The men who wore suits, and talked too loudly

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These men came into the shop, friends, wearing rather beautiful suits, which is unusual around here for the middle of the day. They stayed in conversation, moving from shelf to shelf, discussing things far beyond the bookshop. They talked very loudly. There was an interruption with a phone call. They made plans for the evening.

One man said, what about Gayle?

The other said, no, don’t worry, we don’t want the kids there, she’ll stay home.

The friend said, sure?

And the first man said, yeah.

Then he said, is that Watership Down? Isn’t it about dogs or something?

Rabbits.

They bought it. At the counter, they said, how’re you going?

I said, I am at the height of my menopausal powers right now.

I saw their eyes flicker. There was a contraction in the muscles around the mouth. They breathed in, squared up, were polite. They said, no worries.

Then they said, thank you very much, and left the shop. As they passed through the door, their mouths still held the uncomfortable shape.

I forgot to tell them, well done, for Watership Down, a brilliant book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Empress

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I’m just going to look in the bookshop.
A woman said this outside the shop, she said it to her family, or perhaps they were friends, but anyway, they were all male and all young except one, her husband maybe.
Are you serious….one boy said this on a note of desperation, his voice slid around on the word “serious” trying to find something positive to stop the downward slide.
I won’t be long. I thought she was calm and good and I hoped she might come in. They had stood for ages in the doorway, they looking down (at phones), she looking in.
Are you serious…this said by another boy, he had headphones and long black jeans that rolled underneath his shoes and were worn away like old matting. He had a black singlet and on the front of this was the word Satan.
Just get into the car. This was what she said next while I was hoping she might come in.
… are you serious… This again from the first boy who swayed back and then downwards, marking the agony of his life right now.
Get in the car. And so, like that, she trimmed the arguments and parted the agony, opened the door and came in and I was pleased. She was serene and upright, pulling the summer in after her and needing nobody for attendance.
Outside the window were her menfolk, family or friendfolk, slumped in a sort of comfortable defeat, dropped against the window, one boy hoisted his shoulder against all new ideas. The headphone boy stood still in his own private response, eyes closed anyway. Another, a third boy made binoculars out of his hands and telescoped her through the glass, his orange T-shirt stained the light, and I saw that his eyes tracked her from shelf to shelf and sometimes he made his eyes desperate  thinking she was looking at him. But she wasn’t. He wanted to go home but she didn’t.
All those boys drifted over to their car and I watched them. The car was parked right outside the shop, it was white, they opened the doors and left them open. There were chip packets all across the back seat.
One boy lay across the back seat. One boy sat with his legs on the dashboard and the other possible brother slowly baked his evening plans, sitting on the footpath.
There was a father too, he was already in the car, was reading the newspaper and not bothering to question the rather beautiful afternoon.
Inside the shop it is cool and nice and she, (the empress), is leaning with Janet Evanovich, leaning against the cool wall, an empress, not hurrying, not concerned with outside.
When she left, much later on, she paused in the doorway and re entered the summer exactly in the way she wanted and all the sons stared at her wordlessly and she stared back at them in exactly the same way. It was excellent.

 

Artwork: Red Shirt on the Steps by Darren Thompson

Ethel, not John

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Ethel and John came into the bookshop about a month ago, tangled together and finding it difficult to manage the door. John wanted some Spike Milligan to read, he told me a long story about Spike Milligan and Ethel helped. She was short and square, John was bigger.

She had a British accent and she said you know at the end of every sentence. They had been married 45 years.

Ethel came in by herself two weeks ago to order a book for John, a gift, a biography of Spike Milligan. She was limp with relief or joy that I could find the book and order it.

Last week though, I found that book on the counter, returned.

Ethel came in again, this week, and found it difficult to manage the door. She had a slow, strong face. There was a small amount of sunlight caught in its contours, apologetic light and her features were gathered safely in the centre of it. While we searched for another book she told me a little about her life and she said that John called her the old dinosaur. The book she had bought for him, well, he didn’t want it.

The other day they came back together. He said: look at what I’ve got to work with and I thought he was referring to the book she had bought him,  but he was actually talking about Ethel. He told me another long story about Spike Milligan and he had spit caught in chains at the corners of his mouth. He told me he had worked hard he had, all his life, he had. He told me a long story about it.

They had trouble with the door that day too,  which was Ethel’s fault, and they stood in front of the thousands of oblongs that lined the walls and rooms and John told the long story about his life and the bookshelves leaned over him, the books that already safely contained their story and his story and her story.

He said: sorry about that book but he didn’t want it… his useless dinosaur just wasn’t up to much, all her fault.

Ethel stood still on her piece of earth. And then they left.

