Diary of a (Christmas) bookseller

‘Bonjour, Monsieur Richardson!’ I call down from the stepladder. My high-school French teacher is standing at the counter, talking to Katherine, a pile of his special orders between them.

He looks up at me, my free hand clutching a wedge of Bill Bryson books.

Bonjour, mademoiselle,’ he says, in his perfect accent.

Je suis madame!’ I say, mostly because I know how to say this in French. I’m almost certain that being a married woman technically makes me a madame.

‘You’ll always be mademoiselle to me,’ he says. ‘To me, you’ll always be a teenager.’

I put the Bill Brysons on the shelf and clap my hands.

‘Please come during my every shift,’ I say, ‘if I still look like a teenager to you.’

He laughs.

I tried to sell my Thursday customer, who buys most things drugs and occult and sixties/seventies counterculture, the Manson book I loved today. I think I was buoyed by the success of my putting aside a book on the end of the sixties called The Bad Trip for him last week, after spotting it while dusting the American history section, and him buying it today, even while he told me it was probably all material he’s read before.

‘Still,’ he said. ‘It’s something to read, isn’t it?’ And then he paused, picking up his aviator sunglasses from the counter. ‘Surely there’s nothing new left to write or read about the sixties now.’

And so I reminded him, excitedly, of the Manson book.

‘But does it have anything new in it?’ he said sceptically. ‘I’ve read everything on Manson.’

‘Yes!’ I said ‘ This journalist spent twenty years researching, and interviewing people. He fought with Bugliosi!’

We’ve talked before about how Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter theory was largely invented, and his bestselling true crime book Helter Skelter, too.

He frowned across the counter.

‘He’s gone into locked rooms in the LA court system and found records proving the holes in the case,’ I said. ‘He’s found links to the CIA, and LSD research, and …’

‘MK Ultra?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, lamely.

‘Is this the first Manson book you’ve read?’ he asked, gently.

‘No …’ I said. ‘I’ve read others.’ I didn’t say that most of what I’ve read has been fiction based on (or riffing off) the Manson murders; that most of my knowledge comes from the You Must Remember This podcast series on Manson.

He nodded, a little too knowingly.

‘I think I know everything in there,’ he said, and I didn’t argue anymore.

‘Okay,’ I said.

A woman came crashing into the shop, barrelling towards the end of the fiction shelves.

‘I’m in a hurry,’ she said. ‘Do you have any P.G. Wodehouse?’

‘I’ll look,’ I said.

‘I don’t think we do,’ said Jason, from his position behind the computer.

I checked the shelves, while Jason looked it up, with the air of someone who already knows the answer.

‘No, sorry,’ I said. ‘We don’t have it.’

‘No,’ confirmed Jason.

‘Really?’ said the woman, looking at us intensely.

‘We could order it for you,’ I said.

‘No,’ she said, crossly. ‘I don’t want to order it. I need it now. It’s a present for a friend.’

I tried to look quietly sympathetic.

‘Do you really not have P.G. Wodehouse?’ she said.

‘No, we don’t,’ said Jason, and I could hear the steel behind his politeness.

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’m afraid it hasn’t been selling,’ he said. ‘We’ve had it, but we’re not stocking it now.’

‘I find that extraordinary!’ said the woman, throwing her arms in the air. ‘I can’t believe it!’

We looked back at her. Katherine watched from the doorway, where she was making a window display of books about France, as she does once a year.

‘I am a member of the P.G. Wodehouse Society,!’ said the woman. ‘And I always buy P.G. Wodehouse as gifts for people! I can’t believe you don’t have him!’

‘As I said, we can always order it in for you. Any time you like,’ said Jason.

The woman exclaimed again, turned in a fury, and stalked off down Hindley Street.

‘Have a nice day!’ I called after her, employing the aggressive friendliness I habitually draw on for inexplicably or unreasonably angry customers.

And then Jason and Katherine told me that this is the third time she’s done this.

‘Why are you both wearing red t-shirts today?’ asked Jason.

Katherine and I looked at each other: my red lace long-sleeved top and her red t-shirt emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower.

‘For Christmas,’ I said.

‘I’m wearing mine for this,’ said Katherine, gesturing at the Eiffel Tower. She was dressed to match her French window.

‘I’m wearing mine for Christmas,’ I said. I picked up an armload of children’s books and play scripts and took them to the back of the store, to put away. ‘I asked Luke today when he thought I could start wearing my gold-glitter Santa hat,’ I called towards the counter, across the briefly empty (apart from the three of us) store.

‘Why do you have to ask Luke?’ said Katherine. ‘You can wear whatever you like!’

‘I just wanted his advice,’ I reassured her. ‘He said he thought not until the last Saturday before Christmas.’

‘You can wear it whenever you want,’ said Jason. ‘We don’t care. Go for it.’

‘I’ll wear it next shift then,’ I said, filing Caryl Churchhill under ‘C’.

‘So,’ he said. ‘Do you make Luke listen to Christmas carols?’

‘Not until Christmas Eve,’ I said.

In fact, I made Luke and Felix listen to my own Christmas Spotify playlist last year, with Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Elvis singing Christmas standards, and John Lennon singing ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’.

A pink-lipsticked woman hesitated under a sweep of blonde hair, peering worriedly at the Summer Reading Guide – our Christmas catalogue – in her hand.

‘Can I help you find something?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes please!’ she said.

‘It’s always a sign when someone comes in consulting one of those,’ I said, waving at the catalogue.

