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Supernova Memories

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Note: astute readers will note that the above photo is NOT of Supernova Books. I couldn’t find a photo of the shopfront on Google. But Supernova DID spawn Fantastic Planet, which is now sadly defunct as well.

Note: this was written in 2011 or thereabouts.

I walked into Supernova Books in downtown Perth with the intention of getting a job there on the third of August, 2001. I know this because it was my twentieth birthday. I had been to Supernova before, of course, to that stuffy room on William Street packed with science fiction, fantasy and horror titles. It was like being on the inside of a Rubik’s cube. A month or so previously, I had purchased a big, blue brick of a book called The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction there. It turned out that a guy who served me, Richo, was a fellow student and friend of mine at Curtin University. Little did I know that, sooner rather than later, it’d be me sitting on an office chair behind that aged till and Richo scampering off into the direction of the pub.

Supernova’s owner was a rather forbidding personage named Alwyn. He would have been in his sixties then, and as it turned out with little more than two and a half years to live. I got the job, although it was noted that I was too shy to make eye contact with him (his cavernous face, his pitiless eyes). I would work for two and a half hours on a Thursday afternoon so that Alwyn could play tennis, and alternate the days of the weekend with the other weekend guy. It was, as I told my Romanian employer at the fish and chips shops where I would no longer work, my dream job. It paid $11 an hour.

The shelves were poorly made, frequently damaging the stock; the till was so ancient that it surely dated me; and the “Nova” in the neon sign had long since stopped working. “Super Books,” old men and women read out as they tottered past. They then tottered inside and asked me if me had anything by Danielle Steele. Sales were recorded in an exercise book, the takings calculated on an old calculator. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me—a science fiction bookstore with a primitive till and no computer.

On the evening of September 11, before the infamous attacks, I was putting the finishing touches on a story that the American SF writer Barry Malzberg was helping me with. I had become friendly with Malzberg after posting on the one and only fansite dedicated to his work (run by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, later to become a SF writer and critic himself) and he had sent me signed copies of several of his books. Malzberg seemed to think that my story “Manitee” was good enough to be published in Interzone. He would write to its editor, David Pringle, and recommend my story to him. I had been redrafting “Manitee” for days, adding new scenes and deleting troublesome ones, and my final task was to produce a new ending. Sitting in front of the computer, literally minutes before the attacks, a scene jumped into my head:

“I am wheeling through space—I am the Manitee. The boosters are firing—calamity looms as booster 3 torches its casing and—alas—ignites the others. But my heart is glad. Inside the ship, the part of me which is me smiles in her sleep. Her mouth opens as if to frame a final question but I soothe her, telling her to rest.

We are afire.”

Having written these words, I emailed the story to Malzberg and sat down to watch a classic SF film, “Westworld.” Yul Brynner’s murderous rampage had barely begun when I was interrupted by a friend informing me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center, the existence of which I had been, until that moment, blissfully unaware. Westworld forgotten, we watched in excitement as a second plane hit the other tower. When the Pentagon was hit, we were aware that life as we knew it was ending. “More planes!” we cried. We envisaged a hundred, a thousand planes hitting buildings all over the world, bringing the machinery of capitalism to a halt. My delirium for the apocalypse far outweighed any sense of the hideous human toll being extracted.

But there were no more planes. The next morning there was an email from Malzberg, which said, “As far as I can deduce, this story is now saleable.  If life as we are about to know it resumes its stately course (it probably will) I’ll write Pringle and you’ll send it on.” I had known that Malzberg lived in New Jersey, but I hadn’t realised that his house was just three kilometres from Ground Zero. One of his friends, the writer Carter Scholz, had missed the fatal Newark-San Francisco flight by an hour. He later said he had been “sentenced to life.” But like Scholz’ plane, which never ended up leaving the tarmac, so my SF writing career failed to take flight. I never received a reply from Interzone, not even a form rejection letter, and the whole incident eventually faded to a painful memory.

Immediately after 9/11, all the talk in the Old Bailey, the pub I frequented on a Wednesday night for its $4 pints, was of war. Surely America would go to war, and thus Australia. But against who? Malzberg was a steadying influence on me. He had more reason to fret in New Jersey than I did in Perth, but that didn’t stop me from imagining the Bankwest building, just a handful of blocks up William Street from Supernova, collapsing in a hail of concrete and glass. I wondered whether I would survive, cocooned between a layer of Babylon 5 novels and the latest volume in David Weber’s absurdly popular Honor Harrington series.

