At the supermarket, I had to wait outside

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I arrived early and stood in the beautiful morning. The man on the door, a shepherd of sorts, waved and gestured us through, slowly, slowly, just a few at a time. You know, because of everything. He apologised as if it was all his fault. As this is a small town, he knew many people. He said, Sorry Sharon, there’s no toilet paper’. She said, ‘Don’t need any, just getting some milk and shit.’

He said, ‘Yeah.’ Plenty of that, mate’.

We stood about and looked at each other. Everyone stood apart.   There was no queue. The man waved an old lady through. The sun shone down.

I stood there in the beautiful morning. The door opened and closed. The security guard was looking at his phone.

A man came up and tried to go in. The man on the door said, ‘Get back mate.’

The man said, ‘Jesus just need some bread and that’.

‘You can’t go in.’

The man said that all this is bullshit.

The security guard said, ‘God Barry, it’s no smoking.’

The man said, ‘Jesus, I’ll just finish me smoke around here then.’

The doors opened and closed. The man at the door, said, ‘Ok, ok, in you go.’ He looked at his phone.

I went in and looked for walnuts. That was all I wanted.

 

I remember Dion

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I remember Dion. He was one of my first customers. This was back when hardly anyone came in. Dion came in, and said, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Then he asked me how I was. I did not know back then that he would ask me this for the next five years. I also didn’t know that he wasn’t ok himself.

The first book he asked for was Twilight. He had seen the film, and thought it was the greatest film ever. He bought the book from me.

Still he visited, weekly, fortnightly, then monthly. I have not seen him for a long time now.

I remember when he gave up smoking. He asked me for a book on sharks. I showed him one and he bought it. Said it was fantastic. His hands were shaking.

Once he said that I would not want what he had. He never went into details about his health, or lack of it. He always asked after mine. No matter what.

Once he came in, full of head pain, and said, ‘Kerry, you’re gunna love this joke.’

Once he came in on a rainy day to say hello, and make sure that the shop was ok. I said that all is going well, and he said: except the weather.

The last time I saw him, he said, ‘Don’t worry about me, Kerry.’

I haven’t seen him since.

 

Artwork by Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu

I remember

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Before I had a bookshop, the idea of having one lit up the back fence like some kind of unwanted answer from the past.

I remember looking at empty shops. When I found one, I thought, well! I never expected any kind of commercial success, but I did hope to survive. What the shop was to look like was paramount. It had to look like Diagon Alley –  because this was what I liked. Thus, the shop was based on what I wanted, what I liked, what I thought was good. A good selfish start.

(I had a lot to learn.)

Once a child said, “This is like Diagon Alley’, and sealed the happiest day of my first year.

I was surrounded by thousands of oblongs, each one containing an unexpected rich fuse. I felt so wealthy that I had to lie down and cradle my head.

It was not possible to explain such an abandonment of logic.  I remember experiencing it early in life; after reading Tubby and the Lantern. This was because Tubby and Ah Mee had a bunk bed.

In Little House on the Prairie, there was snow.

In Sam and the Firefly, there were lights, gold gems stinging an emerald blue sky.

In Whispering in the Wind, Crooked Mick could sit on a horse and drink two cups of tea while it bucked.

Later, Helen Garner, John Steinbeck, Dal Sijie…. uncovering the diabolical ache of life without solutions. So much. So little time.

Then, repeated visits to Jeff’s Books to learn how to do it:

What happens if…..

What do I do when…

Who is…

What is…

How do I…

What should I….

How can I…

Finally, back to my shop to actually do it. I had to learn how people read, and why. This was different, and it was difficult, and it still is. So much to learn, so little time. Luckily,  I recorded it all.

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Salmon, roadworks, road workers

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Yesterday, I drove through Littlehampton. Roadworks. Everyone was driving slowly. There was a road worker leaning on a car. He was covered in dust. He looked exhausted. My car was just idling there, waiting for the signal to keep going, and I looked at the worker. The sunlight, the dust, the heat and everything still. He was leaning on the car, a helmet on the ground, hands in his pockets, one foot on the helmet, and his head to one side, even and still, and thinking.

Near him, a sign that says, “Atlantic salmon $26.50 kg”. An old lady was leaning forward, trying to read it. Another lady was nearby, searching her handbag for something. The lady called something to her friend and pointed at the sign. But the friend wouldn’t look at the sign.

Then a girl with a sign waved all the cars on. She was young, standing back, and looking for each driver to wave us on. She stooped down, trying to see into each car from across the road, shading her eyes from the sun. Finds the driver, smiles. Waves us forward, concerned for us. Every single car, every single driver.

