Burlesque, or what really happens in my shop: part two

In the afternoon, everyone began drifting off to form a dance committee. They were determined to hold their burlesque.

An hour later I found a crowd of  books clustered around a YouTube video. They shooshed me. They were watching a demonstration on how to build a perfect guitar pedalboard.

‘What about the dance? Are you still doing it?’ I asked.

‘We’re doing it, East. We’re downloading Spotify.’

The Dickens collection had formed a considerable troupe and were ready to practice. ‘Here come the Dickies,’ everyone always said, whether it was Oliver sprinting across to the Beast Quest games, or old Pickwick waiting for the pub to open. Sometimes Charles himself came out, usually with Ackroyd, leaving together furtively, to avoid the vulgar Americans.

The Antiques and Curiosities were lining up cautiously, with bow ties, dusty coats, and mildew on the collar. Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers were setting up tables and arguing over a three sword centrepiece.

They all watched with thin faces, a Barry Oakly and a biography of Stephen Fry being sold.

The place was getting hot and busy and smoky.

The French women had set up a discussion table. Sagan, Sarraute, Beauvoir, Reza. They smiled graciously as the Canadians passed by. The smiles hardened though, when the Canadians had moved on, I saw that. 

The fantasies were stringing lights. The biographies had started drinking. The craft sat in silence because the main lights had been dimmed, and nobody could see their instructions for scrapbooking or how to make soap. A fountain had been found at the back of Art. ‘Who the cuck brought in a fountain?’ The Skulduggeries were dragging it out. ‘Cool. Get in’.

They argued over music; it was too loud, too strong, too low, too dark, not cultural. They wanted Spotify.

‘Gentlemen, we have Spotify’.

‘No we don’t, Maugham, the account’s been fucking locked.’ There was a collective and dismissive curse on technology.

‘Perhaps everyone can just dance their own dance.’ This from the Atwoods, I sat up to listen.

The political biographies moved in speechfully but were hushed by basically everyone. An Australian autobiography offered some kind of infrastructure promise and was told to fuck off out of it.

The Saddleclubs stood still with mouths open and ponies reined in, silent. They were called out of it, too.

But there was an unlikely agreement, fused out of fatigue, alcohol, and fear (of the Atwoods).

I soothed the political biography, and he said, ‘We believe in women too, of course.’

 I said, meanly, ‘Indeed. Although the menopause is a difficult time of course.’ I saw his eyes flicker upward. Hermione Lee was up talking with the Greers on the front table. They looked down. I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t.

Some books could not get a place in the dance.

No one liked the ex-library books much – this was because of the mess of stickers and tape that covered them.’ Sorry mate. Not in our group.’

The Ian Welshes laughed too loudly. They jumped too high and hard. They were embarrassing to dance with. Samuel Pepys, a massive biography, sat taking spiteful notes on everybody from the ugly angle and called for beer and oysters every ten minutes.

In the back room the Westerns had eased themselves around a small fire. They listened to music coming from the Natural Histories who were putting together The Dance of the Chiasognathus Grantii, which was some kind of weird stag beetle. The music came at them like chimes through smoke. They began to talk.

‘The thing is, I was normal. But did my father have time to look at a kid? No.’

The others looked out and away to give privacy. They stared into the firmament.

One shelf above, a lone book stirred, an Edward Abbey. Said nothing.

‘…and what have you ever done except murder all the losers?’ This was History, climbing down in an ordered line, harping at each other all the way.

‘Endocrine, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematologic, pulmonary, urinary, reproductive, gastrointestinal….I could keep on but I don’t want to bore anyone…’

‘Neither do we.’

‘In ancient times, reading was one of the most….’

‘The witch is here; the witch is dead…’

‘Begging pardon my lady.’

At the counter, the little science fiction paperback had returned, was talking again, ‘We won’t end. Even pulping doesn’t end us. Look at old Gilman Perkins. There’s five of her in here. Look at Mockingbird. Can’t end her.’