‘I’m actually looking for a present for my husband,’ she said. ‘It’s his birthday. He likes science, and American politics. And the blues. Sorry, is that too much?’

As I escorted her to the science section, picking up Naomi Klein’s climate change book On Fire along the way, I realised that I had helped this woman with this exact same query (one of my favourite types) last year.

She bought Best Australian Science Writing 2019, the Naomi Klein book, and a book on the biology of the birth control pill, How the Pill Changes Everything, which I tell her looks fascinating.

‘I’m a biologist,’ she says, ‘and it is.’

She tells me about how the hormones in the pill are of course synthetic, and that their effects on the body are different from natural hormones. We talk a bit about the book, and the way teenage girls are prescribed the pill without being properly warned about how it will change their bodies.

She is passionate, and I am glad the pill made me sick when I tried it as a teenager, and I have never taken it again. (Of course, I also got accidentally pregnant when I was 22.)

This morning, I was telling Jason how impressed I am by Chris Fleming’s forensic addiction memoir, On Drugs, after a detour to hate on Zadie Smith.

I started reading Zadie Smith’s short stories in bed last night and disliked them almost as much as I love her novels (White Teeth, Swing Time, On Beauty).

‘She writes these terrific sprawling great character novels, packed with detail,’ I said, as I piled books on the counter from an open box. ‘And it’s like … the short stories … they feel like ideas or notes for a story, rather than stories in themselves. They feel … thin.’

I heard myself, a writer with a hard drive scattered with unfinished short stories nowhere near as good as Zadie Smith’s, and one published book that sold one and a half print runs, and my vigorous pontificating felt unearned.

Then again, I’ve read a lot, over a long time. As a writer, I’m unqualified to be disappointed in Zadie Smith, but as a reader, maybe it’s fair.










‘A bookshop! On Hindley Street!’: Neighbourhood Notes

At the top of Hindley Street, there is a hole in the wall marked ‘Roadies Takeaway Liquor’, next-door to a bottle shop. At 9am Saturday morning, a man is making a purchase.

A woman sits hunched into herself on the footpath outside Hungry Jack’s, her tangled hair dividing her from the street.

The man outside the shuttered pharmacy sits on a blanket spread over the footpath.

The cafe on the corner of Leigh Street, with its wood-panelled walls and tables that resemble giant upturned cotton-reels, is packed with tables consuming various combinations of eggs and toast and coffee.

In the window of Club X, sandwiched between a succession of massage parlours, a hairless, egg-white mannequin sits, legs sprawled from her closed knees, dressed in fluorescent-green lingerie and garlanded in Christmas lights. She’s been there a few weeks. But this morning, her ankles are chained together and she’s wearing a Santa hat emblazoned with my name: JO.

I text the picture to Luke, with a string of crying-face emojis.

Earlier this week, from the bookshop counter, I heard a young woman at the window shriek.

‘Look!’ she said to her friends, gathering them to her. ‘A bookshop! On Hindley Street!’ She paused. ‘Why is there a bookshop on Hindley Street?’

She didn’t come in.

On the way to the bookshop from the cafe, after my toasted banana bread and flat white, I pass the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra building, leftover from the period, nearly ten years ago now, when various arts organisations, including the government arts body, Arts SA, moved their offices here.

Arts SA doesn’t even exist anymore: it was swallowed up by the Premier’s department last year.

I remember walking down here on a bright, blue-gold late summer’s day, during a Writers Week visit many years ago, and being intrigued by the strange mix of sex clubs and arts organisations, the best bookshop in town and the seediest nightclubs.

I thought that if I ever moved back here, I’d like to work in the bookshop, where I had a languorous, friendly conversation with the woman behind the counter (Katherine, I now know), and people-watch.

The shop is full of customers this morning. I take my medication and painkillers in the bathroom, then join Katherine behind the counter.

I hear the woman in flowing white before I see her stride past the window. ‘Repent!’ she shouts down the street, to no one and everyone. ‘REPENT! REPENT!’ She is a regular fixture; I was mouthing repent before it even left her mouth.

More than one regular arrives to pick up the new Inspector Maigret novel. A copy is on hold for my high-school French teacher. I didn’t call him on Thursday to tell him it was in, because I knew I’d mispronounce ‘Maigret’ and the author, Georges Simenon, and that he’d say, ‘that is an atrocious accent’, as he did the last time a new Maigret arrived. ‘Who taught you French?’ he’d drawled. I loved it then, but this week I’m tired.

This morning, a trio of women in their early twenties, sporting coloured streaks in their hair, billowy cheesecloth and black, trailed along the bookshelves. One had a toddler on her hip: flowered dress, big blonde curls. ‘Do you have any books on witchcraft?’ one asked. I knew we didn’t, not technically, but looked it up in case.

‘We have these feminist books that touch on the cultural meaning of witches,’ I say, pulling Lindy West’s book from the current affairs shelf, preparing to pull Sam George-Allen’s. ‘But I guess that’s not what you’re after?’

‘No,’ says the woman. ‘Like, about witchcraft.’

‘We could go to Dymocks,’ says her friend, already at the door.

‘We do have a book on witches in history?’ I say, trying to be thorough before I give up. ‘You know, witches in Salem, the witchcraft trials.’

The woman frowns at me, confused, and shakes her head.

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Have a good afternoon.’

The toddler curls her fingers at me.

