The difference between working in a book shop last year and every other year I’ve been here

There is no difference between last year and every other year I’ve been here. There were small things, like mask wearing and checking in, but people, and my shop, basically remained the same:

  • The quality of customer-peering (through the door) remained the same
  • The record number of books held under one arm while browsing stayed the same (9)
  • The same books fell off shelves and tables in the night and dented their own covers
  • The streams of conversation passing the door were as intense, rich, and deeply textured as in 2014
  • Dogs still urinated just outside my door
  • Children still read on their knees and replaced the books backwards
  • Window books continued to draw clear, crisp and authoritative comments from passers-by.
  • Young people gazed through the front window at a single book on the table with the same unreadable facial expression.
  • Readers still bought bookmarks
  • Everyone still turned to open the door the wrong way
  • Readers still went silent when they find a book they really want and then breath slowly outwards
  • People still come in thinking I’m the bakery

What didn’t stay the same:

  • My landlord died

This was sad because Malcolm liked my shop and used to leave books for me in the storage room. It’s only because of Malcolm and Ann that I’m still here.

I’ve been really lucky for a long time.

Sculpture by Eudald De Juana

Some people got out of a car and had a big old argument!

From where I sit, I can hear everything that happens outside the shop. And see everything. All I wanted to know was how these three were related because they clearly were. They were familiar; they knew each other because they finished each other’s sentences and commanded the group while ignoring each other’s commands to achieve the same thing.

She had left something at home.

‘God, where is it then.’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Jesus.’

The other she, and the accompanying he, stood and looked at the culprit, who was on her phone.

‘Might as well go home.’

‘The phone looked up. ‘We don’t even need it. Stop frothing.’

‘God.’ They all turned away from each other.

He got back in the car. The young women looked at each other. One came up to the door and looked in.

‘God. It’s a book shop.’

She returned to culprit, and they both stood looking down at her phone. Culprit was chewing gum fast.

‘Stop looking like that.’

‘We’re going home. Get in the car.’

So they didn’t come into the shop and buy a book. They went home. I watched them through the window in the front room. When they drove off, he was smiling.

Illustration by Jack Vittriano

Do you think she ought to have apologised?

This conversation whipped past my shop door and was gone before I could catch the interesting tiger tail. This single question sang out clearly and steadily and remained in the air after the talkers had gone; it hung there. I saw it.

What had she done? Fault is awkward because we all have a bit. So I wanted to know. A sustaining dose of someone else’s faults will quieten mine. For half an hour.

The walkers were walking shoulder to shoulder and leaning in, as you do when sharing things delicate. As we do.
Once I found keys in our shed door that ought not to have been there. They were jammed in awkwardly and left there for three days. I said, ‘Who left those there? We could have been robbed.’
But a grandson owned up immediately. ‘Me, Nanny. I wanted to get Pa’s wire scissors and make a hole in your fence.’ He looked at me, pleased with the vision of himself making a hole in our fence. I said delicately to Pa, ‘Do we need a hole in our fence?’
The walkers who passed my shop discussing the apology were women and young. I can tell that because of the pace and strength of the walk. They don’t lean forward. They were upright. They challenged the sky: get out of our way. They frowned slightly, aware of the footpath, the kerb, and approaching traffic. They gave the apology a chance. Their shoulders were soft. They give the criminal a chance. Their eyes were considering. I saw that.

I myself gave the keys in our shed door a chance. I like those keys and their crooked hopeful insertion into the aching lock.
I wished those young women hadn’t been walking so fast. Why didn’t they hang about the doorway like men do, with time available, nothing to do, and an argument to win; a country to conquer. But they didn’t hang. They moved on.
Once a friend told me, ‘Apologise. Just fucking do it. If they’re worth it, apologise.’ She said this when we were raising kids and getting it wrong. Now I ache with the wrongness and the need to have apologised more. The keys must still be there.
Sometimes we don’t get an apology back. The same friend said, ‘So what. Get over it.’
She won me a country.

I wonder who those young women were, and who had the key in their lock, crooked.

Illustration by Ferdy Remijin

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.

Everything’s much the same

The only difference is that people stand and read my wear a mask sign. Then they put one on and come in and look at me and smile reassuringly. Their masks move and wrinkle up as they try to smile. Then they remember the code, ‘Quick, Ruth, go back.’

‘Why? What’ve we done?’

‘Do the phone thing.’

‘Oh God, where’s me phone?’

I have so many paper signs on the door that passers-by have to peer through, moving their heads from side to side to see what’s in there.

Sarah wears her mask over her eyes as well. Can’t be too careful.

The door opens to let somebody in, but a friend pulls them back out. ‘No need to go in there. We got our books last week. Leave it Ginny.’

I am asked, ‘Can I ask how long it is between vaccinations?’

I am told to try and keep my footing.

There are not many cars going past. No horns, and hardly any trucks. And nobody is standing in my doorway and talking so I can eavesdrop and write it all down. People stop and read my door signs for ages, but in silence, and they usually don’t come in.

The traffic on the road is subdued as though thinking about something.

