Liking the new spaces in the shop

There are two rectangular bookshelves in the front of the shop, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, bone to bone. The books are not related. But they still get on because they’ve been shelved so precisely that they must. They take up and face out, exact squares of meaning. Customers say, ‘This looks nice.’

I think they’re referring to order. Order is nice right now. When you open the door to the shop, there’s a big new free space. We moved the counter back out of the way. I prefer to be out of everyone’s way. You can get your pram in now. The space is bordered and held by bookshelves holding all kinds of possibility. That’s what I call it because you can get in the door so easily that the rest of the shop seems possible. My assistant, Callie, came in and saw the new arrangement for the first time. She said, ‘I like.’

The books sit tight and obedient. But their contents don’t. There are all kinds of strange books sitting there looking at the visitors coming in. When visitors come in, they move their heads from side to side, fast and interested. Then they say, ‘This is nice.’ They look carefully and softly at simply everything. Spike Milligan. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Blinky Bill. A Biography of Judy Dench. Longfellow. Asterix and the Soothsayer. European Trains in the 19th Century. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Rabindranath Tagore: The Complete Writings.

‘Just get it over and done with…..like…hello?’ I overheard this from two teenagers passing the door and discussing getting things over and done with. The girls walked shoulder and shoulder, heads together, dragging schoolbags.

A man came strongly through the door into my new space and then backed out again. He said, ‘Zen moment. Sorry. Books here. Sorry.’

When visitors come in together, they stand for a little while and whisper to each other. There’s no need to whisper though. It’s not a quiet place. Books are not quiet.

A mother and child browsed a while and left looking happy. The mother had bought The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She said, ‘I want to cry’. At the door the child said, ‘I’m going to die from holding in my pee’, and the mother screamed with laughter. I thought that was good.

Paul Keating has an amazing intellect

Somebody said this at my window, tapping on the glass to show his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. But they didn’t come into the shop.

That’s ok, it’s the school holidays and the readers are out leaping into the shop with narrowed eyes like hunters on the path of something. One young woman announced herself to me but turned midsentence, already at the biographies and not finishing the sentence.

But that’s ok, I needed to sit down after battling the autumn leaves in the doorway again. And again. Every morning they come back and wait for me. My broom is coming apart.

When I was out there sweeping, an old lady asked me, ‘Did you get that book I wanted and can’t remember?’ But I hadn’t found it. I couldn’t remember it either, and she patted my arm and said, ‘Not to mind. I’ll leave you to your sweeping up.’

Sarah came in needing a number for a taxi. She said that what was going on in Lismore wasn’t good enough.

Robert came in after a year’s absence and started right off where we’d finished last May. His newest news was that he’d saved a lot of money by giving up smoking. He’d saved thousands. So now he could buy some books. But then he remembered that he’d taken up smoking again, and he showed me a plastic wallet of tobacco which reminded me of my grandfather. I almost said Tally Ho, but I didn’t. Robert said that the tobacco cost him $150 and looked furious about it. But then he noticed behind me on a shelf, The Secret Doctrine by H P Blavatsky, Quest Book, Theosophical Publishing House. He read all this out loud. Then he said, ‘I’ll have that.’

We looked at each other, pleased, and then talked about tobacco some more. Then he rushed out to do other errands, and Jim came in and ordered an esoteric type of book that I’d ordered before – for Robert. I told Jim, and he said, ‘I know, Robert gave me a lift in to Strath and told me to get one.’ So I got one for him. I said, ‘How’s Clayton, and he said, ‘Yeah, well you know how it is.’ Which I didn’t, but I agreed anyway.

The girl who was amongst the biographies came back to the counter with a pile. There was 1 historical, 5 crimes, 2 biographies, 2 children’s flats and 1 art book. She bobbed up and down while she paid, flexing leg muscles and looking powerful. I said, indicating Wolf Hall, ‘This is good’, and she said powerfully, ‘I know, my mum told me about it.’

Anthony came in for science fiction. An ambulance and police car went past, and then a CFS truck. He said, ‘that sounds bad’.

A silent young couple came in and looked at just about everything and left silently. I said, thanks for coming in, but they didn’t reply. A lady asked for a book about a certain type of guitar. Another lady asked for spiritual Christian fiction and then left with nothing and looking unsatisfied. I went to the bakery for a chocolate doughnut and there were none left and I came back with nothing and feeling unsatisfied.  