‘Bye bye,’ she says in a stage whisper. I wave back, and repeat the greeting.

‘Oh!’ gasps the witch woman, enchanted. ‘Do that again!’ She kisses the toddler, still perched on her friend’s hip. The toddler blows a kiss, and I blow one back. We all beam at each other as they leave.

One of my favourite customers comes in and says Jason told him to ask me about the new Tessa Hadley. I rave about it, then he asks what I’ve been reading, and I tell him that Ronan Farrow’s book on his Harvey Weinstein investigation is basically the All the President’s Men of the #metoo movement. We talk about the Woody Allen abuse allegations, and move on to sexual harassment by taxi drivers, and the new book on Uber, and Jess Hill’s book on domestic violence, and Pauline Hanson’s push to make it harder for women to deny men custody rights if there are abuse allegations.

I’m showing him a Korean-American YA novel involving crippling student debt and an unlikely relationship with an uber-celebrity, and we’ve been talking for nearly forty minutes, when Katherine suggests I go to lunch.

I eat lunch in the narrow, dimly lit corridor of an Indian restaurant a few doors down from McDonalds, towards the Hindley Street Police Station. Paintings of tigers, leaping and lolling by a river, hang along one wall. Elephants curl their trunks opposite the serving counter. On the television, a studio concert plays, its sound filling the restaurant.

I mean to count the hotels, massage parlours and sheesha bars I pass on the way back to work, but I get distracted by peering into the open door of the hairdressing salon whose window is lined with long-haired wigs, like animal pelts. Inside, the wigs hang down both walls too; the hairdressers labouring below.

Across the road from the bookshop is a map shop and a youth employment organisation. On Thursday, the map shop owner brought over a book they accidentally received in a shipment of maps. ‘We thought you might be able to use this better than us,’ said the woman who handed it over the counter, turning with a friendly smile at the door before crossing the road.

The youth employment organisation has an account with us; their clients are allowed to choose books from the shop to add to their library. This week, one of the supervisors visited us to ask about buying copies of The Barefoot Investor to gift to their graduating class. ‘They’ve expressed an interest in learning more about how to manage their finances,’ she said.

Across the road and towards King William Street is the Woolshed, a bar decorated with life-sized, wall-mounted pictures of girls in bikinis and Akubras. On the wall outside, overlooking the tables and chairs on the footpath, blonde hair tumbles luxuriously from a topless girl’s Akubra, a strategically placed sign covering her breasts.

On the afternoon of my job interview at the bookshop, eighteen months ago, I went into the Woolshed to fix my hair and apply lipstick, hoping no one would approach me and ask what I was doing there.

Summer Girl, Winter Boy: Beach Notes

It’s one of those Adelaide days when the sky seems to be coloured with crayon: a deep blue that stretches overhead seemingly endlessly. No shading into paler colour or cotton-white clouds. Just a swathe of burning blue, backlit gold.

We are sitting on the grass between the Esplanade and Semaphore Beach, hunched over our parcel of gluten-free chips to protect it from the squawking seagulls that surround us. I look at my husband, wincing in the blue light as he eats his chips. His long, lean body, folded on the lawn, is clad in a fitted red flannel shirt and black jeans.

On the train today, I shook my head at a twentysomething girl in a daisy-patterned sleeveless playsuit. She’s going to be cold. But though the weather forecast reads 24 degrees, it’s hot under the sun.

I wait for a cluster of dogs to finish drinking, then fill my water bottle at the fountain near the miniature railway. I opt for the slow arc of water rather than use the tap positioned over a trough, in case the tap water is recycled.

‘It might be, for the dogs,’ I say to Luke, and he nods amiably, though as the words leave my mouth, I realise they are ridiculous.

On the beach, a distant man is doing push-ups while a young woman cheers him on, her black hair blowing behind her as she claps and shouts. A small blond boy in a red bucket hat walks past with his parents; he goes to touch the push-ups man, but then backs away, retrieving his hand from an inch above the man’s bare back. The black-haired woman laughs. The man continues his push-ups.

The flat sea is seeded with boats, arranged as if for an invasion. The shore is thick with brown tangles of seaweed. A man pushes a kayak towards the water, patiently unwinding brown strands from the red-painted boat as he goes.

I ask Luke to sit on a bale of seaweed for a photograph; in his plaid, he looks like a sea-farmer. He smiles at the lens of my phone, patient with an edge of wariness, then comes to fold me into his side again as we walk.

I am carrying a handbag, holding the book I am reading and the book I impulsively borrowed from Semaphore Library when I went in to use the toilets, while Luke was waiting for our chips at Soto’s across the road. And a cloth bag, with a voluminous cashmere scarf (in case of cold), my drink bottle and a muesli bar and almonds (in case of hunger). And a second cloth bag, holding the five items of clothing I bought from my favourite op-shop, Trashville, on Semaphore Rd.

Luke offered up this trip – an impulsive gift – last weekend, when I said something about missing the beach.

Today, we woke just before 12, after a night binge-watching the final season of The Office until midnight.

‘Too late,’ I said sadly, burrowed against him under the sheets, preparing to go back to sleep. ‘We’ll have to do it another day.’

‘It’s not too late,’ he said. ‘Why is it too late?’

He got up and returned damp-haired, wrapped in a towel. While I showered, dressed and packed my bags, he made me coffee and washed last night’s dishes.

At the entrance to Trashville, I ask Luke if he wants to come in, or if he’d rather go to the record shop next-door.