There’s only one person over at the bus stop.

Locals come in to make sure I am all right. Because of this, I am.

Three people pass the window, moving slowly the way older people do, and shoulder to shoulder. ‘I know what to get him… what about one of those new skateboard things. The young people like those.’

I hope they get him one.

Illustration by Brian Kershisnik

Small girl in bike helmet

A little girl wearing a bike helmet is at the door. She’s still outside looking in; her helmet is knocking against the glass; she can’t get her eyes close enough to actually see anything. She jams the helmet against the glass, and this is when I look up and see here. Her eyes pierce the inside of my shop. Beams streaming in as though from a torch. As though from a lighthouse that won’t compromise. Her eyes rest on me. She makes no compromise; she won’t smile.

In she comes. Wearing pink and grey. The bike helmet still on, the straps swinging softly around her stern chin. She looks at me and does not smile. There are no adults with here. Is it Pippi Longstocking? I sit back and regard her with respect.  

She goes in amongst the books. I go back to Amor Towles.

When I look up she is crouched over Horrible Histories. Then she moves to historical. Then she moves to a shelf and looks at a copy of Inkheart. Then she’s out of my sight; must in sci fi.

Suddenly she’s passing me again. Silent and stern and the straps of her helmet swinging softly, respecting her chin.

She took ages closing the door. She stood in the gap, doing up the straps of the pink bike helmet and looking at me. She stood there for ages doing this. Then she was gone.

Not even inside yet

I’m not even inside the shop yet, and there’s plenty to see. As I walk from the car to the door of my shop, there is:

– a man holding his dog up and moving it’s huge paw up and down to make it wave at someone through the bakery window.

– a collision at the bin between two older couples who say, ‘Oh goodness, sorry, ‘ to each other.

-three young tradesmen running across the road toward a four door ute, and one takes the driver’s seat and flips the bird at the other two. They look at her, and then get into the back seat and look at each other.

-there’s a little black dog in a parked car barking hysterically at the dog who is still waving through the bakery window.

 – a lady has put up the flag for the art gallery, and is now standing talking to two other ladies, and they all have their arms folded and are nodding.

– someone keeps calling hoky doky – it goes on and on. I go outside to put up my open signs. I can see the hoky doky person. It’s a man in a cherry coloured jumper and forest green work jeans, now walking toward me pushing a wheelbarrow loaded up with a rake and a three pots. He calls back to a waving lady, ‘Hoky doky, I’ll get it.’

– a lady in black jeans and orange boots walks past fast. She passes the wheelbarrow, walking while looking at her phone. She has another two phones, one in each back pocket.

– two men are now standing at the window deciding. ‘Rudyard Kipling or James Joyce…’ One man says into his phone, ‘He’s still looking.’ The man looking has a black beanie and a spectacular pair of purple glasses.

-two ladies walking side by side pass them, and one says, ‘I’d like to see the sun today.’

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.

There were these men

There were these men outside the shop today. All climbed out of one car. Dressed pretty nice. They wanted food though, not books. They were supposed to meet people for lunch at the pub, but they’d parked at the wrong end of town. I watched them working this out.

They checked phones.

One man looked through the window of my shop. He moved closer and looked again. I thought, that’s good. He didn’t come in though.

The others, bless them, look in and then look away. Politely. A bookshop.

‘Where’s the pub?’

‘Here, I reckon. That’s what he said.’

‘Who?’

‘Dale.’

‘God, as if he’d fuckin know. Where is it?’

I felt sorry for Dale. I was a dale. They milled around on the footpath, pulling at their shirts. They all bent over their phones. Except one man who looking in at me. He didn’t come in.

Then, when I looked up again, they were all gone.

Photography: Odd Man In, by Louis Stettner, 1922

pulled the knife out, and he was still bleeding

Sometimes the street outside the shop is quiet. There is no movement, no noise, and nobody passes the shop. Sometimes I go outside and look up and down the road. Then I go back in and get on with things.

Today, it was chaos out there. People crowded past in groups with maps, bags, and phones. The traffic on the road equalled this, stopping, starting, parking, arguing, sounding horns, calling from car windows. And today, the groups on the footpath were so packed together that I heard them and saw them. Every now and again I looked straight into a face that was looking straight back at me.

Somebody yelled, ‘Got to call in here on our way back.’ I didn’t see them. They moved too fast. I hoped they’d come back.

I saw the next couple because they paused at the door. He peered in with screwed up eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Dunno. Medical place I think.’ He looked right at me and abruptly pulled away.

I’m not a medial place.

The next burst of information came a little later.

‘…pulled the knife out and he was still bleeding…’

‘Silly.’

The first speaker turned and looked right at me looking right at him. I thought, ‘Shit!’

Then,

‘You want something to eat, mother? All right, but I’m not fussy about going back to that cafe though.’

‘That wasn’t here, Ed. That was another town.’

He (who wasn’t fussy) humped his shoulders and looked in at me. I looked out at him, sympathetic. I know about getting the right doughnut.

Painting by Charles Hardaker