Last week some tiresome workplace bullying drove me from a job I loved. The silver lining is that when the world sends me reeling I seek refuge in bookshops, and there, between pages or bookshelves, I meet people that restore my love of humanity.
Bookshops don’t just allow for interactions between strangers, they encourage them, nurture them, a rarity and a wonder in our ever more insular worlds. I’ve met the most charming people in bookshops. Take Michael.
Michael recently turned 6o. He lives alone; speculates that once upon a time, in a pub in Leeds, the right girl had walked into his life but he’d been too busy and selfish to realise. He worked a mining job that had him travelling most of his life. He’s retired now, a collector with a weakness for antiquarian Bibles and Marine narratives. A recently uncovered version of some obscure text on an early Canadian Captain brought him to the bookshop I used to work in.
The café was quiet, and for close to an hour he regaled me with tales of his travels and questionable politics. A few weeks passed without him coming by, then just days ago, looking through another bookshop’s front window, we stumbled into one another.
We exchanged an awkward greeting and updated one another on what we were reading. He asked if I’d accompany him to The Cornstalk, another little bookshop he was sure I would love. And so I did, and I discovered The Cornstalk Bookshop through his eyes.
Overseeing the entrance from behind small mountains of papers and books is Paul Feain. Paul’s been running the place since he opened it on September 20th 1980. On a bad day he practically sighs at every new arrival, scowling reproachfully at anyone he deems unworthy to be leaving his shop with one of his precious books. If there was ever a real-life version of Bernard Black, this might be it. Bushy eyebrows and skin creased into a permanent frown- only close inspection reveals laughter lines almost as deeply etched. Michael is a regular and he draws a smile. Suddenly I see a completely different man.
Opposite the front door are shelves of books with beautifully illustrated spines. Michael handed me book after book explaining what scenes were depicted. We commiserated over the loss of such art in contemporary children’s books. Beautiful editions of Huckleberry Finn, Robin Hood and Ali Baba; I had flashbacks of the bookshelves in my Dad’s childhood bedroom.
We headed through the back. Watch the step- splintered shards stick straight up out the top. Health and safety? I raised an eyebrow at the owner, but was carefully ignored. Behind half emptied boxes are leather bound mounds of promise. Politics, Australiana, architecture, art and some great biographies- albeit pretty obscure shit. There are rows of modern first editions- Coetzee, Iris Murdoch and Rudyard Kippling with prices ranging from twenty dollars to over a hundred. There are musty classics out the back but not a recent release in sight. Though it may be dated (it is an antiquarian bookshop after all) the collection is full of surprises. I blush in the pulp section where books with titles like ‘Nazi Love Slaves’ are housed beside old medical fiction.
It feels as if a slightly mad old man is being moved out of his home and this is an impromptu flogging of his remaining belongings. The ceiling has growing damp stains and the floor is potholed. I feel I’m intruding until I hear laughter from the staff echo through the shop. Michael throws yet another title at me-Louisa Alcott’s Good Wives, beautifully bound, $15. There’s something oddly magical about the place, like you might stumble between stacks into Narnia.
It didn’t seem remotely odd to be sharing literary insights with this older gentleman I barely knew. Indeed, bookshops provide a unique, equalising environment for new acquaintances. Friendships struck over yellowed pages are blind to age, sex, occupation and the other usual social determinants. The best thing about working in a bookshop was the chance to make these odd little connections.
Customers like Michael take you on unexpected journeys. Some people need just a little nudge to spill some delightful little secret. A recent visitor called Gabrielle turned out to be a poet, her writing as soft and tentative as the woman herself. Joss just finished his HSC. He never has any money for coffee but he’ll perch on a bar stool and discuss what he’s reading with a great deal of insight.
Ella was a new acquaintance, terribly shy and perpetually hidden behind a straw-blonde mane. We bonded over a fabulous poetry garland she was putting together for a teacher’s farewell party. She had carefully torn the cover page from each of her school’s set texts and turned them into origami swans. She snuck out when the café got busy but left me a lone bird with a scribbled Thank you- the witty words of Ted Hughes decorated the wings.
I may have lost the battle against my manager, but such simple, unexpected kindnesses from strangers uphold my faith in mankind.
And then there’s always Karma…