‘I’ll see you in there when you’re done,’ he says, and kisses me goodbye.

A woman on the verandah of the vintage shop, browsing a rack of clothing, meets my eyes and laughs. A toddler perches on her hip.

We just had that conversation,’ she says, shifting her hip. ‘My husband’s in there now.’

I remember when I argued that we should keep stocking records at Readings Doncaster, in the sliver of time I managed the shop, because I thought it attracted couples who might otherwise not have spent time in there. I’d seen men amiably flip through the records while their partners peeled off and browsed the bookshelves. Sometimes (not often), they even bought a record.

I liked having the records there, too.

When Luke visited Melbourne, that one time, before I moved to Adelaide, I brought home a Radio Birdman record as an impulse gift for him.

‘You’re in love,’ said Giselle as she rang the gift through the register for me.

‘I am not!’

But of course, I was. Technically, we were on our fifth date. Which seemed too soon.

It’s Giselle’s birthday today. I wrote her a Facebook message from bed this morning, while Luke was in the shower.

Further down Semaphore Road, at the pubs and the newsagent and the library, the grassed strip in the middle of the road is colonised by picnickers, who seem to have overflowed from the footpaths. Outside Foodland, a man in shorts and sneakers strums an acoustic guitar and sings ‘Heart of Gold’, an upturned hat at his feet.

I try not to do it, but I can’t help it.

‘I remember sitting at that window, texting you,’ I say, pointing to the beige brick apartment block across the road. Luke follows my eyes dutifully, then kisses me. The kiss is not dutiful.

I have pointed this out many times before, at this spot. But memory demands I do it again, every time.

Technically, I was messaging him on Tinder, not texting. But that sounds too transactional, too distant and precarious an activity. Nothing is real on Tinder, until it leaves the world of the app.

Here, at this beach, on this stretch of bitumen and the stretch of sand and sea at the bottom of the road, I fell in love with the idea of returning to Adelaide, some day in the not-too-distant future.

And then I met Luke, in real life, two days after I moved from my holiday flat into Mum’s ‘good’ lounge room, my suitcase permanently open next to the sofa bed, waiting for my train ride home.

He looked up from the front bar of the Exeter as I came in, wearing the red polka-dot skirt I’d bought from Trashville, my hair hastily braided to one side. I was going home to Melbourne in two days, and had been racing to finish proofreading a manuscript. Mum drove me to an Express Post box to mail it, then dropped me into town. I hadn’t had time to make an effort.

Luke was wearing a red plaid shirt (the same pattern as the one he’s wearing today, only thin cotton), short sleeves curled in a careful roll at each side. Black jeans, Converse sneakers. Close-cropped hair, closer than I usually liked. He looked ahead, his face set. I took another step towards the bar. Then he raised his head and saw me; his face broke into a smile like a sunrise. He stood, kissed my cheek, sat down. Within minutes, we were joking together, riffing off each other as we ordered another drink, then went upstairs for Wednesday curry night, where Luke ordered a dinner that – I later learned – might have given him an allergic reaction. (When you can’t eat garlic, onion or chilli, ordering a curry is a decidedly risky move.)

In the morning, Luke ordered coffee to be delivered to his door by UberEats, which I thought was the height of sophistication.

I missed my train home, and texted Luke to tell him I was in town for two more days. He said he was free Saturday night. When I got to his house, I could see that he’d cleaned it for my visit.

A week after I arrived back in Melbourne, I rode my bike from my Footscray flat overlooking the river and the docks, to Williamstown beach, with a book and a towel. And for the first time, it felt like not enough. The strip of sand too narrow and brown, the crowds too thick, the bay too squat. The sky not blue enough.

I keep telling this story, over and again, because I can’t quite believe it’s true.

Walking down Semaphore beach, towards Largs – where I lived when I moved to Adelaide; where Luke and I had our wedding reception a month ago – I look between the sea and Luke’s face, silhouetted against the burning blue sky. The dark hair he wears long because I like it, the fledgling beard he lets grow until it itches too much (because I like it), the silver flecks he no longer dyes black (because I like them, too).

I take his left hand and finger his rose-gold ring, matching mine. I put it to my lips, and he smiles.

‘Are you really mine?’ I ask.

Luke waits outside the toilet block at Largs jetty with my three bags. A woman and her two kids are in the other cubicles. I don’t see them, but their voices float to the ceiling above the open doors. One girl complains that her dad is embarrassing.

‘You’re lucky to have him as your dad,’ says the mum. ‘He’s fun. At least your dad’s not boring.’

‘Most people play video games,’ says the other girl, in a comment that may or may not be connected to this. ‘But our family plays board games.’ Her tone does not endorse this state of affairs.

I wash my hands slowly. I like this family, and half-wish I could linger to hear what they’ll say next.

In the kiosk, I buy a one-scoop cone of banana ice-cream, and Luke chooses a raspberry icy pole. Outside the door, facing the playground, a woman sits behind a table covered in hand-made earrings and dreamcatchers.

‘Where do you want to sit?’ asks Luke.

I look at the wooden tables and benches under umbrellas, which are all full. Two years ago, I sat at one of these tables with Dad, after we’d traced the journey he used to make with his mother every Sunday, walking from Semaphore to this spot, where they always finished with an ice-cream. I had been messaging Luke on Tinder for a few days then. I’d had my sister and nieces for a sleepover in my holiday flat, walked the beach every day, luxuriated in the intensity of the Adelaide summer sky. I told Dad I was thinking I might move back to Adelaide, probably in a year’s time.

