I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

Sadness in the shop

Sad people come into the shop. Then they look at the shelves and smile. They always come in kind of slowly. Then the smile fades a little but comes back when they see a certain book.

Sadness is unique to the person who owns it; like saliva, it carries the story of us and nobody else.  

Christmas is not about sadness but seems to awaken it. Many visitors do not want to talk about Christmas; it is easier to talk about nearly anything else. Some visitors have careful plans for Christmas, details carefully placed to help them get to the other side of it. Choosing books lightens things. They are a hold on the day.

Everyone wishes me a lovely Christmas regardless of their own tricky circumstances.

I remember that J.R.R. Tolkien said, ‘Courage is found in unlikely places.’

Illustration by Mark Conlan

How to enter and exit a bookshop

Rudi Hurzlmeier (2)

Swing in. No pause. A brief greeting; eyes straight to the shelves. Eyes either light up or narrow slightly. Both are good signs. Silence, or an exclamation. Both are useful.

A lightning fast assessment, or the dithering on the mat.

Apology for having brought in a cup of coffee.

Apology for bringing in other books.

Apology for letting in the cold air.

Asking for directions.

Some visitors give surreptitious glances over both shoulders so as not to miss anything. Some boom greetings. Others whisper the whole time they are in the shop.

Some need no directions. Others want NO directions, ’It’s ok, I’ll find my way.’

Pronounce me lucky.

Some people peer in through the window for a long time. Shading their eyes, hunched and purposeful. When I look up, they are still there, staring from side to side as though watching trains come in.

People say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, can I just get around,’ gentle voices, understanding each other’s absorption. Hands in pockets. The smile, not at me, but at the books – but including me if they can. Some people can walk and read with ease. Most can’t.

Feeling around for reading glasses that are now on a different shelf.

Gasping; young people.

Paying. ‘Awesome.’ Voices now loud and confident. ‘Thanks very much.’ Even louder, almost shouting, ‘We always come here! Bye, bye bye…great, thank you, bye….’ Growing fainter.

Low laughs. Low discussions.

‘Are you actually going to read it?’ Parents.

‘I’ll get it for you.’ Lovers

‘I’m not paying for that.’ Siblings.

‘Go and wait outside.’ Retired couples.

Some people stand and read their book right in the doorway. Some move onto the footpath but cannot go any further. One family stood in a group on the footpath around The Two Towers and talked for another ten minutes. They leave things behind, drink bottles, hats, a torch.

Small children bring random books to the counter and are called from beyond to put them back. One child bought and paid for The Lord of the Rings and said, ‘This is for me.’

A lady standing behind him said, ‘Well done indeed.’

People help each other get books off the high shelves, laughing laughingly. Tell me about the weather, or the traffic, or their shopping.

Tell a long story and ask me where they were going with it. But I can’t help them. Some people lean their foreheads on one arm against a shelf and thus read alone. Some people talk loudly to strangers about what they think and the strangers edge politely away. Once there was an argument about Scott Morrison which became ugly. Once, an argument about racehorses which became boring. Children pile and count coins on the floor which go clink, clink, clink in desperate piles of hope. I liked to change the prices on their books so they get half of their coins back. But then they look at me in shock, unhappy at having counted wrong. Now I count with more respect, offer the discount at the end. But many children remain uneasy with this.

Older men have a habit of demanding a discount, looming over me, tapping the wallet, confident, assuming I will ease their $9.  I don’t.

Once a teenager brought me a box of his own books and would not take any money for them. He said it was to help me stay open because things had been hard lately these days. He told me about each book; they were not discards; they were his own library.

Children keep jacket hoods on, peek at me as they pass the counter. Parents press books toward them, the children press them away again politely and look at me again.

Women meet unexpectedly and laugh loudly, ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Oh you know, getting on with it.’

‘Yeah mate.’

A parent says, ‘I don’t want you buying books just because of the covers.’

A child stops still in the doorway, stops walking forwards and steps from side to side in an astonished rocking movement, ‘This is like the movie.’ He holds up his book, and his family stumble and fall all over him. ‘Move, Marcus, don’t stop like that.’ But he is too happy. He can’t hear them, and he stays right there staring at the dragon, rocking gently and forces the family to divide and flow around him, finally scooping him up at the rear – by his father, who says, ‘Gotta go, little man.’