Working at Supernova was 99% tedium and 1% plain crazy. It took me a few weeks to realise this. In the initial weeks, I spent much of my time dusting the shelves and cleaning the grubby windows, as per Alwyn’s direction. The books never stayed dust-free for long, as there was a constant stream of cars flowing over the Horseshoe Bridge onto William Street, their exhaust fumes settling on the bookshelves and in my lungs. It didn’t take long for inertia to win out.

The 99% tedium is barely worth recalling. A decade on, my memory of those long hours can be boiled down to a single, generalised anecdote. A customer walks in. It’s late afternoon in winter, perhaps four-thirty. The shop assistant smiles inanely, rubbing his bleary eyes, and does not put down his Graham Greene novel nor show any sign of intending to. There’s no one else in the shop. The customer browses without harassment for ten minutes before selecting three popular titles, one of which is a new release hardcover. Our customer will get fifteen cents change from a hundred dollars. During this time, one other customer has been and gone without making a purchase, and the shop assistant has read another chapter of The End of the Affair, which is rather conspicuously not science fiction, fantasy OR horror. Our paying customer makes his offering at the font of commerce, and for this he gets his books taped up in a large paper bag. Despite the minor irritation of having to stop reading for thirty seconds or thereabouts, the shop assistant is making strong progress on the Greene novel and will probably finish it on the train after his shift.

That was my Supernova experience times infinity. I worked there two years, and by the end I wasn’t only reading in the shop (which Alwyn had expressly forbidden, although we were encouraged to take books home to read so that we would become more knowledgeable about the stock), I was listening to AFL football on the radio, much to the annoyance of the customers who thought they had entered a nerdish enclave opposed to mainstream Australian culture, playing X-COM: UFO Defense on my laptop, and generally not being a model employee. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I was caught reading by Alwyn (he had a tendency to pop in when you were otherwise engaged), the job was mine as long as I wanted it and so long as I didn’t ask for a payrise. Alwyn also had a habit of coming in at odd times to collect the previous day’s take, which we were instructed to put, rather predictably, in a paper bag underneath the plastic tray in the till.

The 1% craziness was what made the job interesting. Part of the trouble stemmed from the laundrette on the far side of William Street. Staring out Supernova’s window through the long hours, I came to realise that the kind of people that seemed to cause the most trouble in society were precisely the kind of people who also did not own or did not have ready access to a washing machine. Plenty of washing machine owners cause trouble of their own, of course. I recall a rough Outback character punching walls and harassing people for cigarettes. The tension mounted as the rejections piled up. Finally, to my relief, someone gave him a pack or what was left of one. Going back to my tasks, I was shelving books when he came in and asked, quite politely, whether he could leave his suitcase in the shop overnight. He had nowhere to stay, you see. Terrified, I demurred as gently as I could manage, and the man lugged his suitcase back across the street to the competing Magic Circle bookshop, where I imagined he tried a similar stratagem. More often the crazies weren’t aggressive, simply deranged, like the time a drunken aboriginal crossdresser wanted a plastic bag—two in fact—for his cask of wine, as it was too cumbersome for him to carry. He grinned at me, lipstick smeared all over his face and chin, and asked if I would transfer the wine into the plastic bags, seeing as he was altogether too drunk to perform such a task. Usually people just want change for the parking meter.

For the most part, the customers themselves were far saner. In my mind’s eye a regular customer named Terry claps his hands and parades before me, perusing the new releases. He was a forty year-old kid who wore a baseball cap and a rucksack. Terry was also something of a social Darwinist, proclaiming survival of the fittest as evidenced by characters in the commercial fantasy genre. This went down okay with me, as a less threatening character I could not and still cannot imagine. I encouraged him to talk but he tended to repeat himself in stock phrases like “I’ll see you later my good man” and “it’s all very quiet.” Terry liked something “with a bit of ultra-violence in it” and abhorred the “soppy stuff.”