To the Lighthouse was on the counter with me, lying on its back and writing, writing, writing, to the beat of a migraine. It said to me, ‘Did you know that manuals on life always subside after the preface? There’s a reason for that.’ Bang, bang, bang. I could hear her migraine. Still she wrote on.

But meanwhile,  the front room was not doing well.

The Algonquin group of classics was being forced to come up with their dance plan.….and they had to do it sober. They sat, sullen, not even one useful verb to be had.

Someone was on at the piano. The books had ransacked the music shelves and dragged out anything with music in its title. They had found a pianist. The music was coming from the top of a shelf, a beautiful little piano by the sound of it, and a cello, that ran barefoot and lightly underneath and then over the notes of the piano.

There are books gathered up there. I can see them listening to the piano.  A copy of Cards of Identity, gazing away into some unknown basin of solitude.

The German classics, dancing, elegant despite their rectangular suits. They bob and dip, a court dance, touch hands, exchange longings, move out again.  The others watch.

The Saul Bellows sitting back, shading their eyes from the melody, and needing a drink.

Someone shouted, ‘Piano Man, play Piano Man, man.’ They are getting mellow. As usual they then begin to discuss things.

Jeffrey Eugenides held forth on The Pilgrim Hawk. He likes books with animals in them. He says, ‘Wescott has courage. And in the morning, I can only open one eye. Also, a dog got to me once.’ He repeated this three times.

I pictured a dog eating the book, biting into the soft ideas inside of it.

But the Murray Bails liked The Fish Can Sing. ‘Iceland is perfect, he said.

But someone answered, ‘Who wants to read about that frozen slab of geyser holes?’

The Murray Bails became bitter. ‘You are all afraid of Iceland.’

The Kenyon Review suddenly opened its covers. ‘Serendipity is no accident.’ it shouted.

‘Shut up Friedel.’

‘That wasn’t Friedel, that was Butler.’

Nobody liked being corrected. The conversation broke up.

Poetry and Plays were still arguing (because Poetry has more shelves). There is nobody else in the store even remotely interested in this conflict. Mostly because they can’t understand anything that the poets are saying, even in an argument. On the way back to the counter, I saw the Shelleys, sitting on the edge of the sea, smoking and not taking part.

The Shakespeares have joined the conflict. This always causes uneasiness because everyone claims to have read Shakespeare, and this makes any argument risky. When Robert was here once, sorting through Astrology, he overheard the Shakespeares quarrelling. Robert said, ‘Good on you all. Fuck Centrelink.’ The Bard was immediately interested, and they had a long dark discussion in the corner.

‘Look at the Lemonys. Aren’t they adorable!’

I stood up. The whole set of Lemony Snickets was moving into the middle of the room, into a square formation, Hostile Hospital at the front.

 ‘STOP!’ commanded Hostile Hospital. ‘You are all wretched. You are all woeful.’ They continued on, happily.

‘Weird!’ Said Salinger. ‘But I like them.’

‘Great dance guys!’ This from the Vladimirs, who have painted themselves black. They are pleased, and in a mood to be kind. Vampire books were selling well.  The other groups looked at them blankly. ‘Can we even see you?’

The horse books were dancing in dressage under the window. Very impressive. I went to have a closer look.

‘Watch it East, they’ll trample you.’

‘Thank you, Philip. But they won’t. I tell you that horses can dance”.

“Not these ones.”

The horse books stopped and announced that they are heading for the lodestone. There was an uneasy pause – this meant the greatest book in the shop. It was agreed that there was one, but not who it was.  

The horse books all turned in a single movement and cantered over to Pinocchio. Most of the books in the shop, I knew, had read Pinocchio, and still remembered Pleasure Island.

‘Carlo Collodi you old….’

‘What are they playing at! Bloody little Saddleclubs! They haven’t even read Pinocchio!’

