Portrait

A chat among the books in a Brisbane bookshop institution. By Cass Moriarty.

Bent Books’ Kat Mulheran

The colourful stripes of Bent Books beckon through the rain – blue, yellow and red – so I prop my umbrella by the door and enter a room crowded with books, stacked into floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that divide the space like a maze. The ambience is shuttered light, creaking floorboards and the intoxicating alchemy of eucalyptus wiped over old books. It is like stepping into another world, far from Brisbane’s West End and yet entirely at home there.

On my right: two open old-fashioned suitcases, replicas of those my grandparents travelled with, are spilling with $5 bargains. The travel guides, Lonely Planet and the rest, are to my left. Glossy and crisp, they are the only new books Kat Mulheran stocks. Everything else is preowned and preloved, every available surface claimed by stories. On the spaces in between – the edges of bookshelves, the front of the counter – are photographs and memorabilia, a collection of found objects that have arrived by stealth in the pages of acquired books, their presence a snapshot of different times and other places, of other lives.

I slip through the back door into the courtyard garden: shallow puddles; lush greenery; a line of potted plants marking each rickety step on a metal staircase. Upstairs is a psychotherapist’s office and a music store; next door, an optometrist and what used to be a comic shop. Across the garden, through a bright yellow door, is the separate, secluded area of a converted garage, a space as big as the shop itself, crammed with a comfortable couch and more books. A place to be happily lost for hours on end. A welcome quote by Virginia Woolf is chalked on a board: “Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

When I return to the main room, Kat is serving a customer. She and her partner, Beau Taylor, have owned the store since 2013, but Kat has worked here since 2001 when she was completing a literature and writing degree. As she grew into adulthood, the store grew around her, cocooning her with books and history and people’s mementoes. I imagine her as part of the furniture, the shop and its stories winding their tendrils around her like a vine. She is perfectly at home here as she greets customers and answers the phone with a friendly hello. “I love hearing people walk past and gasp as they see it,” she says. “It never gets old.

“I don’t really want to do anything else … I love the space, the people who have waved every day for 18 years.”

There are 60,000 books here. Without a thought, Kat can find any one of about half of them. The other half requires a moment’s searching. Often customers will not expect her to know whether she has a particular book in stock “because there’s stuff everywhere”, but with muscle memory and an image of what the physical book looks like – colours, fonts – she can locate most quickly.

Her bestsellers are history, philosophy, psychology and academic texts, although the shop offers fiction, illustrated coffee table books, nonfiction and biographies as well. “This whole Marie Kondo downsizing thing was a real boon for us,” Kat says, laughing.

Frequently, it is not the books themselves that are attractive to readers and collectors, but rather the secrets and treasures hidden within. “Stuff in Old Books” is Kat’s collection of random objects accidentally left in books by previous owners, everything from old black-and-white photographs to train tickets to love letters to recipes to money. She imagines the stories of other people’s lives.

She shows me her recent haul: three photos of a 1960s London wedding, a receipt from the Country Women’s Association and an old negative – a time capsule enshrined in a book’s pages. Handwritten letters are especially prized; book plates are popular with collectors.

While for some, personal inscriptions devalue a book, for others they are priceless, especially annotations and notes in academic texts. A 1950s medical text that changed hands the previous day was filled with messages to a retiring nurse. Children’s books often contain loving letters from a grandparent explaining why that book was important to them as a child.

As I am leaving, Kat pops a copy of Like Water for Chocolate on display in the $5 bargain suitcase. Inside its cover are words from Lillian to Hannah: “May you always cook with love and happiness … everyone … will feel your warmth who eats from your table.”

I secretly hope a reader will recognise the love in this book, that it will find a new home as a gift to a dear friend who likes to cook. That while Lillian and Hannah will be replaced by new names, the sentiment will remain true.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Second chances". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.