CHAPTER 1

 

The window of the tiny café had fogged up, making it difficult for John to see the bookstore across the street, but he kept staring anyway. His gaze was unfocused, not really taking in the old-fashioned wooden frames around the windows or the colorful display of recommended Australian authors. The waitress quietly refreshed his tea and smiled briefly when he looked up with the almost apologetic expression of those caught in a daydream.

He took a sip of the tea, sighed, and looked back toward the store. This time his eyes lighted on the small sign next to the door. He couldn't read it from this distance, but he knew the neat handwritten script read “Under New Management”.

“Under new management,” John mumbled with a disbelieving shake of his head. “My own fucking ‘sea change’.”

Rubbing a weary hand across his eyes, John remembered the words of his doctor: “The migraines are going to continue to get worse unless you make some major changes in your lifestyle. What you need is a ‘sea change’… in other words, give up the ongoing stress of your current job and get out of Melbourne. Perhaps buy a nice little business in the country or along the coast, settle down, something easier to occupy your time….”

“Patronizing prick,” John cursed quietly, but despite his opinions of the “smug” physician John had known he was right. He also knew he couldn’t resign from his hard-fought-for job, but was willing to take a year’s leave of absence, have his “sea change” without leaving the city, and then get straight back to business.

So here he was looking at the “nice little business” he’d just acquired. It wasn’t in the country, but it might as well be, situated as it was in a quiet back street full of specialty stores and quaint cafés, the sort that could be classed as bohemian without quite making it to trendy.

John drained his cup, paid the bill, and made his way across the small street. A bell jingled when he pushed the door open announcing his arrival to the woman sorting through some bookmarks at the front counter. She looked up. Her first impression was of a designer suit, handcrafted leather shoes, and equally immaculate short blond hair. The overall presentation was of someone expecting to impress. As he got closer Maggie couldn’t help but wonder what this man needed from her little store. When he approached the counter she smiled at him and asked, “Mister McCann?”

John returned the smile. “John, please.”

“Ah. Welcome, John. I’m Maggie. We spoke on the phone,” she said as she made her way around the counter and ushered him to the small kitchen where she gestured for him to take a seat at the table. “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” she offered while waving a tin of homemade cookies in his direction. John politely declined both, pulled a folder of papers out of his briefcase, and spread them in an orderly line on the table. Maggie looked at them and her expression saddened. With a small sigh she sat in front of the papers and looked at John. “You know, giving this place up is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

John tried to give her his best “I understand” smile. He was aware that Margins had been a family business and it was only with the death of her husband that Maggie had decided to sell up and return to England to live with her sister.

“Still, at least Jamie will be here to keep an eye on the place for me.” She gave a small laugh knowing full well that her son would rather be keeping an eye on the handsome new owner. John had met Jamie during an earlier meeting as Maggie preferred to stay out of the business side of things and knew he had an excellent understanding of the store. “I’m sure he’ll be a great help in showing me the ropes and making sure I don’t mess things up too badly.”

Maggie smiled and patted John’s hand. “I’m not so sure about that, but he likes it here and I couldn’t convince him to go back to England with his old mum. Jamie was born here; my husband and I were some of the original ‘ten quid tourists’ in the early sixties. Have you been here long?” she asked, recognizing John’s northern English accent.

“Quite a few years now,” John replied noncommittally, making it very clear that his private life was not a topic of conversation. This was business.

Maggie looked at the pen John pushed across the table and sighed; she knew this had to be done and the small talk was simply putting off the inevitable. Picking up the pen, Maggie told herself for the umpteenth time that this was the right thing to do and signed the final paperwork.

“I’ll finish moving my belongings out of the apartment over the next few days so it should be ready for you in about a week.” Maggie smiled gently at the sudden change of expression in John’s green eyes, “Don’t look so worried, John. It really is all for the best. You’ll see.” She gathered the documents together in two stacks; one for her and one for John. “Right, then,” she announced as she pushed back her chair and stood up. “I’m off now; please let Jamie know I’ll be back by tea time.”

She picked up her copies of the signed lease, patted John on the shoulder and, with one last look, made her way out the door. John heard the little bell tinkle and began feeling very sick.

He slumped in the chair and stared at his signature on the neatly stacked documents.

