2nd November

Outside the Bookshop

Returning to work after my dinner break, I heard an exchange between two women who were going by the shop entrance.

‘Have you ever been in there?’ one said. Her companion paused, turned and looked at the display of books in the window. Her expression was one of timidity, even of fear. It was as if she often passed that way but usually averted her eyes; as if the shop were a forbidden zone, possibly injurious to one’s health.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s an awful dear library. The books in there are awful dear.’

‘Aye,’ her friend said. ‘I’ve heard that too.’

They stood, taking quick glances at the covers so that (it seemed to me) they could not be accused of letting their gaze linger on sensitive or incriminating material. I thought of Russians going past the Lubyanka in the days of Stalin, nervous that someone might decide to take them inside, an irrevocable crossing of a terrible threshold.

The women moved on down the street.

I was late, or I’d have gone after them. ‘Excuse me?’ I’d have called in a friendly, unintimidating way, as if one of them had dropped a glove. When I had their attention I’d have asked the second woman why she’d called it a library. Did she think, if she went to a library, that she would have to pay to read the books? ‘This is a bookshop,’ I’d have said, ‘and yes, the books are for sale, but they’re the same price here as they are anywhere. Some are cheap, some are dear. This is where I work. Please don’t be afraid. Come in, let me show you round.’

But they were away. A missed opportunity. What appalled and ashamed me was that they were afraid. Books had the opposite effect on me: they liberated, delighted, attracted, informed me. But the bookshop made those women feel frightened, suspicious, excluded, inadequate. And what did they know about libraries? Did they have anyone who could take them to their local library and show them the worlds it contained? Did they know that a library was not dangerous, but a place of safety? That there they could make a start?

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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