You’re almost there, Nichol. Just ten more steps, ten more steps through these crowds of mindless people and that busker who thinks she’s Adele, and you’re there.
As I am jostled by another thoughtless shopper in the high street, I realise I sound like I’m going somewhere more important than the bookshop. Somewhere like Disneyland, or Oxford University, or the station just as the train’s just about to leave. But then again, in my eyes, the first two aren’t as important, because I’m not bright enough for Oxford, and Disney profits off lying to kids about life.
But even so, you can call me as weird or as eccentric as you want - to me, this great red brick building sticking out like a hardback book on a shelf of paperbacks among the rest of the shops is more than just a landmark on the High Street.
As soon as I walk in through that door, the outside world feels meaningless, more like fiction than any of the books lining the shelves. It feels immersive in here. It’s one of those buildings that’s old enough to still have that pleasant kind of charm that 1960′s buildings just don’t have, but at the same time it’s new enough to feel modern rather than dated. The books colour the air with the glorious smell of woody, fresh new pages - if I could bottle it and keep it somewhere for a rainy day, then I would. All the trendy new adult books are kept down here on gleaming mahogany shelves that are definitely not new, but seem ageless, and another shelf of non-fiction is stuffed into the corner near the tills. Located on the other side of the shop is what I call the Stairway To Heaven: a gigantic coil of stairs leading to the first floor, and I confess, on a quiet day I like to run up them. It’s too busy for that today, so I’m forced to walk.
Up here on the first floor, it feels more spacious than it does downstairs, with great big windows at one end that capture every ray of light from the sun and throw them out into the rest of the shop. In the summer, it’s so light that they never bother to stick the lights on, and it’s the warmest part of town in the winter.
They have so many more books up here too: the same mahogany shelves line every wall and fill every corner, stuffed high with a whole rainbow of books, not just a rainbow of colour, but one of size and genre too. God, there must be thousands of them in here, each a unique portal to a fictional world more exciting than the real one. Yet wherever they take me - Hogwarts, the Capitol, Cairnholm - I can always forget myself for a little while.
Naturally, when there are so many books up here reaching out towards me, trying to pull me towards them, it can be pretty hard to just choose one. Anything looking vaguely romantic is a no-go for starters. I often pick up a couple of books, turning them over in my hands, reading the blurb and then the first page or two. Sometimes I come back for one the week after if something better takes my attention.
Eventually, I make my mind up. The book that comes with me to the counter is The Hobbit. I’ve waited far too long to read The Lord of the Rings and I figured this was a less intimating way to start my journey into Middle Earth. But while paying for the book is pretty mundane to most people, for me it’s almost as special, thanks to the person waiting for me behind the counter.
Rileigh got so used to seeing me at the same time on her Saturday shift that we started talking about stuff like books and the bullshit most people know as politics. Eventually, our chats went on for so long that I’d be kind of rude not to call her a friend. She is two years older than me, in her first year of uni (studying English Lit, of course) and this is the only time in the week I can see her in person. If I come into the bookshop and can’t pick out the shock of her bleached blonde ponytail when I get up the stairs, my Saturday feels kind of incomplete.
She’s staring at her watch, her eyes occasionally flicking upwards to check for any customers waiting to be served. A slightly weary smile appears on her face when she sees me coming towards the counter. I wave.
“Hey Nic!” she says. “What have you got this week?” I push the book towards her, alongside a fiver and three pound coins. I’ve bought enough books to know paperbacks all cost about the same. I don’t need to look at the barcode anymore, and Rileigh appreciates the break from saying “That’s seven ninety-nine please,” every few minutes.
She shakes her head when she sees the money. “Uh-uh.”
“What?” This is the one area of my life where I’m not used to being wrong.
“Just messing with you,” she says. “Don’t look so scared.”
I laugh as she opens the cash register. “I’d rather you joke with me about the money than the book I’m buying.”