‘I think I want to live here,’ I said, meaning Adelaide, but also this stretch of sea and sand.

‘You might think you do,’ said Dad. ‘But you probably don’t. You’ve lived in Melbourne for a long time. Your life is there.’

I knew he was wrong, that it was time for a change. But I didn’t know how soon that would come. I didn’t know I would marry the man I’d just asked to have a drink with me, and that on our wedding night, we’d stay in the hotel across the road from where Dad and I crunched into our ice-cream cones.

‘Let’s sit under a tree,’ I say to Luke, and we sprawl on the grass beside the kiosk.

At the train station, we sit on a bench painted lumpy purple, on uneven bitumen. Across the road, a vine voluptuous with magenta flowers lolls over a galvanised iron back fence.

‘Would you say I’m a summer girl?’ I ask, turning my face to the sun.


‘And that you’re a winter boy?’

‘Definitely yes.’

‘And yet, we’re together,’ I say. ‘And we match perfectly. Isn’t that strange?’


Good Girl, Bad Girl: Diary of a (Thursday) bookseller

I’m squatting on the carpet, sliding the books on the crime shelves back and forth, making room for the one I need to file under ‘S’.

‘Which one are you?’ comes a voice at my back.

I turn to see a white-haired man in a royal-blue shirt tucked into jeans, standing by the Lonely Planet stand. He is grinning.

‘Pardon?’ I say, politely.

‘Are you a good girl or a bad girl?’ He waves at the pocket of Michael Robotham’s book, Good Girl, Bad Girl, shelved directly in my eyeline.

‘Neither,’ I say. He has a twinkle in his eye, and I’m not playing along.

‘Oh, so you’re neutral?’ he laughs.

‘I guess,’ I say, standing and smoothing my jeans. ‘Can I help you with something?’

He wants a travel guide to Scotland, but doesn’t want it to be too expensive, or he won’t be able to afford to go to Scotland! I show him the Lonely Planet guide from the stand. He looks at it.

‘I hope it’s not too expensive,’ he says, sceptically. I show him the price ($34.99) and he looks at it, for a long time. He looks at me and sighs. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘Oh.’ I smile at him.

‘I’ll leave you to think about it,’ I say, and return to the counter, and the pile of books to be shelved.

As I’m putting the new Hisham Matar away in biography, near the doorway, I see the man at the counter, handing his credit card to Jason.

A woman asks to talk to Jason or Katherine. She is scheduled to put Christmas decorations in our windows today.

For the first hour of my shift, I negotiate three women moving stepladders, carrying gold foil and tinsel, as I carry piles of books, or carry cardboard boxes half-filled with foam packing beads to the back room.

One of our regular couriers comes in, with a sack truck loaded with boxes.

‘Oh no,’ moans Katherine as he approaches. ‘Go away! No more books.’

He stacks his three boxes on one of the several piles clustered at the counter.

‘You’re supposed to be nice to me,’ he says, and she rolls her eyes.

Jason and Katherine are, in fact, very nice to the couriers – which is why she can tell him to go away.

A woman asks for William Dalrymple’s Anarchy.

‘Hardback or paperback?’ I ask. There is one hardback on the shelf today, beside the thicket of paperbacks, and I’m hoping if I ask this often enough, someone will buy it.

‘Oh, just the paperback, please,’ she says.

I fetch it from the shelf and ring it up.

‘$29.99, please.’

The woman looks surprised.

‘I thought it was $39.99,’ she says. ‘That’s what I was ready to pay.’

‘Nope!’ I say cheerfully. ‘I think that’s the hardback price.’

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Well, I think I’ll take the hardback then.’

As I swap the books, she tells me it’s a present for someone who’s very hard to buy for.

‘I’m so glad I found this!’ she says. ‘I’ve got him a really good present, for once.’

One of our regular customers, a very nice man with a soft-spoken voice and excellent, eclectic taste in books, wanders the shelves as I handwrite sale price labels on a pile of illustrated books from our Christmas catalogue. I walk the books to Jason, who climbs a ladder to stack them in overstocks above the plays shelf; then I’m back to unpacking the next box.

I watch the customer on his journey – in the essays section, then crime, then philosophy – curious to see what he’s picking up.

Katherine serves him when he makes his final choice; they stand at the counter and talk about crime books while I write price tags again, my back to them.

‘No, I didn’t like it at all,’ I hear him say; I’m not sure which book they’re talking about. ‘It’s the kind of book written for straight men who don’t read!’

And now I can’t help it. I burst into laughter and turn to listen to whatever he’s going to say next.

‘You know,’ he says. ‘There’s a car in it, and suddenly the story stops to describe the car in detail. Like, who cares?’

My regular Thursday customer arrives with an armful of shopping bags, instead of just his usual cloth Clarity Records bag.

‘Have you been Christmas shopping?’ asks Katherine.

‘No!’ he says. ‘I’ve been buying a new toaster. Our toaster exploded this morning and my flatmate freaked out.’ He turns to me. ‘Actually, I was going to contact you. I thought you might have a spare one,’ he says.


‘Yeah. You just got married, didn’t you? Didn’t people give you a whole lot of toasters and stuff?’

I laugh.

‘No,’ I say. ‘No toasters or kitchen stuff. We’re too old for that.’

‘Oh,’ he says.

