'The world will be saved by beauty'
Dorothy Day, quoting Dostoevsky
When I was 15, living with my family in Ocean Grove, I took on a Saturday job. At that time in the 1970s there was just one street of shops in this small coastal town in Southern Victoria. And at the furthest end, away from the really important shops like ‘Skinners’ the small grocery, or the Post Office, was a small green wooden house set apart from the other buildings, squat in the middle of a small gravel laden end block. It was called ‘Carol’s Corner’.
It was a gift shop run by a woman called Carol. No doubt I was only employed because I was her namesake, for I was shy, self-conscious and clumsy, lacked initiative and terrible with Maths. Carol herself was a large lady, bawdy and coarse, generous-hearted and had a wheezy laugh that came from deep inside her belly. And when she laughed the whole world always seemed a brighter place.
Carol had an eye for beauty. It was a small house, must have once been a beach house, with a number of inside walls knocked down and the space opened up. Now there were many nooks and crannies, casement windows, corners full of abundant treasures; merchandise seemed to burst out of trunks or drape over each brown wooden shelf. Moving through the space was like wandering within the mahogany hull of a tall ship. Here, rooms opened into one another, lit by the warm soft light from imported stain glass lampshades or dappled by overhanging lacy light fittings. Most of the gift items were from England - Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau imitation antique: china dolls in plush velvet dresses, silk veils or cream lace table cloths draped down from low overhead beams. There were lacquered brown stationary boxes, small intricately coloured glass vases, tapestry handbags, gold trinkets, exquisite lockets and lots of lovely cards. And they were affordable to the average buyer. To be there felt to be somewhere sumptuous and extravagant, old worldly. It was a place of subtle shadings, gentle, meditative.
It was as if to step inside the shop was to be transported into one of the large wooden dolls houses for sale and displayed on the shelves; free to walk around its rooms and gaze out the windows. A brief time-out space. As I wrapped up purchased items in sheets of purple or green tissue paper behind the large simple counter, as I listened to customers move around the shop their shoes clunking on the bare floorboards, watched heads ducking overhead beams, I still remember the feeling of being somewhere special. Somewhere old fashioned, but alive and fresh. I can’t remember any music, only silence and talking. And laughter.
When I took on being Manager of St Peter’s Bookroom in 1998, I inherited the stewardship over a religious bookshop and church supplier that seemed to me to reflect something of God’s beauty. Jack Bridson, Jennifer Nowell and Chris Berry, three predecessors I had known, had built up a stock of Anglican and spiritual literature, sanctuary supplies and religious gifts which emphasised a God who is redemptive, whose love is extravagant and abundant. A place which, whilst not denying suffering or evil in our world, offers only the good. One of my first purchases here was Gerard Hughes’ God of Surprises. This small bookshop, then located in what is now the Sacristan’s kitchen, near the entrance on Albert St, was full of surprises. Fine quality rosary beads and delicious chocolates. And affordable. The imported boxes of incense infused the air with delicious aromas and the beeswax candles lay neatly in the lower shelves of what was once old wooden dressers. It had, and I hope continues to have, a welcoming, hospitable air.
From Carol, I learned the value of creating a landscape of beauty. It is there in many instances of our lives, often in natural surrounds. It is as much about the ambience as it is about the merchandise. And availability. The beauty encountered in ‘Carol’s Corner’ seemed to also bring it out in people who came there. It was friendly and fun. It was hospitable and welcoming. Instinctively, crossing the threshold (at least from my memory) so too the customers always became convivial, delighted and delightful. ‘Carol’s Corner’ bespoke of good things and brought out the best in people.
Sometimes still, when I am working in the shop I remember ‘Carol’s Corner’, in Ocean Grove, all those years ago. And I thank Carol, whose religious or spiritual inclinations I never knew; I thank her for opening my eyes to how you can create an environment that will help people experience something, or perhaps just glimpse, God’s beauty, gratuitous and extravagant, in our world.