And then Ibrahim Nasrallah stood up and said, ‘God made horses from wind, my friends.’

 Nasrallah’s Time of White Horses is a beautiful book, dressed in gold, cinnamon and black, a wrought iron spine, and always with a layer of fine clean sand following its leather shoes. The other books came forward, made to shake hands, backed off, move in again.’ Hello Ibrahim. Nice coat, man.’ They all nodded quietly, ‘ok, man’. Nasrallah smiled and moved gently over to examine the horse books.

We are, I thought, a perfect representation of lust, gluttony, loneliness, sand, aggression lunch and nomads. There is nothing from life that is not in here. No wonder it was so hot in here. We will be thrown out one day. There had been nine customers all day.

A few Saddleclubs, forbidden to take part in the dance, have moved sulkily back to Young Readers. I see them angle in behind the Enid Blytons to take off makeup and change clothes. Obviously, the riding teachers have forbidden certain outfits.

But the Virginia Woolfs have begun. Dancing deeply, touching hips, smoking, and laughing lightly in a deranged and fabulous way, bowing toward Cosmo Cosmolino. The Maya Angelous with joined hands: Byatts, Dillards, Padmanabhans, Miles Franklin, all the Grenvilles, the Dumonts, the Lucashenkos, a grid of lights, a festival, a refusal to wait.

To be continued…

The two ladies who screamed but were actually laughing

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

Winter and reading and a glass of wine

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Under the door of the shop there is a gap, and a thin straw of cold enters quietly, all day long. I have fingerless gloves. Excellent for typing. For looking up any possible gossip about Virginia Woolf that I may have missed. Winter is always bright with possibility because to stay in is acceptable.

One couple came in this afternoon and said, it’s warm in this little place.

He looked like Terry Pratchett, sort of intensely occupied. She looked like Vita Sackville-West, so was probably looking for Virginia Woolf.

They stayed in the room furthest from the warmth for ages, but didn’t seem to notice it. They had, each, a mighty selection when they finally came to the counter and noticed me. I said wisely, ah, the winter reading….

He straightened up in surprise, well, yes of course. He had three Terry Pratchett books.

I said, with a glass of wine….

He straightened up again, this time with joy, well yes of course. We have the place for it at our house, an old place, space for books. The shelves are all bending. Her stuff. He looked at her with an expression of acute happiness.

She presented her Margaret Atwoods and nodded, nursing that private power that comes with Margaret Atwood and husbands like him, and said, it’s winter, time to stay in.

They bobbed back out into the weather, serene, parting the winter into two fields with their own bright path right through the centre of it.

 

Old House in Stepney, Adelaide (photography by me)

 

 

Virginia Woolf

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“So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

The raspberry saddle

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There are three of them here in the shop, a family, an adult daughter and her parents and the father is silent and examines the door locks. The mother looks at the books, closely, with her eyes half shut. The daughter carries books around. The daughter tells me about a copy of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising that she had once, the glue let go, it unglued itself, the binding fell apart. She said it was her mother’s fault for reading it aloud so much.

Her mother said, what was the accusation? And the daughter said, without looking up, you know…

The mother leaned back and looked into the past with pleasure. She said yes, it was our fault, our generation did it, read like that. I remember. Remember Lord of the Rings? And you used to be into the unicorns.

I’m not into unicorns, I never was.

You used to be.

I never was.

Then the father said: yes you was.

The daughter looked at me and said, see, I had a mum who read to me like anything.

The mother thought about this with her eyes kind of half shut and then said, thanks babe!

After they left, they stood in the alcove outside the door for a long time. The daughter was telling them a story about a unicorn, she said it had a raspberry saddle, she said, do you remember it mum, do you remember that, and the parents were nodding and nodding and trying to remember it.

 

Artwork by Emma Ersek

The Couple Who Came in Together

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This couple came in, came in very together and walked around the shop together and nodded over the books together. They hardly said anything.