I tell him that we did end up with two toasters, two kettles and two microwaves when I moved into Luke’s house in May, after the engagement and before the wedding.

‘But my spare toaster’s at work, in a cupboard.’ I mean my day job, at the publishing house. ‘You can have it if you want, though it’s probably full of crumbs.’

He says he’ll keep the top-of-the-range new Breville toaster in his Myer bag. I’m not sure if the crumbs have anything to do with his decision.

‘In fact, our microwave blew up yesterday,’ I say.

Thursday customer doesn’t say anything to this. He’s telling us about how he circled Myer for two hours choosing his toaster.

‘Really?’ says Katherine. ‘It blew up?’

‘That’s what Luke told me,’ I say. ‘I think it just made a scary noise, like it was about to blow up, though. We swapped it out for the spare one in the shed.’

At the end of my shift, I stand at the current affairs section, looking between the two books on the Harvey Weinstein revelations and #metoo. One is by Ronan Farrow, the New Yorker journalist, while the other is by two female New York Times reporters.

Both are tagged as inside stories of the investigation that broke the Weinstein story. I am, as I stand there, confused as to who actually broke the story. Was it both Farrow and the two women, at the same time, working independently? Both books have the words ‘Pulitzer Prize’ emblazoned on the cover.

Should I support the #metoo book by two women? Or should I buy the book that was recently banned from sale, due to legal threats from Weinstein?

A customer bought She Said, the one by the women, today. She said her daughter had recommended it to her.

‘What are you doing?’ asks Katherine. I explain, and she recommends I buy the Farrow. She’s read the other book, and while it was good, she suspects the Farrow will be better.

‘Are you really buying a book again?’ asks Jason.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘That’s why you guys like me as an employee. Because I spend my wages here.’

JLF Adelaide: Diary of a (festival) bookseller

I’m sitting against a wall of the Adelaide Festival Centre, behind a table piled with books, blowing my nose into a series of tissues. It’s the last day of JLF Adelaide, a three-day pop-up version of India’s premier literary event, and I’m working a bookshop shift here.

One of the first people I see is Rebekah, the writer friend I made at Adelaide Writers Festival, before I moved here, our bond cemented when we sat under a tree outside the book tent one sweltering afternoon and, after two wines and two hours, decided to edit an anthology together, on love & lust in the digital age. (We never did, though it was the engine for several passionate emails.) I hug her impulsively over the desk, snuffling as I retreat.

‘Sorry!’ I say. ‘I’m sick.’

Rebekah tells me I have to read Dry Milk, one of the books from the panel she just chaired, so we can then go to dinner together and talk about it.

‘I can’t tell you why,’ she says. ‘It has to be a surprise to you.’

‘Okay!’ I say. This is Rebekah’s effect on me: she makes me want to do things. Whether or not I follow through is a different question.

Jason and I sit during the lull between sessions and talk about our kids, and bookselling, and the books we’ve been reading, and whether it’s okay, in certain scenarios, to tell a customer they’re not actually right. Jason says yes, it is: for instance, if they’re being obnoxiously racist or sexist. I tell him I usually just nod and smile through gritted teeth in these scenarios, or wait blankly for it to be over.

‘You don’t have to,’ he says.

I think about this, slightly amazed – both at my boss for allowing this, and at myself for being amazed that moral values can trump commercial ones.

‘I don’t know if I could say something,’ I admit sadly. ‘After decades of customer service, the need to be accomodating no matter what is too ingrained in me. In the moment, all I can do is smile and be polite. Later, I think about what I might have said. But at the time, I can’t do it.’

I tell him about the time, at Readings Doncaster two years ago, that a customer took me outside to show me a book in the window and slid an arm around me as we stood there, resting it on the curve of my waist, almost on my arse, and squeezing. And I just laughed and ducked away from him, instead of protesting. Trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. Because that was my instinct. Because it felt too hard and awkward to do anything else.

I blow my nose, cough, and load another Strepsil into my mouth.

The sessions let out, and a stream of people descends. Jason works the register while I work the EFTPOS machine, punching in the numbers he calls out and swiping cards and smiling, pushing books into paper bags at speed.

This festival is unusual in that there is a substantial Indian audience, mixed in with the white Westerners, some of the latter in floating scarves, gold-threaded tunics, or patterned kaftans, as if dressing for the occasion. When I worked at Melbourne Writers Festival, we were – like all Australian festivals – keen to attract diverse audiences, so much so that we hired a staff member, in partnership with another festival, for the purpose. We programmed authors from diverse backgrounds, but our audiences stayed majority white: grey-haired women in artful blocks of black; young women in colourful Gorman prints, the occasional man in skinny jeans.

A steady stream of customers greets Jason by name; they’re shop regulars. Some of them are familiar, while others are introduced to me.

‘Are you new at Imprints?’ asks one.

‘I’ve been there about a year,’ I say, realising it’s now more than a year. ‘But mostly on Thursdays.’

One man buying Tony Birch’s new novel, The White Girl, says to Jason, ‘I’m buying fiction!’ in a note of triumphant surrender.

Later, the customer returns to buy a second Tony Birch novel.

‘Two novels!’ says Jason.

‘That’s my allocation for the year,’ says the customer, as I put the second novel in a paper bag.

‘I don’t really read fiction,’ he tells me, ‘but I heard Tony Birch speak and he was very impressive. And then I was talking to him afterwards, about class, and he said I’d bought the wrong book, and so I’m getting this one.’