I remember a rather charming older woman engaging me in conversation regarding Ursula Le Guin and The Dispossessed. “Wouldn’t you like to live there?” she asked, meaning the desert planet Anarres, which was a sort of scarcity utopia. I had to admit that I would like to live “there,” in a word without money, bureaucrats or weapons of mass destruction. She told me that she couldn’t afford to buy new books because she didn’t have a job, and I could sympathise. I rarely bought new books myself, prowling around remainder piles and second-hand bookstores instead. Immediately after she left, a man dumped a tower of Babylon 5 novels in front of me. $341 dollars worth.

Another regular customer, Raylene, was a tall, heavy woman sporting short, curly hair and a snappy demeanour. Gruff, brusque, and sometimes annoying, Raylene was nevertheless one of my favourite customers. She seemed to have a fascination with the lay-by system. When the customer made the appropriate noises, myself or someone like me wrapped the desired books in a paper bag and affixed a piece of paper to the front, upon which the customer’s details were written, along with the amount that had been paid and the amount owing. It was Raylene’s policy not to buy books outright but to add them to a burgeoning lay-by pile, from which she would select one like a gourmand, leaving the rest to simmer for a few more weeks.

Alwyn himself was simpler, or so he seemed to me. As far as I could discern, he had no interest in the books he sold. Still, he knew what the punters wanted and he supplied it to them. His business model relied largely on American imports. Thus, when the exchange rate between the US and Aussie dollars reached a 2:1 ratio, the prices went up. Way up. A new release American hardcover was normally priced at $60 or even $65, and yet they sold. Honor Harrington, Anita Blake and Harry Potter sold like the proverbial hotcakes at these prices. Had Alwyn lived long enough, the internet and the strengthening Aussie dollar would have decimated his business. Amazon would have beaten Supernova to within an inch of its life, and Book Depository would have danced on its grave. But it never came to that. Six months or so before I quit Supernova, Alwyn went on holiday to New Zealand. When I asked him why New Zealand specifically, he said that he wanted to see it before he died.

It was virtually impossible to get fired from Supernova. Probably theft would have done it, but I never sank that low. I found out just how far Alwyn could be pushed late one Friday night. It was winter, and I was in the habit of leaving my suede jacket and other possessions in the shop and returning for them when I was ready to catch the train home. The only problem was that, after six pints of Beck’s on an empty stomach, I was in no condition to go anywhere when I returned for my jacket at around 11pm. I thought I’d lie down on the carpet in the dark for a while. I had half an hour until the 11.30 train anyway. But 11.30 came and went without me being able to raise my head, and I would have missed the midnight train as well had fate not intervened.

To my everlasting horror, the door opened and in stepped Alwyn to collect the day’s take. I had no idea he would leave it so late in the evening. He stood over me, surprised but not angry. “Are you on drugs?” he said. I looked up at him from the floor, and replied, “I’m just pissed, that’s all.” This was the impetus I needed to get to my feet. I was barely able to navigate the traffic on Wellington Street without becoming a statistic. Like Frogger, my chances were slim. I collapsed in a heap at the foot of the Horseshoe Bridge, where I vomited on my expensive suede jacket. Somehow I made the midnight train. To his credit, Alwyn never reminded me of this shameful incident. For all I know, he might have taken it to his grave. Had I not been in the habit of retelling this anecdote to anyone who would listen, no one might have ever known.

The last time I saw Alwyn I was paying off a lay-by of my own, a deluxe edition of Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen I had asked him to order in specially. He seemed untroubled my by decision to quit. I walked out with the Vandermeer and my thoughts, leaving him to his tiny shop and the layers of dust. A few months later, Alwyn was dead.

Supernova outlived its founder, but not by much. My replacement was a guy named Tim. He ran the store for a while after Alwyn’s death before setting up his own SF bookstore, White Dwarf Books, in the adjacent shop. I saw Tim at Swancon recently but I don’t think he remembers me. For a while, Supernova lay empty. Last I saw it, the shop had been converted into a Crazy Teez outlet, the memory of the business that had thrived there for so many years all but erased.

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  1. Anthony
    December 4, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Poignant post in many ways. Makes me feel nostalgic. Always wondered what happened to Alwyn (didn’t even know his name). Regular haunt during my young teens.

    Thanks for this, Guy!

  2. December 18, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Very nostalgic. Alex did a much better job attempting to get fired, vomiting his hangovers into that little sink out the back.

  1. December 2, 2013 at 8:26 am

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