A small business surviving

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Just a note to thank everyone around me who sends people my way. I can’t afford to advertise, so word of mouth it is.

Small businesses don’t survive so well anywhere these days – but everyone who drops in on a visit here, tells me it’s precisely because of the small businesses in Strathalbyn that they come.

And of course books are supposed to be “on the way out”. But books are always on the way out, or at least on the way somewhere (in people’s arms). And young writers everywhere are writing madly. And reading.

So, it’s worth staying on in a micro business that means no profit but endless joy. Not that hard to keep going!

And thank you to everyone who reads my stories. At first I was just writing them for myself – because I didn’t want to forget the people who came to the shop. But now, when there is something important to capture in writing, I am excited to tell everyone – look at this!!

Readers, and what they do – so astonishing to me. I am glad I am not alone.

Uncle Don

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Just turned eighty. He said in photo one, he is fifteen, in photo two, he is half full.

In my stories of him, I remember the country, the heat, and the Cadbury chocolate blocks, the big ones (happiness).

There were cousins, strawberry fates and crabbing (somewhere).

So important, the memories and stories.

He just told me one of his stories:

When he was fifteen, he left school. He was forced to stay till fifteen. His mum (my Nanna) said, ‘Well you’re going then, and don’t you come back.’ She gave him ten shillings, a pack of cigarettes, one change of clothes and a new pair of R. M. Williams boots. Stirrup boots. He said, ‘My dad tried them on. I saw him in the hallway there, trying them on, reminded him of the bush you see.’

I remember his dad, my grandfather. His garden captured in rectangles, the vegetables obedient, the bizarre horse radish unkind to my mouth. There was a pool. It was a water butt, a tank overflow, waist high and diabolically beautiful. I played there with a set of plastic animals that I helped across the terrifying water to another place. In the shed nearby, my grandfather, a bushman and miserable in the city, worried pieces of wood into new smooth pieces, a pony, a seal, a round thing that clung to my small hand like an impossible, silken enchantment.

So my Uncle Don went off to Gulnare. On a property, there was a fine horse called Lady Claire, and my Uncle was given her foal to break in –  Dr Penney, he was called, after that Maralinga bloke, William Penney…

That horse would come to a whistle, no matter where he was.

He sewed wheat bags and fenced, one quid per mile if hilly, eight shillings and sixpence when not. He worked all day till it got too dark to see.  Then to the pub with a whole quid, ‘That bought a meal and four bottles of beer to take home, and change in my hand.’

‘I was a rich man.’

Bought himself an Austin 7 with my Nanna going guarantor, and she said, By God, Donald, don’t you let me down.’

My Nanna was a silent person. When I played on her back lawn, near the unkind horse radish, when I build small houses with cardboard and blankets with the livid, galloping imagination of the lonely child, she would approach silently, and leave at the entrance to the realm, a dish with five white peppermints and a glass of fizzy.

Well, my Uncle flipped the Austin 7. And that was the end of that!

But not the end of the stories. There is never an end to the stories; I just have to worry at everyone, and turn them into the impossible enchantments that they actually are.

 

 

The ladies on the corner

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There is a commotion on the corner outside my shop. I am out emptying my bins so I can observe. And I will take my time.

There are five ladies there of a brilliant age. They have met because they were going to see something. But it is gone. It has been shut down.

I linger, cleaning my windows, taking part. Because, what has been shut down?

One lady is too close to the road. She is holding forth, outraged. Her handbag is livid. Because, it’s been shut down. She looked at each friend, until the disgust had registered on each face (which it did) and one friend said, never mind it Sandra, there’s plenty of other things to do.

One friend said, get back from the kerb, come, you girls.

One friend obeyed.

But Sandra, with the angry handbag, uses it to indicate the entire town. What’s the use of coming here then? I ask you. Strathalbyn.  It’s always been here, that place. It’s the council as has done this.

Let’s get a cake, I’ll have a tea.

I wouldn’t mind a look up High Street. What about the gallery? Is that still there?

It’s the council. It’s typical. They don’t care about people. That’s it.

Check the brochure.

But the ladies remained knitted in a tight and useful square, too close to the road and unwilling to navigate the pattern of a new plan. The traffic edges wisely to one side.

(I don’t want to go inside, it seems dull. The discussion is small but it is an opera. And their facial expressions are scorching the failed council, which, as usual, is never good enough).

One lady is called Mavis. Her shoulders are urging the bakery. She has a fabulous hat of scarlet felt. But nobody listens. She turns so magnificently that the others pause and check for offense. Then they all move away from the edge of the road and look unwillingly through the window of the bakery. They look in a critical and unforgiving way because it will not suffice.