I tell him that Tony’s first book, Shadowboxing, is especially good on class, and it’s autobiographical too, ‘so almost non-fiction’. But though he nods, he doesn’t take the bait, maybe because he has bought his two fiction books for the year now.

A woman wearing intricately layered black earrings that bob at her shoulders over a black top and leather jacket peers closely at me as I hand her her book.

‘Are you … Jo?’ she says.

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Jo Case?’


She was a member of a book group I ran for Readings, based at the Carlton head office, several (maybe seven) years ago. Readings discontinued the book club at the end of my year running it. I remember sitting around the meeting-room table in Carlton, presiding over platters of cheese and crackers and fruit, and carafes of wine.

‘We’re still together!’ she tells me. The club now runs out of a cafe at the nearby university. ‘I’ll have to tell them all I saw you!’

‘Say hi for me!’ I say.

And then she asks what I’m writing, and says nice things about my book, which I don’t think I’d yet published at the time I ran the book club. ‘It was just so honest and real,’ she says, and I thank her, genuinely flattered and a little bit embarrassed.

We chat until another wave of customers arrives, clutching books and credit cards.

It feels so long ago that I wrote a book, published a book. I wonder if I will ever do it again; if I will find the discipline.

I remember the last time I caught up with my old Readings boss in Melbourne. We drank cider in the front bar of Jimmy Watson’s, and then I followed him back across Lygon Street to head office, so I could say hello to more people.

‘I don’t know what you’re up to these days,’ he said to me as we descended the escalators in Lygon Court, gliding past the organic supermarket with the salad bar. ‘I’m not really on Facebook anymore,’ he continued. ‘I don’t look at it.’

I laughed nervously, sensing what was coming next.

‘Are you still oversharing on Facebook?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not really.’

And this was true; since I’d been happy, since I met Luke and moved to Adelaide and found a new stillness in my life, I’d largely lost the restless urge to spill my life on social media.

‘I’d rather read it in a book,’ he continued. ‘When are you going to write another book?’

During oncologist Ranjana Srivistava’s talk, three groups of customers trickle out to buy A Better Death.

‘She’s very, very good,’ says one white-haired woman, leaning in to take her book from me. ‘You’d better be ready – a lot of people will be buying this.’

Jason accordingly scurries to the book table to check the size of our priced piles. I stay seated, and take the opportunity to luxuriously cough.

‘It’s a conversation we don’t have,’ says the next customer to buy it. ‘But we should. We need to think about it.’

I look at her and nod, yes. I don’t really know what to say to this. What I’m thinking is, I don’t want to.

The session finishes, the next wave hits us, and we sell some more copies of Ranjana’s book. Jason re-checks the piles afterwards.

‘I would’ve thought we’d sell more,’ he says, ‘after what those first customers were saying.’

‘Maybe they don’t want to keep thinking about it,’ I say.

But I don’t really know why.

Jason tells me that he gets up early to read, these days. I remember hearing him say this in the shop recently. He’s getting up at 5.30am. I tell him I’ve read a lot in the past week, while I’ve been sick in bed.

Louis Theroux’s memoir, which was okay; Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, which I loved; a ‘poor in America’ memoir called Maid which I found suspiciously one-note and evasive. A book about synthetic drugs exported from China to the US, via Mexico. Which I compulsively shared facts from with Luke, as he looked at me increasingly dubiously. (‘Are you a conspiracy theorist now?’ he asked eventually.) And a book of short stories coming out in February, by a bookseller I worked with in Melbourne.

‘What’s it like?’ asks Jason of this last one.

‘Good, mostly,’ I say. ‘The last few stories, about a climate-change future, scared the shit out of me. So, you know, that means they were good.’

‘Oh, you can’t think about climate change,’ says Jason. ‘We’re all just fucked.’

That’s become my position too. If I could do something, I would, but I can’t see how I can, and it makes me sleepless and teary, so I turn the page, walk out of the room, keep scrolling my Facebook feed. I’m the kind of person I used to despise.

‘These stories kind of ambushed me,’ I admit.

I ask Jason if he has a water tank; he says he did, but the bottom eroded in rust and it’s impossible to fix because of the way it’s built. Does he have a vegetable garden? His block doesn’t get enough sunlight, he says.

‘I’m planting a vegetable garden next weekend,’ I say. ‘Or, I will in the next few weeks.’

Luke and I have plans to use the $200 worth of Bunnings vouchers we got as wedding gifts to buy raised garden beds. Or rather, I have the plan, and Luke amiably agreed.

‘Do you have cans of food stockpiled?’ I ask, half-joking this time. I’ve joked with Luke that we should start amassing them in the cellar that currently holds bags of old clothes and stacks of sheets and blankets we don’t use.

At Melbourne Writers Festival, I programmed a stream of climate change events that I was proud of. I thought that if people thought about it and talked about it enough, we’d build momentum for policy change. But public policy has only gone backwards since.

Fear doesn’t seem to make people act; it makes us close down.

Not all of us, of course.

Some people I know are regularly protesting, even getting arrested.

An ex-publishing colleague quit the industry this year, and currently campaigns full-time for climate change action. She has two young children.

‘Jo!’ The face beaming back at me over the counter, a speaker’s placard hanging from her neck, is familiar but I have no idea why.

I take her credit card and gratefully read the name; the context clicks into place. I remember names for decades, but faces flit easily away.

‘When did I last see you?’ she says, and I’m able to give her a solid answer.

