Looking at things

There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.

‘Why are they so liddle?’

‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’

The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.

They are the colour of pests.

But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.

They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.

Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’

‘Is there.’

‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’

They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.

The man who asked for a book I didn’t have

A man visited me on Thursday and asked for a book I didn’t have – Shark Arm by Phillip Roope, and his walking stick gave him some trouble as he balanced himself at the counter.

He said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just my walking stick trying to kill me’, and we smiled, and a customer nearby looked across and nodded and then looked back at the shelves again.

He asked me to order the book for him, and I replied, ‘Of course’, and I looked up to take his details and there were tears in his eyes which must have come on suddenly and for no reason visible to anyone here.

He said, ‘Let me know when it arrives, I’m looking forward to this.’

His eyes were blue. His shirt and jeans and hat were all green, His eyes held the story though because everything for a second swam right in front of us, and then was gone again.  

Image by Horacio Cardoza

How people browse for books

Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.

Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.

Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’

A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.

A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’

He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.

She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.

Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.

Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’

Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.

The ute is gone

Two ladies are drifting around the shop, dreamily, and apologetic as if they shouldn’t be here. They say, ‘Sorry’, and tiptoe past me. They are pineapple and blue, bright and delicious. They sway here and lean there.

 ‘I remember half of these books from me childhood.’

‘It’s a bit of a shock isn’t it!’

‘Oh I know.’

Outside the door there is a ute parked, and in the back of the ute, a sheep, quite dead, and next to it, a ladder. I know because I stood up to see. I looked at the sheep’s belly, looking for breathing. None.

A passer-by walked past the windows, absorbed and fluent. He looked into the back of the ute as he walked, his head turning as though on a stalk. He stopped abruptly and looked more closely, and then walked on.

‘Oh my lord.’ A lady stopped and gestured with her bag.

‘Oh no.’

Inside, the pineapple and blue ladies are still drifting. They have solid bags. Their hair is similar, small silver tents. They clasp their hands across their fronts.  The floor creaks under their gentle boots.  Slowly, softly, they exclaim at memories.

Outside in the quiet road, the sheep is still dead, itself now a memory. The driver plods wearily past my windows and climbs in.  He has a tray with two coffees.

I am asked for James Michener, Miss Read, The Readers Digest Motoring Guide to Australia and books that are good for reading groups.

A young woman asks her friend, ‘Would you listen to this if I read it out loud?’

Her friend, breathes out, ‘Maybe.’

The blue and pineapple ladies pass by, thank me and tenderly leave.

The young women search urgently for things to read aloud.

The ute has driven away, and the sheep is gone.

Image by Hugh Stewart

No, that’s not what I’m saying

There’s an old man who comes into the shop from time to time – he buys gardening books. Once, last month, when I was glum, and it was cold, and the sky had its eyes closed, he came in. He found a gardening book so big that the cover had a handle. He picked it up and carried it round, he kept saying, ‘Look at this!’

He bought it.

He carried it around the shop a few more times. ‘Look at this, this is great! Good on you for having it. Good on you for having this place.’ His face is a smile, it stretches, every kindly muscle of it, into a single malt smile.

Then he saw the bookmarks and went silent. ‘Look at these.’

‘Look at this.’ He handled a little silver dragon, screwing up his eyes to see it properly. His hands are huge, gardening hands, at rest but alive as if still holding the secateurs. ‘Look at this. This is marvellous. It’s a little dragon. Good on you.’ His nails are dark, holding soil from the beans he probably checked this morning.

When he first visited the shop, he wanted a book of jokes, not rude ones, just quick ones, for entertaining the grandkids. ‘They like quick jokes these days.’ When he spoke of his grandchildren, his eyes moistened and an orchard grew there.

Did they know? Those grandkids? If they don’t, in time they will. When he’s not there, and a small corner of warmth, tomatoes, the washing pegged carefully, the careful attention to what matters – is gone.

When he left, I followed him out. I don’t know why. No, that’s not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say is that the sky had opened its eyes and was looking right at him.