 

Sculpture by David Leffel

 

 

 

 

Peggy 2

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When Peggy was young she left her husband in Woomera and he burned all her books in revenge. When she told me this, she laughed and said: more fool him.

She came to the shop again, last Friday, driving up from Adelaide all by herself, fearless, irreverent, divine and eighty four. She only has one eye, the other one is made of glass but she threw it in the bin some years ago: the doctor that prescribes that can go to hell. Once when I visited her, she showed me a photo of herself just before she was sent to an orphanage. She said: gawd I was ugly. But she wasn’t.
Peggy has read everything.
She always carries a few emergency thrillers in case she is forced to go to a show, a musical, to church,  and then, luckily, she can read to pass the time.

She says: what have you got for me to read Kerry? I offer her Good Literature and she says it is all shit. She goes to the science fiction instead. She is very tall, very angular, very bold, unforgettable. When I used to visit her in Strathalbyn she wore a man’s dressing gown to the door and carried a glass of red wine. She has read all of the Game of Thrones and can’t wait until the next volume or the next season to comes out, when she will be 85.

I said: that series is very violent and she said approvingly: hahaha.

Last year she nursed her own daughter, who was dying of cancer, until she died. Her new friends she has made since moving to Adelaide tell her to join a walking group. They say it will be good for her. They say she should not read so much.
(Peggy has read everything.)
She looks at me and asks me if they are right.
I ask her to please never change. She says: hahaha!
Peggy has never once had an easy life but this does not impress her and it has never mattered.

Sarah

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Sarah has seen the Jura Mountains. She said they are north of the Alps and very beautiful. I have never seen them and she said that I ought to. She herself plans to travel again, this time by ship because this will give her time to read on the way. I approved of this – I always plan the slowest way possible to anywhere so as to bank up some reading hours for withdrawal later.
Sarah has not had an easy life. But having had no other, she carries it around tenderly for what it’s worth – which is a great deal.
She was raised amongst books, many, many of them, mostly the English classics because England is where her mother was born. She will recite them off: Wind in the Willows, Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Louis Untermeyer, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Moomins, The Jungle Book, The Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, Little Women, The Borrowers, The Water Babies, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens….
Sarah is an only child.
When she was 15, her mother took her to France and they stayed at Saint -Claude. They saw a film there – Casablanca – in subtitles. She loved it. Her father didn’t come, he was an accountant in Adelaide at John Martins and he stayed home to look after Sarah’s dog Bruno. Also, he didn’t like travelling.
Now she is reading Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright – the one about the suffragettes which she told me is an important part of our history. Sarah is always reading. She told me that it has helped her through the more difficult times of her life. Which has been most of it.
Reading was one of the last things her mother gave up before she died.
When Sarah was 15, and her mother took her to France and they saw the Jura Mountains, they stayed with cousins at a vineyard. And her cousin gave her two beautiful French dolls for her birthday and she tasted French wine and it was summer and it was really very, very beautiful.

sonder – n. the realization that each random passer by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig

 

I have a Mother

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I have a mother who shielded me from the blows of her own childhood. She must have had to kneel most of her adult life, arms outspread and shoulders fatigued, in order to stave off the poverty and sadness of her past so that none of it reached us. Nonetheless, some got through. This is because her past is part of her; some things must get through, the things she needed, like air.

Just enough for me, when I was young, to seize it with relief and lay the blame.

I have a mother who took the blame quietly.

I have a mother who still surrounds the kitchen and criticises my lack of scones. Whose years are numbered but can still allow hours of minutes on mending one torn seam or a labelling the jam or listening without judgement to an announcement of divorce.

I have a mother who gave me the stubborns.

I have a mother, the loss of whom will break granite, easily.

I always positioned myself in the alert; cautiously, to break tradition, and ensure superiority (I will do a better job etc).

No need. This is what she wanted anyway. And after all the hard work, I didn’t do a better job.

Now I must watch my own daughters circle intelligently, alert and compassionate,  impressed by Nanna, but rarely of me. They intend to do a better job than me.

I have a mother who worked tremendously hard and rarely had time to tell me that I was valuable. So then, later I could say triumphantly that I was not valuable.

She told us stories of the past, sorting the lovely from the ugly, shielding us from bad memory as beneath a poor and sagging umbrella.

She carried the milk home from the dairy in a billy can, once she spilt the milk all over the road.

Her father, Ben, was a fabulous gardener.

They were very poor. One day, her mother went to the dentist and had every tooth pulled out. Then she came home and made dinner.

She can remember the first time she tried chewing gum. She always loved reading. I have always carried a memory of early summer, the morning and a pile of red books. There was also an almond tree and warm sand, these things all go together.