‘At Melbourne Writers Festival,’ I say. ‘We had a meeting.’

She nods, a little uncertainly.

‘I thought it was the Wheeler Centre?’ she says.

My Melbourne jobs bleed into each other, from a distance of kilometres and time. Other people often forget which of my jobs they met me in: I had so many, at so many similar organisations, over 21 years in Melbourne.

‘Maybe,’ I say, though I’m pretty sure it was at the festival.

Last week, in the hour I spent checking books off an invoice behind the bookshop counter before I was sent home to bed, I was telling a story that began, ‘when I worked at Australian Book Review …’

‘Is there anywhere you didn’t work?’ said Katherine, laughing.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Probably.’

I’ve worked in so many places, but none long enough for long-service leave. And I have no savings; maybe that’s connected to my transience?

I look back on myself, ten years ago (I was editing a bookshop publication, and the books pages of The Big Issue, and on the editorial team of a literary magazine, and running book groups, and freelance reviewing, and bringing up a child) and I don’t know how I had the energy to spread myself so far. And so thin.

My boss at the publishing house that is my main job texts me, to ask if I can put aside a copy of William Dalrymple’s new history, Anarchy. He asks if I know if the new John Le Carre is in stock at the bookshop, a few streets away. (I ask Jason: it is.)

I look at the multiple piles of Anarchy and text Michael that yes, I have a copy here for him.

Jason and I are talking about Helen Garner; or rather, I’m telling him that a copy of her new edited book of early diaries is coming to me on Monday, from the publisher.

‘Did you know her, in Melbourne?’ he asks.

‘Kind of,’ I say. ‘Not really, but I met her a few times.’

I don’t say that when I first met her, at a festival party, years before I worked there, I introduced myself, and she said, pleasantly, ‘I know who you are. You’re from Readings.’ And I was so awed that I’ve never forgotten it.

‘She’s really nice,’ I say instead. ‘Really down to earth.’

Jason read the same interview with Helen that I read this weekend, in the Australian. The journalist wrote it in the form of his own diary entries, of reading the diaries and going to interview Helen, and then interviewing her. I couldn’t help thinking that a woman journalist would never dare to do that – to emulate Helen in a piece profiling her – though of course I could be wrong.

It was a terrific read, and I wished I’d written it, that I’d sat with Helen in her sparse office in North Melbourne (she now has a policy of not being interviewed at her house) and looked at the boxes holding the diaries themselves.

Somewhere at home, there is a scrapbook I kept when I was in my early twenties, of examples of great magazine journalism, with a carefully stapled profile of Helen Garner by Margaret Simons, from the Australian magazine (I think), conducted at Helen’s kitchen table in her Flemington house.

‘I never knew Monkey Grip was written from her diaries,’ says Jason.

‘I did,’ I say, a little too eagerly. ‘She says she sat at the State Library and typed them up and put them together and took them apart, and moved them around.’

As someone who finds it difficult to make things up, who compulsively writes her life, I found this image profoundly comforting. That you can do something like that and be one of Australia’s best writers.

Of course, I don’t fool myself that anyone can do it.

Mid-rush, I look up and see Michael walk past with his pineapple-haired, brightly clothed teenage daughter. Head down, punching prices into the EFTPOS machine, I hear Jason chatting to him, further down the table. They come back and Jason processes his copy of Anarchy. I present the machine for him to tap with his credit card.

‘Are you going to the session?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m just going for a walk. I’m with my brother. Got to keep moving!’

I am too busy to pause and ask why he came all the way here just to buy a book I was going to deliver to him tomorrow. But perhaps he wanted to check out the crowd.


It’s the last hour of the day. I am looking at a slight, elegant, silver-haired woman in a pale blue tunic; a Sydney literary editor I used to write for before she retired. We’re Facebook friends.

Like me, she uses Facebook as something like a blog, so I know about the neighbour’s cat she adopted and her ageing father and her travels overseas.

‘Hi!’ I say, and tell her how much I liked her review of Charlotte Wood’s novel last weekend. We talk about the book a bit, and Matthew Condon’s diary interview with Helen Garner, and then I ask her when her review of Helen’s diaries will be published. ‘You’re getting some great reviews lately.’

‘So are you,’ she says. Surprised and suddenly a little bit proud, I realise she’s right.

‘I am,’ I say. ‘I feel really lucky.’

I’ve had my best year of reviews for the Age ever: five reviews, all of really interesting books, many of them in my personal sweet spot of cultural journalism/feminism.

‘I can’t believe you’re selling books here!’ she says. ‘It’s so funny to see you.’

And then she asks if she can take my photo; she was going to photograph the book table anyway.

‘Sure,’ I say, and smile across the table, through my blocked nose and heavy throat. I’ll probably look like a sick ghost, but I don’t mind.

‘I’m so glad you’re so happy,’ she says, getting ready to leave. She has a place to catch. ‘Here in Adelaide.’

‘I am,’ I say. ‘Adelaide is great. Luke is great.’

‘You’ve been through so many ups and downs!’ she says. ‘And we’ve all watched them play out.’

I am momentarily embarrassed, at my incontinent emotions and the (often failed) struggle to be valiantly okay, day by day, that was on show through the worst of my divorce. Not because I wanted it to be, but because I couldn’t keep it in.

But I take in the warmth of what she’s saying, her genuine happiness at my happiness.

And I decide to take in only that; to slough off my instinctual shame at my public private self.

I decide to be okay with who I am, at least for today.