Then someone tapped on the window and called out to his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. The friend nodded with folded arms not looking interested. The man remained bent over and slowly examined all the other books in the window. They didn’t come in.

All in all a satisfying day. Except for the autumn leaves. Lol.

Illustration by Konstantin Mashkarin

Father and son back again

Father and Son are here (again). They’ve been visiting for 10 years, since son was about 8. That would make him around 18 now; he’s grave and courteous and choosing outstanding and bewildering literature.

These parents always brought their children to the shop in the school holidays and let them burrow down and choose their own stuff. Wise. I remember the children were dark and quiet with bright-eyes and shared jokes without saying anything.

Now Father and Son are here again and he’s no longer at school. Still bright-eyes looking at me over a black mask and holding a copy of Arcadian Adelaide by Thistle Anderson (which is hilarious), and how could an 18 year old know about that book. But he does. With his large serious watch and thatch of wild hair.

But now Dad’s found a find on a shelf.

Goon Show, Harry.’

But Harry’s got Arcadian Adelaide and isn’t looking up. But it doesn’t matter. Families are like that, especially when it comes to reading.

Dad’s reading titles aloud: ‘My Goblin Therapist,  I want my daughter to see this. She’ll want this.’ Families that read do that. They know about each other’s reading.

The father says to me: ‘Where’s your satire section?’, and I say: ‘At home.’ He understands.

Dad stands and looks at shelves. Son kneels easily with no cracking joints or signals from muscles. Both men absorbed.

‘Dad.’ Son gives an urgent low call.

Dad turns slightly, but is himself unable leave something.

Son is not perturbed because just registering interest is enough; just moving the air slightly with breath is enough. For family.

Harry has hands in pockets and feet crossed, relaxed.

Then he sits with phone.

Dad stares into science fiction.

They have a stack ready, but for now they just sit or stand and stare at things.

Painting by Vickie Wade

“Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader (2006), said that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. I thought about why this is and then wrote the following list:

  1. Although we are not alone, we read alone.
  2. Although what happens when we read is not quiet, it makes us quiet.
  3. What we see and sense when we read happens inwardly no matter how powerful, and the more devastating the experience, the deeper the retreat.
  4. Even though reading is all about the written word, a book can leave us with no words to describe it. This is because we are not describing the book, we are describing what our self has become after reading it, and this is often too new to have any vocabulary yet.
  5. Reading draws on and makes use of what we already know and what we already are, and then somehow turns this material broadside and sends it (and us) bowling down new allies.
  6. Reading can reach our hidden and distraught places (the ones that live on piles of silence) and let in some air.
  7. Reading is private and delicate and social and diabolical.
  8. It is only in silence that we can find our troubles, and reading provides a safe balcony to look from.
  9. Reading leaves us alone to find our own face.
  10. Although we are alone, we actually don’t read alone.

Illustration by Lorena Spurio

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.

Regarding our own stuff

They are becoming too many, and I know I won’t be able to read them all. Think about that. Why did I get all these? But this is only some of them. Why are book collectors so mad? What it is? Where’s the grip?

My library. It lines every wall. It’s on fire. It swells and shrinks, puckers and protrudes; puts ankles in the hallway, spills books onto the beds of grandsons, ‘What’s this Nanny, it’s got bees on it, it’s got rips in her, it’s too heavy, it’s not my book, it’s bent, but I didn’t done it.’

My library stands with its spine against all walls, shoulders back and watching the family drama. It breathes out. Books land softly. They are trodden on; they brace their cardboard ribs and make it through.

‘Who’s Arthur Ransome?’

‘The Lakes. Heap of kids in a boat. Fabulous.’

‘Is this racist?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Whose this?’

‘Jamaica Kincaid.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Nanny, I saw Paddington.’

‘What’s this Mrs Pepperpot?’

‘It’s mine.’

‘It’s not.’

‘Should I read Margaret Atwood?’

‘Yes.’

My sister bending strongly and in no mood for argument, examines my shelf of Terry Pratchetts. She finds something that might be hers. She straightens up with an accusing face. It is hers.

My dad returns my copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Tea Tree Gully Library.

The grandsons have a go at Asterix.