She had a baby sister that died.

She was afraid of her father.

She remembers in detail when I was born.

Artwork by Keith Negley

The Bath

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A young reader visited the shop and asked me not to remind him that school begins again soon.

January is slowing and it is quiet.

After finishing The Historian I have chosen to read Daisy Head Mayzie by Dr Seuss and also Green Eggs and Ham. I read The Big Cheese and Bartholomew Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. David asked me: But what happened to Edith Wharton and I said: bother Edith Wharton, who cares about her!

Some grandparents brought in their granddaughters to use gift vouchers and one of them, aged about nine years, chose the entire Narnia series. I told them about Max and they said I should give him a voucher, a voucher to my own shop and I was speechless to not have thought of it first! I rushed to write one out and the grandmother said she thought The Gingerbread Man was an ideal first choice. The young reader who was not looking forward to school beginning said his first book was The Secret Seven and is friend said: no way man!

I tell my mother that when I read to my grandson, he follows every word even though he is only four weeks old; he is advanced.

She said: well, maybe he is the same as most babies!

But I am doubtful.

I read I Went Walking three times. Then it was into the bath with Max where he floats motionless, heavy lidded with only his extended big toes showing the ecstasy.

I cannot get anything done. A small baby in a bath is just too absorbing and there is no retreat.

I showed Margaret a picture and she said: What a dear little man. She had come in for a book but forgot what it was, we were too busy looking at the picture of the bath. I said: I can hardly run my bookshop anymore and she said: yes, that’s right, it is impossible.

Why did you get me a book? Why didn’t you get me a Transformer?

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Today is grey, warm and quiet. The cars driving past are all headed for Christmas. A few visitors come in, looking idly for books; one man was looking for Milang. Albert dropped in to say Merry Christmas and that once, when he drove trucks, he took a load of books to Melbourne, thousands of them, all packed into crates. He said: I had a look in the back when they were unloading because they said it was an urgent load and I had to drive all night, books by some bird called Joan Collins. She was in Melbourne signing them or something. Do you think I should have read one of em? Who is she anyway?

I was asked for The Silver Brumby.

An older man spent a long time looking at a Geronimo Stilton. He looked puzzled.

A lady bought a complete Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales. She said I love these, so much more than the Grimm Brothers. They were just so….grim! I just want to read them, I don’t need to study or know everything about them. I have a husband who thinks he knows everything. She looked grim.

There are two ladies in the front room and one tells her friend that her grandson said last Christmas: why did you get me a book? Why didn’t you get me a Transformer? And so now she is getting him another book. They both laugh toward each other and laugh until one begins to wheeze and wheeze. She gasps out: if he doesn’t like it he gets nothing. But my daughter told me I should get him what he wants.

Her friend says OH FOR GOD’S SAKE!

And they both laugh and laugh again. They are silver and elegant and one has a small tattoo. Then they discussed their adult daughters for a long time, they did not look at any books.

Then it is quiet for a long time. I read The Historian… and it is very good. In this book it is mid-winter in England. And everything is freezing, including Dracula. Here it is hot, but the snow and dust mingle nicely and logically.

I am asked for The History of Tom Jones and then Rumpole of the Bailey.

Outside passers-by comment: this is a nice shop! But they do not come in.

An old man buys some books for his granddaughter in England. He is worried that the family won’t approve. He said: this might put me in the bad books again.

Some children paused outside to eat an enormous bag of chips. There is an argument. One child says they must eat them all NOW because he is not allowed to buy this many chips at once or he will be killed by his mum.

I see Robert hurrying past but he does not come in.

I wonder what else should be happening because it is Christmas…

Then a man came in and asked for a map book but I didn’t have one. He said he’s at the caravan park here, and leaving soon. He and his wife had travelled to South Australia, their last trip, she died of cancer soon after they arrived here which was four days ago. And he just wanted a map book; he thought he might drive a little further; he did not want to go home right now.

But I didn’t have one. He said not to worry, and he went to the bakery. I saw him there through the window, eating at a table all by himself. He had said they had 18 years on the road traveling together before she got cancer.

 

Photography by Markus Spiske

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.” Anaïs Nin

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Outside the shop it is grey and raining and warm and everyone who comes in tells me that the weather is doing strange things lately.

Inside the shop I can only think about Anais Nin because I am very slowly reading her journals. She is dead now. And her writing, as someone said to me, is brilliant and brave.

She wrote what she really thought. This is a terrifying concept. Because, as she said:

“When one is pretending, the entire body revolts.”

There is thinking enough for weeks and weeks in this small sentence.

Sculpture by Ken Martin