What to talk about when things get uneasy

I know that people who come into the shop are a little more concerned than usual, and that if they weren’t before, they will be now. There have been conflicts and difficulties in the past, and I have had to intervene. But things have changed. The biggest change is that it is so easy to get things wrong, especially in a small shop where everyone can hear everyone else.This means I have to intervene more often.

Now I have something that can help a little. When there was angst about the government, I used it. Once, during an argument about Bob Hawke, I used it. Once, after an enraged threat, ‘Well, I’ll fucking tell you something’, I soothed the participant with it. Once some travellers from Victoria in my shop were told sharply that they had no right (to something). I fired the accuser with a new issue, and luckily it worked. A man leaned over me angrily about vaccinations, (‘it’s all about profit’), and I moved him on gently to a greater issue.

This is because there are common issues. We can bend our anger and hatred upon these, and they deserve it.

The greatest of these is phone updates.

I ask, ‘Do you like your phone?’

We mostly don’t. People bend over their phone screens for me, trying to find the words for something that, while vital, provokes endless rage. If necessary, I probe the wound:

‘Do you do the updates?’ No argument can survive this question. Everyone takes out their phone and looks at it, looking for the update still sitting there like an arsehole.

‘God, updates. With this phone, I can’t update anything. Look at this.’ And they show me the source of all evil, previous argument gone.

‘Fucking hate this phone. Don’t get an Android.’

‘Samsung. Useless. Apple is better. But…’

I ask, ‘Should I do this update?’ This provokes intense anxiety (except in young people, who will fearlessly update anything) in case I am mis-advised.

‘Don’t do it mate.”

‘Na, fuck that.’

‘Never.’

‘Do all of ‘em. Else you’ll be hacked the shit out of.’

There are other things. Printers. All people hate their printers. This includes me. They always work for the first eighteen pages… ‘

So, what printer do you recommend?’

‘God, I hate Canon. So shit. And Epsom. They’re wankers.’

“God. Don’t ask me. I got this one at home that….’

Australia Post. People look stern and severe.

‘You tell me why it takes ten days for a pack to get from here to Woodside. I mean, what are they doing with the stuff!’

‘You know what they charge? You ever been in there? You have to queue from here to the river. That’s because they’re all dickheads with fancy watches. Actually they’re ok here. But they’re shit in Mt Barker.

‘Well, they lost my stuff. Everyone knows they smash the parcels to bits and reckon they didn’t. No compensation for me.’

Developers.

I only use this for emergencies. Because after this one, everybody is family, and nobody will go home.

My covid code

Is hanging on the door. There’s five scattered about, so nobody can miss them. I don’t like them.

Everybody uses them. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t. But then I jump up and scan into my own shop. Don’t want anyone Checking the Data to think that nobody came.

Visitors are generous and careful. They stand outside in the rain and the cold, patiently fiddling.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Try again.’ They lean over the phone, glasses on the end of cold noses.

‘It says Bunnings.’

‘That’s we were.’

‘By God. What’s this shop then?’

Young people scan the code carelessly, without looking, still talking. They text a long reply to someone as they walk in. The text takes 1.5 seconds.

Some people sign in with a pen. They fill out every piece of information carefully for me.

Some people forget. Then they come back to the counter and sign in. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’

‘Better do this then, hadn’t I!’

‘Better add my name.’

‘What’s the time David?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The time. The clock. Don’t worry about it.’

David turns in a circle, confused, with two Jeffrey Deavers in his hand. His wife signs them both in. He tells me that Jeffrey Deaver has gone down in quality.

Some people show me their scanned in status. I say, ‘Great, thanks.’ And I mean it. Glad they can just do it and not get mad with me. Glad they’ll still come in and keep me going. Glad they still want to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and Agatha Christie even though the world seems a little weird right now. Glad they still argue that they should have gone to the bakery first.

Image of an actual door at Salah Eidin Citadel, Cairo, Egypt

The Umbrella

There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.

There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.

There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.

There’s mud all over the footpath;  every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.

It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.

The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.

A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.

Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.

When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.

A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.

The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

Nice little bookshop

That’s me. I heard it spoken as people walked past the bookshop this morning. They walk so quickly I don’t get to see them. I just see what they think.

He said, ‘Nice little bookshop. Amazing that it’s still going.’

And somebody answered, ‘True!’

