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Diary of a Bookseller: titles for the times

Books & Poetry

There are two kinds of bookshop customer right now: the ones who want escape and those who are after a copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague … or perhaps a contemporary Australian take on the theme.

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Bookselling is different these days. I’m doing it from home, on social media.

I work four days a week for a publishing company, Adelaide’s Wakefield Press, and my weekly Imprints shift used to be my luxurious day away from my inbox, having conversations at the counter. It was a job I was entirely present for during my four hours on the clock, and left behind when I walked out with my market trolley, on my way to my Thursday round of the Adelaide Central Market.

Now, I’m answering customer queries on Instagram while watching late-night 30 Rock re-runs on the couch with my husband. Creating Facebook posts about new books or revised opening hours while on my lunch break from my publishing job (also done from my desk at home now).

My random conversations and discoveries – the very best things about bookshops – have dropped right off. Yet despite the gripes, I’m mostly overwhelmingly grateful to still be here, selling books while the world shuts down.

It seems our customers feel the same way. Yesterday I posted a photograph of Jason answering a call at the counter (Jason and Katherine, Imprints’ co-owners, are still opening the shop Monday to Saturday, and now doing home deliveries, too) with the line, We’re still here, and our social media accounts went wild with appreciation.

And there are still bookish conversations. Katherine and I talked on the phone today about how much we’ve both loved Adelaide author Pip Williams’ historical novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words (Affirm Press, $32.99, April). She said she picked it up to read the first 50 pages, and before she knew it, she was 200 pages in. It’s the first book she’s managed to read since the coronavirus blew up. And I get it: Pip’s book is an immersion in another world, set in a long-ago time, that speaks to the now.

Plucky, unconventional protagonist Esme grows up hanging out with her lexicographer father in the Scriptorium, the glorified garden shed where the Oxford English Dictionary is being painstakingly assembled. She falls in love with words, and grows up to work alongside him. But she also realises that the reference they’re making leaves out the experience and vocabulary of many, including the working classes, and the intimate lives of women. And so Esme assembles her own rogue dictionary on the side, visiting the markets with the maid who essentially brought her up and collecting the words she hears there. This novel contains its own perfectly drawn world, with brilliant, absorbing, fiercely intelligent characters you’ll want to spend time with. It’s bristling with ideas and kindness. A perfect escape.

Jason said last week that there are two kinds of customer right now: the ones who want escape (sorted!) and those who are after a copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague. There’s a perfect new Australian book for that customer, too: Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country (Scribe, $29.99, April). In it, a mysterious new virus is sweeping Australia, slowly at first and then it’s everywhere – spreading from the crowded south to central Australia, where hard-drinking, foul-mouthed grandmother Jean lives and works in an outback wildlife park.

The kicker? The virus, nicknamed “zooflu”, tunes sufferers into the wavelength of animals, who they can suddenly talk to and understand. But what they hear is not what you might expect, and their language and perceptions are not like ours. The cascade of voices becomes a deafening warning that we’re not alone on this earth … and a chorus that threatens to drive sufferers insane. (Did I mention there’s a cross-country road-trip with a dingo?)

Laura is a stunning writer, and this book will challenge the way you think about both animals and humanity.

Normally, I deliberately keep Wakefield Press books out of this column (they’re covered amply by my boss Michael in his Diary of a Publisher column). But these are extraordinary times … and besides, the other book that’s honestly going gangbusters at Imprints right now is Adelaide author Annette Marner’s literary mystery novel, A New Name for the Colour Blue (Wakefield Press, $27.95, March), set between Adelaide and the Flinders Ranges.

Annette is a former ABC current affairs reporter turned nature photographer, and both are reflected in this intelligent, immersive novel, which dives deep into how a woman might find herself entangled with a violent man, family rifts that echo through the decades, and black-white relations in country towns, as well as providing exquisite descriptions of the Flinders Ranges and a beautifully realised relationship between two women. This novel won the Adelaide Festival’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2018, and you can see why.

I’m still here, working, from my desk at home. Still reading. Still producing or marketing books in my main job, and selling them for Imprints approximately one day a week. It’s all staving off my anxiety about the world.

And one day, not too far away, I hope to be behind the bookshop counter again, having random conversations, and finding the books I didn’t yet know that I absolutely have to read. I’m hoping others who feel the same way about bookshops, and Australian books, will still be here, too, supporting us from their homes until they can visit us in person again.

Jo Case is a bookseller at Imprints on Hindley Street. Imprints is currently open to customers Monday to Saturday, 9am-5pm, and delivers free for orders over $50 to anywhere in SA. Visit www.imprints.com.au to browse online, or place an order.

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