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At least there are still books

Published 13th January, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

When I move out of our shared home, I take with me my personal items and clothes and not much else. My absence is most noticeable in the near-empty bookshelves. Once double-stacked, the books are now packed into three denominations; for storage (in boxes), for donation (in tote bags), and to read (carried in stacks to my car). 

I make a list of the essentials I need to make a new home and spend weeks doing return trips to Bunnings and Ikea and the DFO, tapping my credit card, loading awkward shapes into my boot, and crossing items off the list. Folded and refolded and shoved in my jeans pocket, I rewrite the list fresh each time the paper threatens to disintegrate. Moving out at 46 feels eerily similar to leaving home when I was 17—liberating, scary— except in middle age I have disposable income and two children.

The week I move, I also start a new job and it is the beginning of the school term for my sons. We begin the week-on week-off arrangement of caring for them, agreed at mediation in a room with three chairs arranged around a table that holds three plastic cups of water and a box of tissues. 

My new office is the St Kilda Town Hall, a majestic, white 19th century civic statement construction flanked by a 1920s neo-classical portico. My ‘pod’ is in the contemporary extension of the building: open-plan seating with grey laminate desks, sectioned off by dividers. I can see the eyes and the tops of heads of my co-workers. We are caught in an eternal game of peek-a-boo. There’s talk of hot-desking and agile and workplace transformation.

Outside the office, Carlisle Street stretches out nonchalantly like a cat in summer heat. Rough sleepers sit talking outside the community centre, possessions piled into shopping trolleys and plastic bags. Parents disappear into the brutalist public library with their pre-schoolers for storytime, and children in faded red St Kilda Primary school t-shirts weave their scooters around lanyard-wearing council workers, their morning caffeine hits in keep cups.

One lunchtime, I head down towards the Brighton Street end of the street to The Salvo’s store. I need a teapot for my new house. Drinking the teabags I bought from Coles is making me feel melancholy. Homewares in the Salvo’s are arranged by colour; the largest section is white. I scan the stacks of dinner plates, cups and bowls for teapots. Of the few they have; some are too small, and others are covered in garish patterns outlined in gold. One teapot is over-sized and angular, and I imagine it would make scorching, too-bitter tea.

I wander teapot-less into the back rooms of the store. Here, the shelves are crammed with second-hand books. More still are piled into towers on chairs and on the carpeted floor. A kind-of order groups the books together; fiction fills most of the space. Tilting my head to the right, I skim-read the book spines. 

Despite its rough edges, St Kilda—like most inner urban suburbs—is affluent and gentrified these days. Most of the people who live here are educated, employed and highly literate. This makes for a book goldmine in the Salvo’s; hardcover first editions, imported small press novels, and recent release fiction in mint condition. Of course, there are the usual Bryce Courtney’s as well. 

Someone has purged their collection of Alexander McCall Smith; they are all lined up together. A section which could be generously identified as crime has almost exclusively books with black covers. Fiction is organised neatly but not by any coherent principles of genre or alphabetisation and is not exclusively fiction. Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is (perhaps not surprisingly) filed in non-fiction. Geraldine Brooks is liberally sprinkled through the shelves. Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap was clearly zeitgeisty among St Kilda readers for a moment. I gather all six copies of Eat, Pray, Love and construct an Elizabeth Gilbert shrine.

Here are books I’ve been meaning to read but forgotten; a Jenny Diski memoir, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, the latest Jennifer Egan, and Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (both in hardcover with dust jackets). I discover a UK edition of Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, which I buy for my friend Jane, only for her to tell me later that I’ve already given her the US edition (I seem to be fixated with forcing her to read it, and yet she still resists).

Browsing the books, I find many I have read before; they line up like milestones to measure my life. I think of all my beloved books boxed up since the house move. My new home does not yet have shelves and I realise now how much I miss the comfort of being surrounded by familiar spines. As I am caught in this drift of nostalgia, an elderly man beside me turns and catches my eye.

‘At least there are still books,’ he says. 

‘Yes,’ I reply, smiling, knowing exactly what he means.

Then, as I pay for my armload of books at the front counter, I spy a teapot. It is not my dream teapot, but along with my books, I am certain that it will help me make a new home.

Read ‘An island made entirely of birds,’ Justine’s first blog post with us.

Justine Hyde is a writer, critic and librarian who lives in Melbourne. Her writing has been published in all the usual places.

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