‘Mum, read Nevo Zisin. Because you don’t get it.’

I read and read. Everything implodes, and my library rocks back and forth holding things upright for me, knowing

I still have my mother’s collection of Monica Dickens. I won’t let it go. It’ll come with me. Which of course it will. Once, a customer, Robert, said ‘all the books come with us, my God, they do.’ Imagine not reading. But I can’t.

The child

Came in just before closing time. It’s cold. We’ve got autumn now. She is about nine. She has that child’s mouth where the teeth lead the entire face. She is picking up a set of Percy Jackson books, a huge stack, and she can’t stop grinning because they made it in time. She said, ‘We made it in time.’

Then she bellowed through the cold door, ‘DAD.’

I could see him through the glass, on the footpath and sorting through his wallet, finishing a smoke.

He came in, ‘Don’t get excited’, he said, wanting her to get excited.

She was.

‘Don’t put them in order because I already know how they go. This.’

She rearranged them slightly. ‘I’ve already read them. Dad, get them.’

He took out his wallet again and got them.

I offered a bag, but she would not part with them. They were in her arms.

‘No way,’

I understood.

The kids

Came in to the bookshop all at once. Twenty five of them, or maybe six. I couldn’t count them. They talked so hard. They were never still, roaming and picking books up, tapping and turning, and squatting down, three of them, over one book as though it were a map of the evening’s plan. Were they one family or a group of friends?

They turned out to be both. Two families, all friends. Because later, the mothers came in and did the same thing. Than a husband – who could not enter the conversation of the mothers, and so returned to the bakery.

But the children. They had read everything. I caught the tail ends.

‘I might get that.’

‘That’s the second book.’

‘I know.’

‘Where’s the other book?’

‘There’s no what?’

‘I’m not gunna read it.’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Trilogy…The Hunger Games’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Ok. First book good, second book ok, third book I actually liked it.’

‘But it wasn’t a satisfying ending.’

‘I know.’

‘I got halfway.’

‘Yeah. Same. I’ve read that though. And that. But not that.’

‘It’s good.’

‘They should do another one.’

‘I know, right.’

‘He should write the next one.’

‘I wish there was more of them.

‘Have you ever read all night?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Same.’

‘Look what I’ve got. I’m getting it.’

‘Look at this.’

On and on they went. There were sudden silences when everybody was caught in something at the same time. Then on they surged.

‘Hey.’

‘Woah.’

‘Look.’

‘Wait.’

‘Hey crazy guys. Let’s just read everything here.’

‘Except the gardening books.’

‘Oh my god, yeah. Not them.’

Suddenly they began to leave. There was someone outside tapping on the window. He called though the door, ‘Where’s the rest of you?’

They answered, ‘The bakery’.

Image by Hajin Bae

The lovely ongoing enthusiasm of readers

In the shop, I get told about things in bits and pieces. There is never enough time for customers to explain the whole story – which in their minds is one complete coherent and catastrophic realization- but it only gets to me in fragments.

‘The Russians are a cruel people. I prefer the Druids. King Arthur, for example. And Lancelot was a complete arsehole. You can’t tell me he didn’t have something strange going on with the Danes.’

Readers are always enthusiastic and visionary.

‘Easter is for throwing things out. That’s how I was raised. Read Winnie the Pooh, and you’ll understand.’

And emphatic.

‘I had to confront the manager about the hot cross buns.’

And they are mysterious.

‘I’ve read all of these. Brilliant books. I might get that one anyway. And you’ll see something across the road in a minute. At least you will if you’ve read book 4 of these.’

And they are confident.

‘Did you know that the writer of Tarzan made it all up?’

A reader brought a copy of The End of Certainty by Paul Kelly over to me. He said, ‘There’s a lot we can learn from the Americans. But as for Blair, just leave him out of it.’ He bought three other biographies. He said, ‘Luckily, there’s no end to it.’

Children try harder. They watch your eyes when they talk and gauge your enthusiasm and your comprehension accurately. They tell the story properly, loyal to the facts and inventing nothing. In ‘Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll’, Kelsey lives in Pakistan and needs a friend. Her and her Nanna get her a doll. Called Amy Jo. They have a hard adventure. But they are all right in the end.’

They explain succinctly why they want a particular book.

‘It’s because I want it.’

Illustration by Inga Moore