Sometimes I heard them murmuring and laughing about something but only briefly. They were in the shop for ages, spending time in all the sections, reading even the children’s books silently and smiling over them. They spent a long time with a book by Jorge Borges called The Book of Sand. They talked and talked about that one. When they got to the science fiction they did not handle any of the books. They stood and looked up and down the titles, sometimes they said something to each other but they did not pull out a single book from there.

They did not buy any books at all but when they left they thanked me for having a bookshop.

Sculpture ‘The Couple’ by Kieta Nuij

Young Man Reading

Man reading

The young man came in here during the afternoon, the last of April, the last of the summer warmth and sat in the wicker chair to wait for his mother who needed some more of Georgette Heyer. He glanced around the place, he was not too interested in the place, he was serene enough, happy to wait for her. Later I noticed him reading, it was a worn paperback copy of The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud. I wonder why he chose it. He read for more than half an hour and then his mother finished with Georgette and came to the counter with nothing at all and he stood up and carried the book over and tapped the cover and paid me for it.
He said, “good one,”  and then they left, out of the door and gone.

Young Man Reading by Ignis Bednarik

 

 

A Royal One

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Thelma said she can’t take to Charles Dickens.

David said he can’t find anything in Wilbur Smith.

Ursula said there’s no point in reading Somerset Maugham.

I read a comment describing the pointlessness of reading Great Expectations, as there was no plot.

Tyson said that he lost a few months trying to read Atlas Shrugged, time that he never got back again.

I was told that Middlemarch was not worth finishing and that Dante, even Jesus Christ himself would not read that Inferno shit.

I like to give everything a go. And I like to be free to put anything aside if necessary. I am reading Great Expectations, an unexpected choice and a royal one. It has taken me a long time to get to Charles Dickens and this book, Great Expectations, which I am reading slowly, is proving to be the most engaging appeal to the senses and the most tantalizing description of everybody I don’t like. And the most accurately hammered out observations of what we do and why! I am anxious not to reach the end too quickly; it is an experience that is causing me great joy and consternation….Miss Havisham, the awful and chosen decay…the astounding way the story has been all put together.

Thelma, at the shop today, said that she can’t take to Charles Dickens, never has been able to. She had in her hand Graham Green and Hans Christian Anderson and Hilary Mantel and she was also looking for Colin Thiele. And she also had for me a Christmas gift, she had bought brown paper and painted it herself, in bright purple to match me, she said. She has also painted some string bright gold and made a card with a silver and gold angel on a deep purple background of night sky and stars. She has written on the card in gold. It is an unexpected gift and a royal one.

I am instructed not to open it until Christmas.

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

Boooom!

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There is a child here in the shop, unhappy because there are no Star Wars books left for him. But his sister has found The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the orange one, and he is also uncomfortable with her success. He says that he has read all of those books anyway.

She says: Booooom!

She has found The Search for Wondla. He says: oh that!  He needs to be dismissive. She answers: Oh Booooom!

Now she has two books and he has none. He asks me for I Am Number Four, I understand the urgency, but I don’t have it. He looks quickly at his sister but she is absorbed, kneeling on the floor with A Day in The Life of a Roman Child…he walks over and says: I know that book.

She doesn’t answer.

He is scanning the shelves and table, quickly, needing a discovery.

On the windowsill, he finds The Hobbit, facing outward, easily missed.

He lifts it off the windowsill and onto himself, against his chest, not breathing, holding it as children will when they find something of diabolical value. It is a paperback edition, a large one in poor condition, illustrated, the dragon on the front stirring in a nest of boiling jewels.

His sister has noted his silence and gazes over at him suddenly. He says: I’m getting this. He has one shoulder raised against her, protecting the dragon.

Their mother returns, she hurries them along, pleased that they have chosen, pleased with her own books, not seeing theirs, missing the acute joy, encouraging their libraries as she also builds her own.