Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Waterstones

For many years now, I have slowly refined my ideas of what my ideal home would look like. Over time, wings have been built and torn down, colours have changed, the thing has very much aesthetically matured from the typical, boxy, monstrous hulk of a mansion perched on large, flat lawn that every child draws.

Now it isn’t so much a building as a graceful accent nestled carefully into a stunning landscape. Its position is designed primarily to afford me the one luxury that few others realize is a prize – complete, controlled solitude. Large panes of glass admit the varying views from all sides; close quartered forest behind and sweeping vistas to the front. Inside, high paneled ceilings mirror the beautiful wooden floor and solid, simple wooden furniture. Subtle lighting and carefully chosen materials would complete the spaces of the rooms – softening but not cluttering them. Although the rooms would be large and airy, there wouldn’t be many of them. This isn’t a place designed for the needs of guests.

Through all the changes that this place has undergone in my mind’s eye, two things have remained constant.

One is a professionally appointed kitchen in gleaming stainless steel and glowing wood. Every fixture robust, functional and beautifully designed to be a joy to touch and use. Every gadget known to man would be easily accessible and placed carefully to fit into the multitasking workflow of creating several dishes at once. Cooking, after all, is where I learnt to visualize several concurrent streams of activity and plan each one’s commencement so as to time them for perfect convergence at completion. When it works, it’s a wonderful feeling.

I also know from painful experience that no matter how much time, effort and money you use to make the lounge room perfect, everyone will converge around the kitchen. Like groupies to a backstage area, they watch food preparation and talk over stealthily pilfered ingredients around the table.

The other thing that I want is a library.

I’ve always had only the vaguest idea of what the library will look like as I’ve never had a room devoted solely to the pleasures of reading, reflection and learning…the idea is terribly tempting. There would also be a writing desk next to a window…perfection.

So I was amazed that the idea of my home, my library, was acutely brought to mind the moment I stepped into the Waterstones near Goodge St station today. The first thing I noticed was a seeming fog of heavy silence in front of me – the kind afforded by carpet and wooden bookshelves brimming with sound-dampening tomes.

(Most Waterstones outlets are the stock-standard, cheerful, brightly lit, gargantuan megastores that have come to dominate the marketplace. The one I frequent most often is in the heart of the city and tremendously large, with it’s own bar as well as cafe. Unfortunately, it has all the atmosphere of an exceptionally flammable Starbucks. It’s functional but sterile.)

The sounds of the street cut out suddenly as the door swung back on its hinges. I turned left as it seemed as good an option as any other and padded silently down a corridor made narrow and dark by the abundance of shelving. This was unusual. A cursory glance told me that here one didn’t have to wade through venal chick-lit of the Candace Bushnell mould to find something to engage the mind. Bargain tables held gems like the compendium of Alastair Cook’s ‘Letter to America’. I felt immediately at home. Slightly different biology would have had me issuing an audible purr.

I had reserved some books this morning and they were waiting for me somewhere in this labyrinth – but I soon found that the staff weren’t going to take my hand and help me. They would be efficient and courteous but would give me directions to follow on my own in a no-nonsense clipped tone. Where did I remember this treatment from?

Ascending the stairs and asking after my reserved books at a new counter, I was given more curt, succinct instructions. I had to make my way up two more floors and had been pointed to the elevators. Choosing to take the stairs instead, I looked at them more closely and was met with a curious sight – I noticed that the carpet and banister of the stairs were of a very old style, slightly tatty but kept impeccably clean. Damn, did this remind me of somewhere.

Two more floors up and another counter looked a likely source of further instructions. “Classics are over there. Ask at the desk.” A brief smile, a nod to the right, a resumption of duties.

How very different to my encounter to a Waterstones Customer Service Limpet a few weeks ago in another store who just wouldn’t leave me alone when I asked for directions to a few books. I had literally asked her to *point* me in the right direction. Instead, she followed me to the shelf and insisted on searching…muttering…scouring… completely ineffectively may I add, as I found all three books first. Then she had the audacity to pry the books out of my hands, turn to march back to her counter and pointedly begin an interrogation into why I was buying those particular kinds of books. I remember a brief flicker - “None of your fucking business.” - crossing my mind as I smiled and lied: “School assignment.” There was no particular reason for buying the books, of course. I’m not studying – I just like to keep my mind active.

Anyone who buys non-fiction books, of course, has to have some sort of overriding immediate reason for it. If you buy Spice Racks for Dummies you’re starting a DIY project. If you buy Practical Pansy Pruning, they’ve pretty much got your weekend plans sussed out. If you buy Descartes … errr….yes.

Back at the curious Waterstones I now found myself in, I had hunted down my reserved books and paid for them. Wandering around the floor a little, I smiled devilishly as I passed by the ‘Philosophers A-Z’ section and the lyrics of Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song immediately came to mind. I suppressed a chuckle and walked over to query a staffer who was on her knees, looking at something in a box.

“Excuse me”

A slight, unintelligible noise.

Clearing my throat, louder this time. “Excuse me.”

“I heard you. Just a minute.”

I was taken aback. Not offended – rather comfortable actually – this is the kind of communication I like.

She straightened up and dealt with my query very efficiently. She even knew about the obscure author I was seeking. Fascinating.

That’s when it hit me. What this was just like. Uni.

It almost felt odd to see cash registers here as this place was so much more like a Uni library than a commercial bookstore.

And what’s more, I liked it.

Descending the stairs again, I lingered on the other floors a little.

‘Classical’ had been populated by slightly artsy types who couldn’t quite help modifying their clothing or body in some way so that they could be ‘different’ (just like all their other ‘different’ friends).

Now, I surveyed suits cruising the aisles of an extensive legal area. Slicked hair, cufflinks, assurance. One in particular stood out – I’ve always found that a bespoke suit sits in a certain way that isn’t duplicable with off-the-rack fashions. He had cufflinks, manicured nails and an impeccably matched shirt and tie. Yes, it took a little while to ascertain those details. No, I’m not going to apologise. I walked on and descended more stairs, taking me to vastly different intellectual climes.

Downstairs, I walked past books on pure mathematics and saw a very pale hand tracing its way across spines of books, as if their titles were written in Braille. He had an oversized wooly sweater on and was terribly close to the books. I conjured a wild image of him finding the one he wanted through a combination of touch and smell. I must have looked at him for that fraction of a second that’s over the societally acceptable norm. He turned and…for the life of me…looked scared. Pale grey eyes blinked at me and I slid past as quickly as I could. I left the store amusing myself by spinning what I imagined his life to be like. It involved a laboratory with no windows, chalkboards, a long-suffering girlfriend and a personal obsession with an unsolvable equation of some renown.

So now I know what I want my library to be like – quiet, not too light and to be bursting at the seams with tomes on very disparate topics. As for the human accessories to the scene? I don’t think so.

M


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