Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

Small girl in bike helmet

A little girl wearing a bike helmet is at the door. She’s still outside looking in; her helmet is knocking against the glass; she can’t get her eyes close enough to actually see anything. She jams the helmet against the glass, and this is when I look up and see here. Her eyes pierce the inside of my shop. Beams streaming in as though from a torch. As though from a lighthouse that won’t compromise. Her eyes rest on me. She makes no compromise; she won’t smile.

In she comes. Wearing pink and grey. The bike helmet still on, the straps swinging softly around her stern chin. She looks at me and does not smile. There are no adults with here. Is it Pippi Longstocking? I sit back and regard her with respect.  

She goes in amongst the books. I go back to Amor Towles.

When I look up she is crouched over Horrible Histories. Then she moves to historical. Then she moves to a shelf and looks at a copy of Inkheart. Then she’s out of my sight; must in sci fi.

Suddenly she’s passing me again. Silent and stern and the straps of her helmet swinging softly, respecting her chin.

She took ages closing the door. She stood in the gap, doing up the straps of the pink bike helmet and looking at me. She stood there for ages doing this. Then she was gone.

The dad

I remember him because he asked me if he could come in with food. He was carrying brown paper bags and coffee. His teenage daughter was already inside. She’d been looking at science fiction for the last half hour. When she heard him, she appeared in the doorway and nodded. He came in.

I said all food is ok. I was eating a doughnut. He stood behind her nodding and listening and drinking his coffee, and he bought every book she wanted, which was three. She said, as they left, ‘I love bookshops,’ and he nodded and held the door, still eating his pastie. Then they went out into the rain.

Illustration by Johanna Wright

The Umbrella

There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.

There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.

There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.

There’s mud all over the footpath;  every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.

It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.

The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.

A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.

Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.

When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.

A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.

The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.

How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.

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

Minecraft, Minecraft

A child sang ‘Minecraft, Minecraft…all the Minecraft” while standing at the window. There’s a stack of Minecraft novels there. He laid both hands palms flat against the glass and continued his interested little song. A piping song, higher than the stack of books. Higher than the window. Then his family called him away.

‘Into the car, come on Dale’

‘Here we go again…’ A older couple at the door turn their phones this way, then the other way, trying to find the right square. ‘Here we go again. Take us half an hour to get in here.’ But they persevere bravely and make it inside.  Later, she reads a children’s book to him, out loud, and he edged slowly away.

A young couple went past the cat shelf. She said, ‘Oh my God, a cat shop. It’s a little cat shop. With cat books. That’s cool. Look Evan.’

‘Yeah, it’s cool.’

‘Because of the cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love cats. I need ’em.’

‘Yeah.’

Painting by Mars Black