(They do not see me, or my shop, or the traffic. They only see each other, they make eye contact with each other’s eyes because, despite the years, these are still brilliant, smoking with ideas and resources, scornful and powerful.)

But they are moving on now and I have to go inside. It’s cold. They are not interested in my shop; they haven’t even looked my way. But there they go, moving up and down as they walk and checking for handbags and outrage. I hope they find something wonderful to do to replace their plans that were so thoughtlessly ruined by the council.

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Frost

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The rain to the wind said, 

You push and I’ll pelt.

They so smote the garden bed 

That the flowers actually knelt, 

And lay lodged  – though not dead.

I know how the flowers felt. 

Lodged by Robert Frost

 

Sculpture “Rain” by Nazar Bilyk

The Bookshelves

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Many customers describe their bookshelves as unfinished. Everyone tells the story with pride. One lady told me that all her shelves were double stacked. She said this with glee and gluttony, looking at me carefully, looking for disapproval. I said that mine were triple stacked and she screamed with happiness. Her husband looked at her and said it was time to go.
Michael said that he had books in Spanish, the most beautiful language.
One man said all his low shelves were broken. He has just wedged them up with beer bottles and old westerns, does the job.
Everyone says they should not get any more books but they do anyway.
All children examine a book from the outside in.
Young people who are friends and who come in pairs or triples stand in tight groups and say oh my god over every book that is good. They will do this for ages.
Old people who say that young people don’t read anymore are wrong.
Louis always says to me: what’s good at the moment? This means any book about Mahatma Gandhi or 20th century art. He has been given a new bookshelf and wants to fill it even though he already has more books than he can read in his lifetime.
One lady said that her husband threw all her books out when he left so now she is out to get another library together again. She said she is pretty happy right now.
One lady bought her son a stack of books for Christmas but then she kept them all for herself.
Young men say: sweet or brilliant or that’s really keen. One young man said that Freud is a radical and a sweet gone read. One boy said that the only one is Tolkien.
One lady said that she would not read Mark Twain.
One man needed a copy of the same book for his three adult children because otherwise they would fight. He said they were all in their forties.
Peggy is really sick and is going to read all her Game of Thrones as quickly as possible and this made me feel really sad.

The Empress

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I’m just going to look in the bookshop.
A woman said this outside the shop, she said it to her family, or perhaps they were friends, but anyway, they were all male and all young except one, her husband maybe.
Are you serious….one boy said this on a note of desperation, his voice slid around on the word “serious” trying to find something positive to stop the downward slide.
I won’t be long. I thought she was calm and good and I hoped she might come in. They had stood for ages in the doorway, they looking down (at phones), she looking in.
Are you serious…this said by another boy, he had headphones and long black jeans that rolled underneath his shoes and were worn away like old matting. He had a black singlet and on the front of this was the word Satan.
Just get into the car. This was what she said next while I was hoping she might come in.
… are you serious… This again from the first boy who swayed back and then downwards, marking the agony of his life right now.
Get in the car. And so, like that, she trimmed the arguments and parted the agony, opened the door and came in and I was pleased. She was serene and upright, pulling the summer in after her and needing nobody for attendance.
Outside the window were her menfolk, family or friendfolk, slumped in a sort of comfortable defeat, dropped against the window, one boy hoisted his shoulder against all new ideas. The headphone boy stood still in his own private response, eyes closed anyway. Another, a third boy made binoculars out of his hands and telescoped her through the glass, his orange T-shirt stained the light, and I saw that his eyes tracked her from shelf to shelf and sometimes he made his eyes desperate  thinking she was looking at him. But she wasn’t. He wanted to go home but she didn’t.
All those boys drifted over to their car and I watched them. The car was parked right outside the shop, it was white, they opened the doors and left them open. There were chip packets all across the back seat.
One boy lay across the back seat. One boy sat with his legs on the dashboard and the other possible brother slowly baked his evening plans, sitting on the footpath.
There was a father too, he was already in the car, was reading the newspaper and not bothering to question the rather beautiful afternoon.
Inside the shop it is cool and nice and she, (the empress), is leaning with Janet Evanovich, leaning against the cool wall, an empress, not hurrying, not concerned with outside.
When she left, much later on, she paused in the doorway and re entered the summer exactly in the way she wanted and all the sons stared at her wordlessly and she stared back at them in exactly the same way. It was excellent.

 

Artwork: Red Shirt on the Steps by Darren Thompson