Meet the bookseller with Freya Howarth
Freya Howarth is a bookseller at our St Kilda store. Here, she chats to us about the best parts of her job, talks about books that have changed the way she thinks, and why bookshops should always just be a little bit haunted.
Tell us about a book that changed the way you think.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I’m not sure if it’s quite right to say it changed the way I think, so much as formed it. I read it for the first time when I was twelve while on holiday with my family in France. I remember little of that trip beside spending days in the garden reading. It was the best thing I’d read since Harry Potter. I was already a curious kid, interested in physics and mythology. This book showed me that writers could borrow from all of literature, culture, religion and science to tell their stories. Lyra’s adventurous spirit and immense curiosity taught me the importance of being bold and thinking for yourself, of challenging authorities and conventional wisdom, and rejecting dogma. It’s how I hope to and try to live my life. A lot of my reading since has been an attempt to find something that captivates and moves me as much, something equally ambitious in scope and themes. My decision to study philosophy and science at university clearly traces back to that summer of reading.
What’s the best book you’ve read lately and why?
The book I keep thinking about (and foisting on everyone) is The Idiot by Elif Batuman. If His Dark Materials is the book I needed as a kid puzzling out the mysteries of the universe, death, and the origins and nature of consciousness, The Idiot is the book I need as a youngish, adultish person navigating the post-school, post-uni world, puzzling out the mysteries of other people’s thoughts, love and friendship, and what to do with my own life now that the decisions and power are in my hands – and finding myself just so bewildered at times. Batuman is a charming writer, with a delightful voice. She’s funny, insightful, and great at describing people who find themselves confronting absurdity. Her characters always seem to be trying to understand each other and falling slightly short in the attempt, but continuing to try all the same. It’s a rambling, somewhat plotless novel, befitting the general plotlessness and lack of narrative structure of coming into adulthood.
What is your favourite part of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is when I really know I’ve helped someone find the right book. It may not be the book they came in looking for, but it somehow answers their needs perfectly. The other day a customer was looking for a book on clocks for her two-year-old grandson. When we couldn’t find anything quite right, I suggested Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins; one of my favourite board books. It’s about a little woodpecker learning to peck holes in things, pecking right through the pages of the book. It turned out to be a perfect peck pick: the woman told me that her grandson is fascinated by holes and would love the tactile, interactive quality of the book, but that she never would have thought to ask specifically for a book with holes in it. So often suggesting the right book is a combination of asking the right questions, some solid book knowledge and a little bit of luck. I’m thrilled when people are open to this process, which is more about loose associations and following thoughts to unexpected places than applying a scientific process. It’s also why I love making fanciful window displays (with paperchain snakes or oversized butterflies): I like the idea that they signal to a customer that they are entering a place of wonder and possibility.
What books are sitting on your bedside table right now?
Far too many! I used to be a one-at-a-time kind of reader, but working in the shop and seeing all these enticing new books arriving all the time meant I was constantly fighting the desire to pick something up and start reading it as soon as it caught my interest. Now, I don’t fight the urge anymore – I simply give in and read many books at once. I’m always pursuing various interests through my reading, and this is evident in the books on my bedside table at the moment: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa to prepare for my trip to Japan; In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and This Little Art by Kate Briggs because I’ve been thinking about translation; Insomnia by Marina Benjamin for when I can’t (or don’t want to) sleep; and Autumn by Ali Smith because it’s autumn…
What is the weirdest thing to happen to you in a bookshop?
This is the part where I should bring up the Ghost Moth, right? I was tidying some books on a shelf and found a dead moth behind a stack of copies of a book called Ghost Moth! Ever since then, I’ve attributed all mysterious occurrences – books falling over or going missing, security alarms beeping for seemingly no reason, that strange draft of cold air and that whisper of wingbeats – to the spirit of the dead moth. The Ghost Moth is a bit of a trickster, but is mostly a benign presence. I think every bookshop should be at least a little bit haunted.