Tea Time With a Hummingbird

Tea Time With a Hummingbird 2 by Jai Johnson

“I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spend in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.

In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Life (1875-1926)
Painting: Tea time with a Hummingbird 2 by Jai Johnson

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

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I wrote this original post on December 30th, 2015, at the end of my first six months in the shop. I didn’t, back then, realize how valuable these days were, or how important those first customers would become. I know that these days will return, and hopefully everyone with them. But it will be different now. What is important has changed.

It is hot today. Customers are exhilarated and expansive because Christmas is over, and the Hard Work is done.

A lady who suffers terribly from insomnia tells me that insomnia is lucky, as it gives her  time to read. Her husband said that he has no time to read, never has had. He looked at the volumes of Ngaio Marsh she had set aside to buy. He said he doesn’t know where his time goes these days. She told him that it has probably gone to the pub.

A little girl asked for Harry Potter but her mother reminded her that there would be no time to read it. So best leave it.

Kerry said he can get through one thriller a night. I asked Robert how long it might take him to get through The Gnostic Mysteries and he said he will never be done with that book, even after he dies he will still be reading it. And when the government discovers his body still reading it, they had better be worried.

A little boy said he could read a Geronimo Stilton in five minutes, but his sister said that this was a lie.

I have time to think about Henry James.

Fiona picked up her order and said that there is no technology yet that can track what happens to the human mind when we are reading. It can track the activity of the brain but not of the mind.

I tried to imagine what my mind was doing when I read Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees.

Robert, who is still here, said that if the government knew what his mind was thinking when he was reading they would put the watch dogs onto him. We asked him what he is reading (besides The Gnostic Mysteries) and he said The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is so he can find out what’s going on in the world. Better to read The Greek Myths or Homer to keep up with things because everything in the newspapers is an insult, including the weather.

There were some new visitors from interstate. One was feeling hilarious because he’d found a copy of The Unseen Academicals, which is the Exact Book he is up to:

‘I’ve got so many books to read, so many, just so many, we are always just buying other ones. I sit there in the caravan park,and I’m just laughing out loud, it’s so funny. I will have to read for ever. I think it’s possible, that’s why we get so many. I am collecting every book by Terry Pratchett, I read them more than once and they actually GET FUNNIER.

Then at the end of the day, a small boy asked me for a Christmas book that had been in the window last week. He saw it and wanted it, and when I brought out the stories that were left he pointed to a heavy green Faber anthology of Christmas stories. His mother told him that it was a book for adults. His father told him to leave it until he was older. But he gave me all his money and whispered that it was the one he wanted. He defended his choice patiently to his parents, told them that this book would NOT run out of pages. The other books there would run out of pages. He was six years old, and he convinced them; he got his book.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard

Guard well your spare moments

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“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

That’s ok, all my books are valuable to me…

Frank Donato

This little boy, 10 years old, came into the shop carrying a copy of Lord of the Rings under his arm, a bright red paperback with a bookmark about half way though.

He asked me for a copy of The Hobbit and I had one but it was an illustrated hardback and more expensive than the paperback reading copies. He told me he is allowed to spend his pocket money however he wants and he wanted that one.

His mother and grandmother stood back, wise, allowing him custody of his own reading life. They beamed over him their generosity and grace. Once his mother said: he’s read everything, he makes his own library. They said they did not know where this reading thing came from. They did not claim credit for it themselves. This is unusual.

He told me about Watership Down and The Little Grey Men. He asked for Goodnight Mr Tom and wondered if I knew about Tarka the Otter He wandered around and around, smiling at the books, happy with the choices even though he had read most of them. When he walked he kicked one leg up in front of him in a rhythm, round the tables and shelves he went, nodding his head at the books he knew. Then he saw a book with a pirate ship on the front, a blue one with a beautiful sapphire cover. I explained the book to him but he was not interested in hearing about the book, he only wanted to hear about the story. I said, this book is also a book to hang onto, it is valuable…

He said: I know, I know, don’t worry about that, all my books are valuable to me…

 

Illustration by Frank Donato