There’s a boy turning rocks over in the bay. I noticed because of the way he balanced himself on two larger rocks and then leaned to pick up smaller ones, one after another. He inspects them with his nose almost on the smooth skin of each stone. The bay he is working in is silent and hot. The child labours on. I can hear the soft click of each rock as he replaces it. Every now and again, the plop of a stone sliding into a rockpool. There’s the horizon, a bar of blue above him, the black spoky jetty to one side, and a row of shacks, oblongs of colour, holding the other side. And him right in the middle.
“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer,
the wheel. Once invented it cannot be improved.
You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon”
Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016)
Photography by Andrew Potter
Last Friday it was hot outside. Everyone was slowing down, and children were walking with their eyes screwed up.. The glass along the front of the shop was hot. The purple tinsel waiting to be put up was warm, and when I went home, the ducks sat on the side of the road with their beaks down and eyes shut.
People still came in to look for books. The man who came past the window was moving fast. This is why everyone inside looked up. He was striding along, talking on the phone without looking left or right, and he had his phone on speaker.
‘He said that what he really respects about me is that…..’
The other person said something.
Then the man that we could still see stopped dead, and leaned back and laughed hugely, and banged one knee with his hand and said,
‘Oh mate, thank YOU.’ Then he walked on, was gone.
Painting by Elizabeth Jose
A man and his son, maybe. I heard them talking together in Classics.
‘You have to be careful of the translation… I’ve got a rubbish translation that I picked up somewhere…’
The man speaking leaned in, hands clasped behind his back, reading titles closely. Peruse, sigh, agree, nod, frown, turn away, turn back, ‘Well I can’t see that without my glasses…’
His phone in his breast pocket gave away a small sound.
‘Is that yours?’ He called to the younger man in the next room.
‘No, it’s you.’
‘Probably something useless then.’ He fumbled with the phone, uncomfortable with its intrusive glass mouth. He held it close and read it slowly.
‘Oh, they’re waiting for us in the bakery. They’re on a table at the back.’
He put the phone away and drifted along the shelf once more. He picked up Saul Bellow and Balzac. He balanced paperbacks under one arm. He was adroit. His eyes were narrow with pleasure. The young man, his son maybe, came out with David Foster Wallace. His eyes were narrow with pleasure.
They browsed on. They did not go to the bakery .
Illustration by Andre Martins de Barros
…came into the shop this morning in a group, supple and swaying and swishing all about, looking everywhere before settling in front of a shelf, or being caught by something – as is wont to happen to young people; they go from shivering everywhere to absolute stillness. Then they talk in half murmurs and bits of sentences, and their friends answer back the same way, and nobody minds. They are young, and they can relax all their muscles, not needing to leave any limb still tense with yesterday’s banking. They fold their hands and their lips in the same way. When they leave, they thank me over and over and look back to make sure the door is closed properly.
Image by Pascal Campion
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
They are here in the shop. They are blue, cream, and white, and happy with the weather. Their heads go from side to side, looking at everything fast. They talk at the same time and stack books back on the shelves, placing them exactly as they were before. One lady taps the spines back into soft lines with her fingertip. Lovingly. They call to each other, and their heads go from side to side again as they look at each other’s books, and then back to their own books.
One says, ‘Quick, the lads are here.’ They shuffle and stack harder. One shows the other a picture in a book and they both give quick screams of laughter. Two men come in. The four of them gather tightly. One lady is balancing some books on one hip, ‘I’m getting these, and she thrusts them at one of the men, and he looks down admiringly. He says, ‘Did you leave any for anyone else?’ and the ladies give small screams again, and the man looks happy.
Illustration by Inge Look
He sat and waited patiently for her, who, like all reading children, took the necessary time. He sat in the only chair here, patient and alert. She chose and chose. He leaned back and yawned. He flexed his hands and looked at them.
He stood up and browsed for a bit. She read on the floor with her nose resting on her knee. He flexed his patient knees and turned to look at her. She was reading. He yawned and waited and looked at her again. She was reading.
Then she stood up, he swung round, and they came to the counter with her two books.
Suddenly he asked me about a book – but he couldn’t remember the author. He hesitated and thought. Then he said, ‘I’ll just look it up.’ The child, hugging her books close, leaned backwards. Her back is a slender wand. She is looking at the roof, but her eyes swivel and regard the father. She has a small smile.
We can’t find his book. We search the internet but cannot find it.
Then they leave, pass through the door and go back out to continue their life.
Painting by Darren Thompson
A couple came in, and he said to me, ‘But don’t you think Kindles are better? This is what I do. I go to the shop, see the book, look it up and download. See?’
He raised both hands in the air to show me how simple it is. ‘See?’ His wife looked at me and said nothing. He shrugged his shoulders up and down to show us easiness and simplicity.
He went on talking about kindles. His wife moved over to Art and knelt down to read. He walked around, relaxed, commenting here and there. He showed me a book (Sherlock Holmes) and said, ‘Look at this.’
I looked at it, and he said, ‘Would anyone want this?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’
He nodded, ‘Ok.’ Then he said, ‘I like to read but I want to save space. See?’
Then I said that I liked kindles, I admitted to using the kindle ap, which delivered me recently a rich and full copy of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. When choosing buses and bus routes, I search for the longest slowest path to the city so I can be with Isabella and see how she recruited her health in Japan. After all, I may need to do this too. Anything that delivers literature, I want. I want a kindle.
He was polite, ‘That’s good. But what I do is…..’ He told me some more incredible things.
Then his wife came back with an enormous pile of art books, and said, ‘Here, get these,’ and he quickly pulled out his wallet and paid for all of them; it was a considerable pile, high and aching.
The Letters of the Great Artists, heavy and boxy and seductive, was on the top of the stack. It took up a lot of valuable space in the world. In it, Claude Monet complains (in a letter) of old age. He slashes a canvas because he cannot reach the high notes of the colours he needs to reach. The book is a deep scornful red with thick cream pages done by Thames and Hudson (with 150 plates, 51 in colour) and a delicious bitter coffee stain stamped on the satisfying last page, As usual, I look at the buyer darkly. Maybe I should have kept it for myself. I am likely to never see another copy. I slash at my canvas because I cannot reach all the books I need to hold.
She marched out with her books, and he followed, checking his phone for reasons to feel better.
Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.
Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.
Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’
A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.
A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’
He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.
She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.
Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.
Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’
Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.