I think, well, maybe not so amazing.

Back to Mark Twain. Somebody wants his autobiography – the University of California Press edition in three volumes. As if I could find that and then let it go to someone else!

A group of four sweep past the window. They are all talking hard.

A lady says, ‘Is that sexist?’

He answers, ‘I think so.’

Seven teenagers in a row, loud and clattery. Bent underneath school bags. They are all talking too loud for me to hear it, but I do hear:

‘Uluru. It’s Uluru.’

Then they are gone.

Back to Georgette Heyer and Harry Potter. Back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Back to Marcel Proust, Alice Munro, and Irene Nemirovsk.

The door opens and a man leans in and looks at me, retreats abruptly, closes the door. Ok.

Back to Patricia Cornwell. Back to The Odyssey.

A lady I know comes in. ‘How are you, my dear?’ I’m not coming in. I just want to know how you are.’

A man tells me all about The Barossa Valley.

Another man wants to know all about Clayton.

Back to A Gentleman in Moscow, which I have stolen from my own shelves.

Painting by Carol Marine

There are some people on your roof

They are workmen, and they’re doing the gutters on my shop; they’ve been busy up there for three days. Customers, noticing the boots treading above their heads, tell me that it’s busy up there. There are hammers, drills, voices calling out, ‘Where’s the end of  that one going?’

Crashes. Things dropping. More footsteps, faster this time, criss crossing above me, mapping out a hard day’s work. My customers look up, then down. Some lean backwards, allowing for stiff necks, and screw up their eyes to help them see through the roof.

‘Something going on up there, I reckon.’

‘You got pigeons up there?’

‘I used to do roof work.’

‘I see their ladder out there. It’s in the wrong place. They ort to go up over the tanks. Be safer.’

‘My word, what a noise. Do you have anything by Di Morrissey?’

I fiddle about and tidy the shelves. A drill shatters a customer conversation about Freud (that has been going on for some time).

‘God. What was that?’ (Freud probably).

A man told me about his successful teaching career (nobody can teach properly anymore etc) until a series of precise deafening blows silenced him with a different kind of success. He left abruptly, refusing to buy his book…which lay on the counter looking up at the dust shifting left and right under the hammer blows.

I read a bit more of The Lady and the Peacock and I can’t hear anything around me because I’m in Burma.

A man in History, jerks around at the drill. He says, ‘That’s not right.’

A young man wearing a backpack and earphones can’t hear anything either. He is serene underneath a crash of guttering. He is reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A young mother (with twin babies and a toddler) sways over the infant story books. She is also oblivious. This kind of chaos is her every day. She smiles. She’s reading a Mem Fox. The toddler leans against her. Her pram babies bubble and breath.

The drill screams.

The man in history leaves.

The toddler yawns and leans tightly against the smiling mother, and the babies in the pram joggle about, kicking against the sides of comfort.

Image from “The Sistine Madonna” by Raphael, c.1513

The books I want they don’t have

One morning a family streamed in. They were one constant weaving process that went in and out, and in and out, a big family with the nucleus gathered on the footpath outside the door. They represented about four generations. They came in slowly, but one teenager strode past them all, had a quick look and then left again, fast. They all listened to her at the door.

‘They had two of the most popular series in there, on the middle table, but the books I want they didn’t have.’

Another teenager said, ‘They had Spiderwick. Yeah, they had Unfortunate Events. Yeah, they had Alex Rider. But no Witchers. And no Camelot Rising.’

‘Nothing in there?’

‘Some.’

‘Not a new boyfriend even.’

‘Omg.’

‘Have you got Divergent?’ One of them had stopped at the desk, and luckily I did have this one. This child went back out. An adult came in from the group. ‘Do you have ‘Charlotte’s Web?’

I do. I find it, and he shows it to a niece, nephew, daughter, son –  I am not sure, but the child calls out, ‘I don’t want it.’  Three small children come in with perhaps Grandma. They want Hairy Maclary, but I am all out! ‘I used to like The Cloister and the Hearth’, says Grandma.

‘Mum, we’re going.’ Grandma hurries out with small children hanging onto her knitted sensible cardigan in sage green and dragging it out of shape.

There is a shout: ‘Alright…everyone hold hands.’

