As a kid, my favorite bookstore was a small place tucked away in the corner of a typical retail space in Riverside, CA. It was called “Imagine That,” and I would regularly beg and plead my parents to set me loose in it. I was a voracious reader from a young age and could be relied upon to devour books whole over the course of a single afternoon. My parents probably figured there were worse things to be addicted to and were only too happy to fan those literary flames, so I ended up at “Imagine That” fairly often and public libraries took care of any interstitial weeks — I didn’t get that much allowance). To this day, I can recall what it felt like to pass through the entryway: a heady admixture of accomplishment (for the books I had finished that furnished the reason for my return), excitement (for the yet-to-be-discovered stories waiting inside), and reassurance (that there still were and always would be more books to read, more worlds to discover).
The opening pages of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore contain a paean to just that sort of feeling:
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The titular store is found in San Francisco and is discovered by our protagonist Clay Jannon while he’s wandering around town looking for “Help Wanted” signs. After speaking with Mr. Penumbra himself and passing the cursory job interview with flying colors, Clay begins working the night shift. While there are shorter shelves up front that offer typical bestseller/literature/genre books for sale like any other bookstore, the massive shelves in the back actually comprise the Waybacklist, a lending library for various curious characters who wander in throughout Clay’s night shifts. When he starts trying to figure out what these books are actually for (along with who the people requesting them are), the pageturner of a plot really takes off.
Sloan smartly situates the bookstore in San Francisco, as it allows him to effortlessly juxtapose the musty old books in Mr. Penumbra’s with the sparkling digital world of Silicon Valley. Various characters in the novel function as emissaries from the two initially disparate worlds. On the modern technological side, there’s Clay’s friend, Kat, who works in data visualization for Google. Also Neel, a childhood friend of Clay’s who used to nerd out on fantasy books with him and still answers to his RPG character’s name, and now owns a successful digital effects studio. On the more archaic side are people like Clay’s bookstore clerk compatriot Oliver (working on a doctorate in archaeology) and, of course, the mysterious Mr. Penumbra himself (whose image in my head occupied various points on the spectrum between Gandalf and Mad Men’s Bert Cooper over the course of the story). It might have been easy to have these worlds and their representatives clash in order to generate predictable conflict, but what Sloan accomplishes is a bit more intricate.
Clay becomes the fulcrum that these two worlds are able to balance on, the conduit through which they are able to communicate with each other in pursuit of answers to the various puzzles set up throughout the story. In so doing, Sloan sets the table for a measured consideration of the assumptions behind the supposed archaic-modern technological divide, especially as concerns books. At various points, I found myself taking stock of my own unconscious assumptions about the value and utility of books and ebooks, bindings and ereaders. Working for a bookstore myself these past six years, I have often found it too easy to slip into facile reveries of “the old days,” before the bookselling industry was upended by various devices whose popularity was rivaled only by their convenience when it came to finding and purchasing ebooks. Were all physical bookstores going to die the death of a thousand (well, more like a hundred million) downloads? In the novel, Jad, one of Google’s employees, puts it this way when he meets Clay:
“Not a Googler,” I confess. “I work at an old bookstore.”
“Oh, cool,” Jad says. Then he darkens: “Except, I mean. Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“Well. For putting you guys out of business.” He says it very matter-of-factly.
“Wait, which guys?”
Jad continues, “I mean, once we’ve got everything scanned, and cheap reading devices are ubiquitous…nobody’s going to need bookstores, right?”
While various Jads were sounding the bookstore’s death knell when those first ereader sales numbers came out and kept climbing over the following months and years, it hasn’t happened quite as universally as originally predicted. Upon consideration, I find that my initial anti-ebook posturing has also died down (and can admit that my reflexive “real books just smell better” argument was never all that compelling to begin with). The bookstore I work for has managed to survive, and just recently began selling a few ereading devices on which to read the ebooks marketed on our website, right alongside our new and used books. Maybe both sides on this presumed book/ebook battlefield have benefited from a closer look at their own unique pros and cons? At any rate, the discussion has become more nuanced for me than it was in those early alarmist days.
A similar process occurs for the characters in the novel, as Clay enlists his various friends’ and associates’ help in discovering the hidden messages of the books in Mr. Penumbra’s store. Decoding sessions at Google headquarters are carried out by technological whiz kids making use of their company’s vast processing power, but are given advice and direction by those who have pored over the various tomes in the bookstore for decades and have never owned a cell phone. A hidden, subterranean library containing centuries’ worth of moldering, handwritten codices has its contents scanned and converted into text files, the better to divine their secrets via CPUs. By having Clay serve as a go-between for the digital-analog divide (and a winning one, at that), Sloan makes a compelling case for cooperation as the only way to utilize all these technologies to their full potential. His protagonist effectively dissolves the assumed antagonism between the old and the new, to the benefit of all involved. That Sloan is able to juggle these ideas while keeping the plot compelling, the puzzles intriguing and the characters believable (and often hilarious) is no mean feat.
I also appreciated the chance that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore gave me to dwell on the question of what it is physical bookstores still provide me that can never be replicated by electronic equivalents. I think it has to be the quality of the space itself, that particular vertiginous feeling I get when surrounded by humanity’s endless stories and ideas. When Clay walked into Penumbra’s store in those opening pages and marveled at its shelves rising into the dimly lit stratosphere, I knew exactly how he felt and turned the page feeling that old exhilaration well up in me once more. A novel that can conjure up this authentically reverential feeling while also exuding excitement for future reading technologies and possibilities is a rare beast indeed, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.