“Hey, man, don’t look so worried,” Jamie teased when he walked into the kitchen. John smiled at the good-looking young man and, though he decided he shouldn’t go there, John wasn’t totally impervious to the cheeky brown eyes and mess of dark curly hair.

“Your mother said that too,” he groaned, then looked up at the figure in the doorway. “Come on. Show me how things work.”

“Time to impress the new boss, is it?” Jamie grinned.

“Or at least put my mind at rest that this isn’t the daftest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” John shook his head and followed Jamie back into the store.

Although the initial impression was of a small cluttered store, it was actually quite large—allowing for even more clutter. Margins tended to be something of a rabbit warren with little alcoves devoted to different formats or genres giving the impression of stepping into separate rooms. Righting a fallen picture book, John knew his attraction to the store was due to its similarity to one he used to visit as a kid, though he could never afford to buy anything there.

“A fucking shoplifter’s paradise,” John grumbled to himself, shaking off the distraction of nostalgia. Jamie pretended not to hear the comment and guided him to the next section.

John ran his hand down the dark polished wood at the end of one of the tall shelves; they felt old and sturdy under his fingers. They made him feel calm and safe. But they’re not practical. “These old shelves are a problem; we won’t be able to move them easily.”

Jamie frowned at John. “Come on, man. Give it a chance. We’ve managed this long without moving anything.”

John understood he’d touched a nerve and softened his voice. “I can see you offer a good range of books….”

“People appreciate that we specialize in hard-to-find books and small local publishers,” Jamie interrupted.

“Yes, but is that profitable?” John said in an annoyingly officious voice.

“You saw the accounts; we do better than break even most weeks. People come back to us.”

John knew to let the subject drop for a while and lay his hand on Jamie's shoulder. “Come on, lad. What’s next?”

Jamie led him to a section at the back of the store that was full of secondhand books, mainly fiction, but with a couple of nonfiction shelves. John frowned at the two old leather armchairs and made a mental note to get rid of them. He wanted customers to buy books and leave, not linger like it was a library.

“This area takes up a lot of space with little turnover,” John muttered half to himself. “Could be a good spot for discount remainder stock.”

John noticed Jamie’s look of disgust, but let it go; he actually felt a wave of relief that his business acumen had kicked in and provided a more familiar focus.

“A thought for another day.” John turned and headed back to the front of the store. “But for now I have a lunch meeting with a business associate. I’ll be back in about an hour and you can fill me in on the ordering system.”

Jamie slumped against the wall as he watched John walk out the door. He turned his face to the battered armchairs and sighed. “This is not going to be easy.”

 

Lunch was spent in an expensive Docklands restaurant discussing the “temporary” handover of John’s portfolio. It was familiar territory and reaffirmed John’s desire to drag Margins into a higher profit bracket. He refused to let the lure of a childhood memory get in his way. He’d gotten this far from the back streets of Bradford and there was no way he was going back.

It was late afternoon when John pushed open the door and made his way to the bookstore’s counter where Jamie was checking through the latest invoices. Jamie looked up at the clock and flashed a cheeky smile. “Must’ve had a lot of business to discuss.”

John scowled, but for some reason found Jamie difficult to reprimand. Instead he took off his jacket and leaned over Jamie’s shoulder, eyeing the invoice in hand. “Guess I need to start learning the ropes, huh?”

Jamie turned his face toward him and said with a sly grin, “I’m sure you’ll find I’m a good teacher.”

“Oh, I just bet you are.” John laughed, not sure if Jamie was flirting or just playing up to the boss. “But how about we go through the ordering system first?”

Jamie attempted to look shocked, but failed miserably and giggled. “The order book is out back; I’ll go get it.”

“No, I’ll go. I have to start finding my way around.”

Jamie’s expression quickly changed and he tried to say no, but John was already around the counter. As he neared the back of the store, John’s eyes fell on a very disheveled-looking man sitting in one of the big leather armchairs engrossed in a secondhand novel. John’s initial reaction was to look away, but he couldn’t help staring at this man. His clothes were a filthy array of layers; his dirty feet were partially tucked under him and a pair of ratty elastic-sided boots sat on top of an overstuffed pack beside the chair. The shoulder-length hair could have been dark blond if it was clean, but hung in mangy brown matted lengths. The man looked up and then quickly dropped his eyes as soon as they made contact with John’s.

