘This was published in 1948.’
‘I don’t reckon…’
‘So what books are you grabbing hon…?’
‘I know. I don’t know. But I’m getting this now. I just googled it, I love it.
It was Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost they were reading from, and that they are now buying.
Then they leave, one girl hugging the ‘beautiful book’ and telling the others she can’t go out tonight because she has rehearsal.
A Tale from The Decameron, 1916, John William Waterhouse
That’s Leonardo da Vinci.
Saw it the other night.
There are high school students here, walking about the shop. They always move so slowly, lean against the shelves to discuss something else. They examine books seriously, stroke the spines, put them carefully back.
I love that one.
That’s like my 6 year old brother.
Omg, that’s cool. Fiction.
What’s this music?
These girls tip their heads back to listen better.
Omg, what is it? My mum knows this music.
I know what it is. They played that at sports day.
I’ll look it up.
They were holding onto a Complete Shakespeare. Amazed at the size of it. They stare down at the cover. One girl swings the book gently, exaggerating the weight. She places it back and looks at it sitting there.
He wrote all this. I love this book. My mum will kill me if I get this. It’s like, what about your bedroom, like, all the time.
I know. It’s Sound of Music. I think, this music. I got a crate for mine.
Do you want to read this?
Omg, is that what Roald Dahl looks like?
I love him.
So do I. Did you read Witches?
I have to go.
Omg, so do I. I’m getting this next time.
I love this owl.
Then they leave. As they pass me, they say, thank you, thanks, thanks….and then they are outside and gone, floating away in the cold wind.
Louis came back.
He wanted Marcel Proust, Alain de Botton, Jared Diamond, Karen Armstrong and Saul Bellow.
Louis walks slowly but reads fast. He has parked some way down the street and later, I help him with the books, pack the shining bundles into the back seat with the old suitcase and the eggs. He says, thanks very much, indeed, yes, for the winter reading. I love winter, it’s for reading. I’ll get that Shakespeare out you know, it’s been put to the back again.
As though his library was alive and doing things behind his back. Which they do.
When he arrived, he had stopped at the counter and breathed deeply a few times. He always does this, he says it’s to get in the stride of things. Of reading, which is active, chaotic and shattering, especially if you read like Louis.
He says I talk too fast. When I said, here are the Primo Levis you wanted, he says, wait, which ones are they? I’ll tell you why I wanted these. He tells me a story of reading and love.
When I say, here is the Botton book you wanted (about Proust), he says, oh yes, now I need Proust of course. Wait, tell me more about Botton, is he Swiss or French? He sounds French. But I heard he is British. I heard he is amazing. Remind me.
He also reminds me not to talk too fast.
He wants to read about Gandhi. He wants the best biography there is. He says that biographers are artists, artists of the world, artist of us, we MUST consider them. He lists all the biographies of Mahatma Gandhi he has already read. It sounds like all of them to me. But it isn’t. It isn’t enough: there is another. He holds out his hands, making a cradle that rocks gently, perfection.
I agree, I will find it. He says, there is always time.
Then, finally, he turns to go, but only after an interview that detailed Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, (The Gnostic Gospels), A History of Water, who wrote that? Who wrote The History of Insanity? I saw it somewhere. Tell me about Barchester Towers, I saw it as a series, had the guy from Harry Potter in it, brilliant. Is it a series? I tell him it is, thousands of pages, a commitment, and Louis straightens up, tall with joy.
He will go home, lit with passion, for reading, for history, the earth, mistakes, insanity, water, salt and sand, Gandhi, why and when, how.
Warm and quiet and raining here. A child, here with her parents looks at the sheep on the front of a nativity story book and says “lizard”.
There is a Christmas tree in a trailer parked right outside the shop and the little tree is held under yellow straps and is glistening with rain. Next to it is a box of tools and a grey water bottle and some metal bars wrapped in a striped towel.
A child presses her nose against the window and stares fiercely at the wooden cat.
A mother, passing by with her family, tells her two small sons that they don’t need books. The smallest boy sets his bottle of coke carefully on the edge of the kerb while waiting to cross safely. He holds on to the trailer with the Christmas tree and when he looks over at the tree he laughs. He says there is rain on the tree eyelashes. When they can finally walk, he forgets his drink and leaves it balanced there on the edge of the footpath, with rain on its eyelashes.
A young tradesman leaves his ute engine running while he jogs carefully around to the bakery and an old man, passing with a bottle of milk, taps the window, trying to find the driver. Then he turns and says to the street, “that’s careless!”
Three boys stand at the door and knock before coming in. The smallest one tells me he came here before and now he is back. He is holding a handful of coins – he asks me if I have any fly spray, but I don’t – I tell them where to go and they say love your shop by the way and they all bump out, leaving fine handprints on the door and lifesavers wrappers on the floor.
An old lady has come in for Christmas presents and tells me that when she taught high school, she rebuked any child who had not written in their text books. She said: make it yours, make the play yours, make the ideas yours. Why are you saving that book you silly child? I want to see it written all over, it is your notes the next person will want. She asked to see any copies of Shakes that I had and she bought four of them for her grandchildren, all of them written through with the furious pencil of previous students, and she was delighted. She bought a copy of Denslow’s Night before Christmas even though he had been a drunken old fool. Then she said she was going back to the bakery for a cup of tea, wasn’t the rain lovely, the lovely, lovely rain.
At the end of the day I have made $29 and get for free a lifesavers wrapper, some handprints, eyelashes, carelessness, the lovely, lovely rain, directions to Shakespeare and a lizard. So an intensely rewarding day.