A young man came into the shop and said, ‘Every time I come down here I need something. And this time I need something again, might be hard to find, hoping you can look it up and see if it’s still around.’
I waited for the title. He looked at his phone, scrolled through page after page, but couldn’t find it.
I said, ‘Maybe the author?’
But he couldn’t remember. Then he found the book. ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’
I had it right there on the shelf. He lit up, surprised, and turned the paperback over and over. ‘My God, love your work. Too easy. Gee, I love your work.’
Then he paid for it. ‘$5.00, that’s so easy. Too easy. Love your work.’
Then he left but put his head back through the door once more to say, ‘Love your work.’
I put small shelf of reds in the front window. It looks good. It looks warm. It’s just a random selection of reds.
People go past and it catches their eyes. Their heads swivel so they can look at the shelf as they walk past. Finally they are looking at it over their shoulders.
Somebody said, ‘That’s nice. Did you see that?’
The books are random, chosen because they are stout. The one on the end is Les Misérables, and people know this one. They read the title out loud. They are walking past, and they stop and lean in and read it out loud, ‘Ley Miserabels’, wasn’t that a film? Pretty sure it’s a film.’
‘My brother’s read that.’
‘ God. Imagine reading that.’
‘Want to go in?’
‘Na. Already got too many books.’
‘Get fucked Ryan.’
‘My God, babe. Love you.’
I image Fyodor listening in from Russia and enjoying it.
Some people stand and stare at the books, silent. Then they walk on.
Some people come in and pick up the books and examine them closely. Then they say, ‘Thanks’, and leave again.
Once a child ate a bag of chips outside, staring at the shelf through the window and nodding and nodding at the books as he ate his chips – as though listening to music that nobody else could hear.
I imagine the books lit up at night when I’m not there. Catching the midnight pedestrian and shocking them into walking properly. Forcing motorists to slow down as they drive past and stare into the window at Fyodor Dostoyevsky who sits burning on the end of the shelf, still troubled by his death sentence and six years in a Siberian prison camp. Maybe it shows.
“Scratch my head. Prr. Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees. —Milk for the pussens, he said. —Mrkgnao! the cat cried. They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them.”
This lady has been here before, but I don’t remember her husband. Anyway, she just kept on piling the books up. She found it hard to reach upwards; she asked me to pull this one down, and that one down, and now maybe that one. The books were all classics, and she’d read them all before. She was excited to get Brett Easton Ellis, and then again to get On the Road.
He carried her handbag over his arm. He said to me, ‘You wait, we won’t be able to get all of these in the car!’ And he looked at her proudly.
He walked around the shop. He found one book for himself. When they left, he carried everything because she was reading as she walked and had no hands to spare.
How do people select a book? Well, I know it’s intensely private. Books are sharp. Readers look at them from every angle, examining especially carefully the blade.
Books, like any tool, fulfil a purpose if they are good enough. They can remove (with one sweep) a lifetime of tiring and inaccurate responsibilities. And, they can move inwards to the core of beliefs, at best an uncomfortable and confronting experience. For instance, I read Ethan Frome, and realized that I was normal. Only a blade can do this.
Readers come to the shop and pause over books for long periods of time. There is always this pause. Then they decide and carry the book to the counter.
I am respectful no matter what the book is.
I once chose a book called No Go, the Bogeyman (after a pause). I haven’t read it yet. It’s a history of terror by Marina Warner. The kind of terror that comes softly and sits with you at night. I don’t know why I bought it, but I treasure it.
I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.
It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.
But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.
I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.
Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.
I bought Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond on Ebay for no reason. It’s for myself, a Folio edition, slip cased. I need it. He wrote a lot of books – Barchester Towers the most famous, and the funniest. Apparently the stories he set in Ireland, like this one, were not so popular. I must find out.
But when it arrived, I couldn’t get it unwrapped. It was covered, smothered, tied up in brown paper, string, bubble wrap sticky tape, more paper, more tape. Took me twenty minutes to strip it. But then, there it was, the captain, in black and gold, coffee and cream, the pages smooth. The words, mine. The slip case has strong shoulders, the book came out grinning.