But no, two boys come back in, followed by an aunty perhaps. ‘I want Fords. Or motorbikes. Or Super eights, or something.’ They go into the back room. An older gentleman enters and tells me about Charlie Dickens. I guess he is from this family. They all have the same cheerfulness. Then he asks me, ‘Where is the bakery?’

The group of three, the motorbike group, suddenly flow back past the desk, all talking to each other.

‘They had like books on cars.’

‘But no motorbikes.’

‘Naa.’

‘Hold on. Lets look a bit more.’

‘Naa.’

They leave, taking the older gentleman with them, and mill into the group outside.

‘Kwee go to the bakery? Kwee go to the bakery?’

And then they are gone.

Painting by Soraya Hamzavi-Luyeh

A small look at a bit of world outside

I stood outside at the fence today and ate a sandwich and watched everything go past. A grey day, warm, and some rain, and a group of tradesmen over at the picnic table drinking coke and iced coffees.

A couple came past. They looked in my windows. They don’t notice me up the street a little, at the gate of the little carpark. So they don’t lower their voices. He says, ‘Wonder why Strath has two bookstores!’

‘Yeah.’

‘Don’t reckon there’s a need for either of ’em myself, I don’t.’

‘Yeah.’

As they pass me, they join hands and lean against each other.

The thing about bookshops is that their owners are so mindlessly besotted with them that nothing can dampen our enthusiasm or distract us from our purpose. Except other bookshops. Obviously.

Chris drove up in her gopher and said a bit of rain is always useful.

We stood companionably. The traffic is smooth. Cows in trucks. Chris said, ‘Look at them, poor dears.’ She’s not that lucky herself, but never sees it that way.

Lunch people with brown paper bags. Joggers. Workers. A crooked crocodile of junior primary children going somewhere, and who shout at my wooden cat in the front window as they go past.

The rain gives a smell. The wind brings my hanging balloons down. Terry comes in for gardening books and browses without me in there. He manages the Covid app on the door skilfully, calls out to me, ‘You eat your pie. Don’t you worry about a thing.’

More wind: passers-by hold onto their hair. A little boy cries, leaning his head against a pram, the baby in the seat looks out at him. The mother places her hand on the little boy’s head and he stops crying.

A man leaning forward, walking fast with a newspaper. Two youths with a radio on a shoulder, playing rap, black caps, gum, black boots, they walked in rhythm, each looking at the other carefully, sideways. I eat my cheese sandwich. Alan stops and tells me about his problematic family.  Said that Strath is made up of all sorts, and that he’s painting again, a big scene this time, and I will love it.

What readers do with books in a bookshop

It’s a good sign when people come into the shop with eyes that zing straight to the shelves. Cannot focus on much else, and they scan the Covid app backwards, without looking at it. Kneel down immediately, in everyone’s way, to look at a  small dark red volume of Cranford. Holding it gently as if it were alive, which it is.

Children stand and look down, one finger resting on the book they look at. They read the title out loud, many times as though testing it. Which they are. They stand on one leg and wrap the other leg around the standing leg as though this gives extra information somehow. Which it does.

Young men in backpacks kneel and bend easily, squat and yoga their way around the shelves, tapping paperbacks on their chins while thinking. Young women tip their heads to the side and ponder, tap the paperback on one wrist as though assessing its reliability. They say to each other, ‘Look at THIS.’

Old ladies frown and bang books on the table, expecting the same sort of strength that they are now made of. Old men shuffle and jingle coins in pockets and hesitate to ask me about Clive Cussler in case they are a nuisance. They aren’t. Young people sit cross legged and gaze at rows of books in awe, in love, in a mood to plan a library, in a passion to read the great people. They pull out volumes of poetry and plays and hold them open on laps, frowning, wondering, but who is T.S Eliot…they read lines out loud in whispers, pegging themselves to greatness without realizing it.

Some readers fan through a book with their thumbs, looking for…what…? Other readers turn a book over and over, test its weight, gaze into its face, rub its spine, read the back, the front, a page about halfway through, add it to their pile where it lays flat, smiling.

Others cradle books in their arms, stack them down by ankles, hold them in armpits, balance them, wipe them for dust, turn them around and around, squint at the contents, sprint to the counter to pay. They photograph the books, argue about them, check them against lists, smile delighted, look disgusted, bring them to the counter and argue about their merit. Tell me to find them, buy them, post them, get them, for God’s sake read them, read them, read them!

So I do. I try.

Photography by Rubee Hood