Jamie had been watching John with a half-held breath and when he saw him take a step toward the chair called out quickly, “Um, John, I need you over here…. Um, there might be a problem with one of the orders.”

John hesitated briefly, frowning at the man desperately trying to sink into the leather chair before turning to walk back to Jamie. “What sort of problem?” he muttered.

“Oh… um… no problem really,” Jamie wasn’t sure how to continue so he took a deep breath and said, “That’s David.”

John just folded his arms and waited.

“Okay…. Mum saw him looking at the books in the window a few times. She said he looked cold… and sad.” Jamie paused to gauge John’s reaction, and when there was none he continued. “So she asked him if he wanted to come in. He smiled a bit, but walked away. The next day Mum saw him again. She’s not one to give up, my mum; so she went outside and convinced him to come in. Actually she almost dragged him in. She told him it was okay to read the secondhand books and bought the battered old chairs the next day. So David comes in every day to read….”

John frowned at Jamie’s babbling and mumbled, “Sounds to me like your mum is a ‘soft touch,’ Jamie.”

Jamie knew that was true but couldn’t stand the thought of telling David he wasn’t welcome anymore.

“Look, John, I know this is your place now, but David is harmless. Smells a bit, but is quite nice when you can get him to talk.”

John didn’t look convinced and was more concerned that David might discourage paying customers. Jamie shifted anxiously from one foot to the other trying to figure out how to make John understand; finally he came to a decision, took another deep breath, and suggested he introduce him to David. John rolled his eyes and shook his head, but followed the young assistant to the rear of the store because it was obviously important to Jamie.

John felt strangely nervous as they approached the chairs. Despite the hair falling around his face and ratty beard, John could see that the man was around his age, but that was where the similarities seemed to end. John was at a loss to see what he could possibly talk to this man about.

Jamie sat in the chair next to David, who looked up from his book and smiled. “Hey, Davey. Whatcha reading?” Instead of answering David showed him the cover of the book while casting a wary glance at John. Jamie followed his look and said, “This is John. You remember I told you how Mum was selling this place? Well, John is the new owner.” David didn’t look reassured by this information, but quietly mumbled “Hi” without meeting John’s eyes.

For some reason those eyes disconcerted John and he didn’t hold the man’s look. Perhaps he was a reminder of another path, a “there but for the grace of God” type of thing or…. John couldn’t put his finger on why, but David was not someone he wanted near him. With a grunted a hello, John reminded Jamie that he still had to finish showing him last month’s orders and walked back to the counter. As he turned his back to them he heard Jamie say in a very conspiratorial whisper, “He’ll be okay, Dave. Just seems a bit grumpy ’cause he’s not used to us yet.”

John raised his eyebrows and his voice at the comment. “Jamie! Come on!”

Looking back to see if Jamie was following, John caught him leaning in to whisper something to David before giggling and jogging toward the counter.

“He is a good person, John. Please don’t chase him out,” Jamie pleaded when he caught up.

“Your mum’s not the only one who’s a soft touch,” John responded, but at least he was smiling. He’d already decided to deal with the David issue another day.

 

The rest of the day was spent with John, sitting at the small table beside the counter going through the ordering system, ringing distributors, and introducing himself. He was comfortable with that and gradually began to believe that the next twelve months were at least doable. There’d been a steady trickle of customers throughout the day but he left them to Jamie. John smiled at Jamie’s mix of ease and enthusiasm when dealing with people; it was obvious that they adored him, especially the older women. He was a definite asset to the business.

Just before closing, a quiet figure made his way past the counter. John looked up to see David, boots back on his feet and battered pack slung over his shoulder, head down, carefully avoiding John’s eyes as he left the store. John frowned. I must do something about him.

As he looked away from the door he caught Jamie’s worried eyes on him. John refused to acknowledge the look and simply said, “Well, Jamie, we survived our first day together. Time to lock up and head home, I think.”

Jamie allowed the knot in his stomach to dissipate, let his breath out, and walked to the door to flip the Open sign over to Closed. He made a show of turning the lock on the door, looked at John, wiggled his eyebrows, and said, “Tomorrow we let you loose on the customers.”

John shook his head and groaned. “Oh fuck.”