Today is warm in Melbourne. An autumn day of unexpected heat and shimmer. I keep twiddling the dials of my radio, hearing over and over the voice of Campbell Newman as he intones about his decision to cut funding to the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.
“It was a decision we had to make,” he keeps saying.
The axing will give him an extra 250,000 dollars in his budget bottom line, he says.
When I think about bottom lines, which is not often unless it is in connection with buying a new pair of hiking trousers, my mind goes back to another hot morning.
It was December then. Just past sunrise. I opened my inbox to find an email from a favourite bookstore – the Librería General de Arte Martínez Pérez in Barcelona. There was nothing unusual in that. I’d received updates from them for months, reminders of the one visit I made there on a Spanish spring day.
But that particular email was unusual: a missive with no details of upcoming events, no photographs, dates or times. It contained words like dificultades and tristeza. It said that after 121 years of continuous service, the Martínez family would have to close their bookshop.
I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I only spent a couple of hours there.
Photo credit: Foundry
I walked in off a hot Barcelona street, enticed by a leather edition of Cervantes in the window. I had no intention or budget to buy; it was just that the shop had a “feel”. The wood around the doorway was polished. The metal knocker gleamed. Inside, the shop smelled of leather, musty paper and good coffee. It was silent. Cool.
Bookshelves climbed to the ceiling, and volumes of prints and old letters were stacked on tables in the centre of the room. All were in Spanish or Catalan and beyond my conversational Español. But oh, the tug of the place.
Stay, it whispered. Run your fingers over those spines. Consider the previous reader and the reader before them. Lift the Cervantes and let your eyes range over the copperplate print. Pretend that your simple Spanish is good enough to savour the words. One day maybe it will be…
A man appeared, wearing a grey cashmere cardigan, and extended a hand to me.
“Bienvenida a nuestra tienda,” he said. Welcome to our shop.
He wasn’t fazed by the dirt on my hiking boots or the rip in my khaki pants. Even my bursting backpack didn’t trouble him as he took it from my shoulders, telling me the store had opened in 1890, and had been in his family ever since.
He told me that in recent times he had had to branch out to survive, but that had given him a new pleasure. His other love was music, and he had found a way to support musicians. Would I like to see the Sala – the room where he had been hosting small concerts?
We walked past his paper-piled desk, down a few stairs, and through a narrow doorway.
I gasped. He smiled.
We stood at the entrance to a space that was almost as long as a netball court. To my left was a centuries-old wooden statue of a saint. I forget which one: there are so many in Spain. Two black pillars lined up behind the anonymous santo before the space opened out, its polished concrete floor gleaming under skylights that refracted light from the hot sky I’d escaped. My eyes travelled to a heavy wooden door in the distance, opening onto ferns in terracotta pots against an ochre wall.
“Venga,” my host whispered. Come.
Our steps click-clacked toward a refectory table. We passed a grand piano, a floral sofa, a wooden bench-seat, and three oil paintings, all lit from wall-mounted lights.
You need rest, Señor Martínez said. And perhaps a coffee? I can play for you some music, too.
At the other end of the beeswax-scented table was a painting of St John the Baptist, his lush red robe clearly of more interest to the painter than the light streaming from heaven. To my right were the door and a shuttered window opening to the courtyard. A bird trilled.
I sat. Yes, rest would be nice.
Coffee came in a modern white espresso cup, with a single almond biscuit and a choice of CDs – recordings he’d made of his concerts. Choral chants, flamenco, the jazz of Cole Porter, blues, Bach and tango…
I made my choice, and as the first notes from a quartet insinuated themselves into the space, Señor Martínez handed me the volume control, and a note on which was written the password for his WiFi.
If you would want to write to your family at home, he said as he walked away.
I stayed for an hour. Then another.
I wrote. I listened. I read a little Cervantes, wondering who first turned those yellowed pages. I studied the patina of window and picture frames, and I inhaled the scent of polish and care.
When I left, Señor Martínez would only accept a single euro for the coffee. I added my name to his mailing list before thanking him and walking out into the day.
Back in Melbourne, I was always excited to open one of his emails. In our clear southern light I’d be transported to that mellow place, imagining myself sitting in company with thirty others as the sun set, sipping our included glass of cava as a cellist or blues guitarist warmed up for a fifteen euro concert. In my mind I wore smart clothes and spoke perfect Spanish!
His emails always radiated possibility.
All except yesterday’s.
All the hard work and efforts to maintain financial equilibrium have been insufficient to ensure continuity, he wrote. It is a considered decision, taken with profound sadness.
Even that note, full of bad news, was restrained and dignified.
Of course, there are worse stories in the world. Bigger losses. Harder.
But I mourn the passing of that place. With it goes something civilised and civilising: history, grace and a beauty that cannot be bought with re-issued bonds, or re-built by another wave of developers. With it goes a place where the creativity was celebrated, and where story-telling offered a way into the hearts of a place and its people.
Some things are losses to all of us, and no bankers or politicians can ever give them back. Tradition is one such thing. Kindness to strangers, no matter how humble they may be, is another.
How does the Queensland Premier put a price on such things, I want to know. Does he have a bottom line for the talent that takes Queensland’s stories out into the world?
I want to write to Mr Newman, but I am not sure he would value the voice of a writer. I did write to Señor Martínez.
My Spanish was not gracious enough to reply in the style of Cervantes, but I did know how to write that I was sorry.
In Spanish, it also translates as “I feel it”.
Ailsa Piper is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.