Mena’s birthday present from me this year was a bookstore crawl. We are both serious readers, and the luxury of wandering from bookstore to bookstore with a companion equally interested in reading appealed to us both.
Coincidentally, the date we chose for our day out was the twenty-sixth anniversary of Mena leaving Ireland to come to Australia.
We started our day in style with breakfast at The European, one of my favourite restaurants in Melbourne. Having put the world to rights over a couple of glasses of champagne, eggs Florentine and a croque Madame, our first bookshop was just around the corner.
In typical Mena-and-Máiréad style we had to struggle to move past the very first bookshelf right inside the door. The Paperback Bookshop is tiny, and has the added advantage of being right beside Pellegrini’s, one of my favourite city haunts. Having gotten off to an enthusiastic start, we both decided that it would be wise to limit our book purchasing to one per store. Reluctantly we both then put back at least one book and left with:
Mena Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland
Máiréad Only Say The Word by Niall Williams
A quick tram ride down Gertrude Street saw us at Books for Cooks, a beautiful cosy bookstore filled with recipe books and other culinary delights. I spent a happy fifteen minutes rummaging through boxes of greetings cards, then culling them down to a respectable four or five from the ten or so I had chosen. We steeled down for a while on a comfy sofa, reading excerpts to each other from dog-eared antique books, dodgy-looking 1980s Irish cookbooks and lavish coffee-table books on Italian food. Mena made us leave before we moved in permanently, but we bought nothing but the few greetings cards because of the theory that you never cook more than one dish per cookbook purchased.
We resisted the lure of valrhona hot chocolate at the Gertrude Street Enoteca nearby, and kept walking. It was lovely to amble along in the spring sunshine gawking in the bohemian shops of Gertrude Street on a Friday morning, knowing the rest of the world was at work. Another short tram ride away we stopped at the Brunswick Street Bookstore, another of my favourites. The great thing about Melbourne is the sheet number of independent bookstores there are: you are never stuck with the option of Borders or Borders.
I quickly pounced on “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson. It had me chuckling at the very first sentence, laughing aloud at the second paragraph, and incoherently weeping with mirth by the beginning of the second page. I love Bill Bryson. Realising that the day was already getting away from us, we escaped after only about twenty minutes or so, having chosen two non-fiction books:
Mena: A Piano In The Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
Máiréad: Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.
Alarmingly, it was already after two o’clock. We sat outside Dom Vincenzo’s (there were no outdoors seats next door at Mario’s) and refreshed ourselves with a tiramisu and lemon-lime-and-bitters (Mena) and a hot chocolate (me) whilst experiencing acute order envy as the people at the next table shared huge bowls of steaming pasta.
A little later, a leisurely walk along Johnston Street brought back memories of our salsa nights back in the late nineties, me dancing stone cold sober on the bar in a little salsa place before heading off to the fifteen-piece salsa band at the Bullring. The bar is still there but the Bullring stands empty. The amazing folding trolley came into its own on this leg of the journey, carrying books, water bottles and handbags in its Tardis-like innards.
At the top of Lygon Street we chose Borders over Readings (yes, a weird choice) as we were both desperate for the loo. We spent a little while in the Architecture section looking for the definition of a “Dutch Door” following up on something Mena had heard on “Jeopardy”. We imagined it might be a proper door high up in a building, like you see in a barn. We tried to remember what peculiar-looking doors they have in Amsterdam, but could think of nothing but the peculiar-looking roofs. Turns out it’s a half-door.
Mena spent an enjoyable sojourn in an armchair leafing through a glossy coffee-table book about Collins Street, while I tried and failed to get a decent three-for-two combo. Then four o’clock ennui set in and we repaired to Gloria Jeans for a shot of caffeine. Weirdly, we both ended up choosing a book almost at random and abandoning the ones we thought we would buy here:
Mena: A Taste For It by Monica McInerney
Máiréad: Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story by Maureen and Tony Wheeler
Minutes later, the number 1 tram bore us southwards through the city (oddly quiet for five o’clock on a Friday – was it school holidays or the footie?). A wrong turn in Albert Park found us sheltering under a tree in a torrential downpour, looking at a photocopied map trying to figure out where we were. It was getting dull and cold, and we were lost in the middle of some of the most beautiful residences in Melbourne. Mena figured out our mistake and we finally found shelter in the wonderfully-warm Avenue Bookstore, Victoria’s independent bookstore of the year 2007.
We sat and warmed up and browsed for ages. As I sat reading the first chapter of “The Buddha of Suburbia” a small girl, no more than about four years old, scooted up alongside me and settled down in exactly the same pose as me, leafing earnestly through a tiny picture book. She was clearly too young to read independently, but she was obviously a true reader. Mena and I exchanged a silent glance, recognising a kindred spirit.
We were beginning to feel a bit “homeless” by this stage – you know that feeling when you are far from home on a chilly evening, it is getting dark, people’s lights are coming on and you see their cosy homes behind windows and you wish you were nearly home? We delayed leaving the warmth of Avenue Bookstore until we realised the time. We made our choices:
Mena: A Spot Of Bother by Mark Haddon
Máiréad: The Art Of Travel by Alain de Botton
and we headed off to the tram stop past the chic delis, boutiques and eateries of Albert Park.
Later, ensconced in the back bar of Cicciolina’s, we considered our spoils as we realised just how exhausted we were. A couple of glasses of wine, a plate of antipasti and a hearty dinner later, we were ready for bed.