They go, they’re loud; I guess they will take the little man to the bakery…..goodbye…

 

Illustration by Rudi Hurzlmeier

 

Children and their mums and dads

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What do they see, these children who are brought into bookshops, who are allowed to look and choose, are encouraged to read, and whose parents drift aside into their own place; Jack Kerouac, Terry Pratchett, Dune, Sonya Hartnett, Evelyn Waugh, The Remains of the Day, Dark Emu, Toni Morrison, Colette, Lee Child, Alice Walker, Debra Adelaide, The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis. The parents try to remain present. What do their children do?

One family: the five year old telling his dad about a book, desperately. ‘It has a man on the front, with a helmet on.’

The dad says, ‘Show me, take me to the book. You look after me.’ They bustle toward the book – there is a long conversation. Then they drift for a while. Dad has three books. The child has one and has finished.

‘Do you feel like you want to go? To the car?’ The child does.

‘Well, I think mum needs more time.’ We all look at mum. She is leaning, ankles crossed, against poetry, plays and Virago Classics. Child and man gaze at her. She wears olive green, mustard, deep wine, navy blue, chocolate brown, and she is motionless. Three paperbacks at her feet, ready.

Another child spins on an axis.

‘Dad dad dad come back.’

‘Come back dad dad dad dad dad dad dad. This is my book.’

‘It’s yours?’

‘Yeeeers.’

Some children find books for their parents.

‘Dad, look at this, you should get this.’

‘I like it. I the way you think.’ The child, about eight, expands. ‘This is fantastic, too.’

One father tells his partner, ‘I can tell you how that ends.’

‘Don’t.’

Their daughter, about ten, looks on, impassive. She says to me on the way out, ‘I’m reading Lord of the Rings.

A child, maybe six, listens to his parents argue about Henry James. ‘Portrait of a Lady…we have it.’

The child says, ‘I just found a portrait of a lady.’ They swoop. Oh my God, did you hear that?’ The child shows them a book with a lady on the front.

Some parents say, ‘Hands behind your back, remember,’ while they handle all the books.

Outside, when I am hanging my balloons: ‘Why do you always do that, can’t you do anything right?’ Parents talking in car parked right next to me. They are talking to a child in the back seat, but I assume they are talking to me.

Some children take a seat and just read. Some make a stack, and their parents look on admiringly. One daughter told me about history joyfully, and her father stood back, looking at her with utter respect.

 

Going to fly with these

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This morning, two young girls with beautiful shoulder bags visited the shop. I don’t remember them here before. They settled in. I sat back with respect. True readers.

Lord of the Rings…. look at these…do you have The Sils?’

‘Yeah, ages ago…’

‘Every book that he’s written…’

‘I know, right!’

‘Do you think I should get something about…’

‘I shouldn’t be looking at this, but I love roses…’

They are young and can kneel easily. They can include the bottom shelves. They are not fatigued by high shelves. Reach and lift. Scan books on their knees and get up rapidly again. Their shoulders are not rounded. Once a lady told me she cannot read the titles on any books above her head or below her knees, and I needed to get rid of everything on the highest and lowest shelves. She was really angry. She had shoulders that were argumentative.

One girl cradles, then hugs the book about roses.

They can both walk and read at the same time. I used to be able to do this. The angry woman had said that my shop would cause injuries.

‘Look at this.’ The girls whisper darkly and laugh and laugh and laugh.

They sit on their heels, easily.

Once a man said I needed to do something about my doorway.

‘You need to do something about this doorway. Bloody ridiculous.’

The girls are are counting coins on the floor.

They stand up and look at each other’s armloads, then look down to examine their own cuddled stack. Then they move to another shelf. They have not yet got enough.

The angry lady had said that she would not return.

One girl said, ‘I’m going to fly with these. Just got The Last Unicorn.’

‘Did you get that?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Omg.’

‘Cmon.’

‘Ok’.

They pay and leave, hugging their books. Hugging their books. When they floated past my window, they were hugging their books.

Wild Swans by Arnaldo Mirasol

We were talking of dragons

Michael Komarck

“We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
with gleaming eye glanced towards us:
‘I seen ’em myself!’ he said fiercely.”

C.S. Lewis, The Book of Dragons

Illustration by Michael Komarck

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.