By KATE MORTON
I’ve always been a reader. I read, voraciously, long before I ever entertained ideas about becoming a writer, and I wasn’t fussy. Black print on a white page was pretty much the only specification I had—sure, a magic faraway tree or a set of chipper English school children solving mysteries and devouring tins of condensed milk improved matters, but I’d make do without. I needed to read.
I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I still don’t. A book before school, a book afterwards, in the bath, in the car, in the boughs of avocado trees, in front of the television. I’d read the back of the telephone bill if it was all I had in front of me.
Then, when I was ten, something changed. I met my first proper bookseller. His name was Herbert Davies and his bookstore was not a particularly magical setting. In fact, it was very basic—plain grey concrete block walls and a few old library shelves at the front of a shop in a newly-built centre on Tamborine Mountain, the small rainforesty village where I grew up.
Herbert’s wife, Rita, ran a little drama studio from behind a set of screens at the rear of the shop, which is how I came to meet him. I was early for class one day and I got caught, the way you do, in the aisles of his shop. I was flicking through pages and had thought myself quite alone when all of a sudden, a rich, melodious voice sounded, as if from nowhere. ‘May I help you?’
In the far corner, slumped behind a counter, was the owner of the voice. Herbert looked like he’d come straight from the pen of Quentin Blake. A scribble of a man. Frail and fine and stooped from a knot at the centre of his back. Beige slacks with grease spots clung to the marbles of his knees and tufts of white fluff sprouted from various fertile spots on an otherwise smooth scalp. There was a magical sort of haze about him. It turned out to be tobacco smoke. He looked like a character from a children’s story, I thought at the time. A fairy tale. A scary one.
He was over seventy when we met, a proud Welshman who’d started his working life as a fourteen-year-old in a munitions factory but turned to writing poems and plays during service in Burma during the second world war. He belonged to that group of Welsh writers and actors including Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and Rachel Roberts, and had become head of Radio Drama for the Welsh BBC before moving to Australia with Rita, a repertory actress.
Despite the fact that he scared the living daylights out of me on our first meeting, we became great friends over the following two decades. ‘May I help you?’ he had asked, and help me he did. Meeting Herbert Davies changed my life.
He had all the books they didn’t give you in school and a sixth sense for knowing just which one to recommend; he introduced me to Shakespeare and Milton, Walt Whitman and The White Hotel. He gave me Under Milk Wood and found a cassette recording of Richard Burton reading it. He urged me to read and travel and later, to write. He understood that life and people and books and theatre and stories are all inextricably linked and that reading is one of the best ways to find new questions to ask.
His house contained as many books as his shop, but he had the entire collection catalogued in his brain. Conversation only had to shift in a particular direction for him to remember a book he had on the subject. To see him home in on a target was a thing of great beauty: his impressive brows would furrow, then a single finger, pale and smooth as a candlestick, would rise as he hobbled wordlessly to a distant wall of books. The finger would hover for a moment, as if magnetised, above the spines, leading him, finally, to slide the perfect book from place. And that, I’ve always thought, is the bookseller’s gift.
A bookseller is a person who sells books. And yet booksellers do much, much more than that. A bookseller is a listener, an empathiser, a supplier, a matchmaker. They are one of Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors: people with a whole shop of shelves loaded with good friends, just waiting to go home with somebody.
Each reader is different—their needs, their desires, their past reading-relationships—and a bookseller has to be able to assess all these things within moments, to read minute shifts in the countenance of their customer, before coming up with the perfect recommendation.
I know I’m not alone in the way I feel about bookstores: the sense that just by stepping through the doorway I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, beyond the back of the cupboard, to the top of the faraway tree.
There are countless others who value the experience of disappearing amongst beautiful books in bricks and mortar shops run by expert booksellers: the sort who read and think, who love and promote books, who know that what they’re selling is so much more than a bound set of pages.
These are the people who put books in the hands of children and parents and those for whom the choice of what to read may seem daunting. Frontline soldiers in the battle for literacy. And having seen the faces of my son’s classmates light up when I read them The Enchanted Wood last year, I know that’s a battle well worth fighting.
This piece was originally published on Kate’s website here and has been republished with full permission.
Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton (also known as The Shifting Fog), The Forgotten Garden, and her most recent, The Secret Keeper, are published in 38 countries and have sold over 7.5 million copies. Kate continues to write the sorts of books she can disappear inside. You can find her website here.