“Your own autobiography? That’s a bit strange of you.” A moment later, if I didn’t already realise, she adds: “I’m joking.”
“You better have been,” I say. “You don’t want to be the one to drive away the shop’s most loyal customer.”
“You wouldn’t abandon us for WHSmith really,” Rileigh replies with a knowing smirk.
“At least the staff your size check their tall privilege there.” Rileigh is five foot eight, towering a good six inches over my hobbit sized frame. “But even so, I wouldn’t trade anything for you and this bookshop. Not even if you make hobbit jokes about me, because I’ve made plenty of those with my dad at home.”
“I feel loved,” Rileigh remarks. “But what about the library? Why here when you can get them all for free over there?”
“Libraries just don’t compare to this bookshop,” I explain. “The books never feel like they’re truly yours, for one thing. They have those weird plastic jackets on too, it doesn’t feel as nice in your hands, and unless they’ve just been ordered in they never have that nice new book smell. Sometimes they can be in a pretty gross state actually. Once I found one with mould in the spine.”
“Urgh,” says Rileigh.
“It’s just not as nice in the library over the other side of town either. They have those weird fluorescent lights in there that you see in the corridors of creepy hospitals in films. Oh yeah, and there’s always one small screaming child in the library that never puts a sock in it, and you know my feelings on small screaming children.” I draw an invisible ‘cut here’ line across my throat with my finger. “And that, Rileigh, is why I will always choose the bookshop.”
She gives me a quiet, joking applause. “That was very inspiring.”
"Hem hem.” A man in a tweed jacket has appeared behind me with what looks like a crime novel in his hand, looking bored. I’m pretty used to this actually; it always marks the end to our conversations.
“Sorry sir, I’ll be with you now.” She lowers her voice as if speaking to me is now completely forbidden. “I’ll see you at closing time if you’re still here. Enjoy the book.”
And that is the extent of my non-family interaction for the week. Yep, I’m serious. Being invisible is my secret superpower. And yes, I’m unlikely to listen to you if you try to tell me to let people in (I hate that phrase; it sounds like too much of an innuendo) and open myself up (which also sounds like an innuendo). I’ll just tell you to take your hippy bullshit (and innuendos) somewhere else. This is the way I work, and I’m content like this. Best of all, I am also very safe.
But unlike most other customers, I never leave as soon as I’ve bought a book. Instead, I stay and read for a while, sometimes until they kick me out, curled up in one of the chairs on the other side of the first floor. There are some leather seats sat around a coffee table by the window, often empty, but because the window’s so big they get especially hot in the summer.
Nobody ever sits in ‘my’ chair - it has my name written on it in invisible ink and you have to embark on a little quest to find it, tucked away between the fantasy and historical fiction shelves. It’s kind of old, but it’s aged well, made of dark wood, and the dark green cushions on it smell slightly of cedarwood and old people. I curl up in it with my legs tucked under my chin and my knees acting as a convenient book rest, so I’m now comfy enough to crack open the book and it transport me to Middle Earth.
I don’t know much time passes, but after a while I hear someone say my name. That’s when Rileigh appears, looking kind of flustered.
“Closing time already?” I ask.
“Not for like an hour yet,” she says. “I need a favour.”
Reluctantly, I dog ear page 105 and close my book. “Yeah?”
“My boss has given me all this stuff to do, and I’m already flapping, and then this customer asks if I’m actually going to do something because he’s been waiting so long - well, he was politer than that, but...”
“First, calm those tits of yours...” I begin.
“My tits are very calm, thanks.”
“Well, he asked if there were any books I could recommend, but because I had a million and one things to do I may or may not have referred him to you... I mean, you are good with books.”
“Sorry, but I have to get a move on. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”
I need a table to hit my head on really, really hard. She knows what I’m like. I’ve warned her countless times.
And there’s no way I can make myself invisible now either. I wish that sort of magic existed in the Muggle universe.