7 Great Novels Set in Bookshops To Inspire a Book Shopping Spree

7 Great Novels Set in Bookshops To Inspire a Book Shopping Spree

Monday, 31 July, 2023

If your favorite place is idle away an afternoon is an indie bookshop — with pleasingly stuffed shelves and well-read, helpful (maybe quirky) booksellers — you’ll love these stories.

These seven novels feature bookshops as a catalyst for the action. There are adventure stories and romance, betrayals and heartbreak, the rustle of pages, the smell of ink, and so many stories well-told. Basically, all the stuff that makes bookshops great.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Bookshops: Mostly Paper and Magic.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

This is an exuberant story of a secret society, code-breaking, friendship, young love, new technology, and, perhaps, the secret to eternal life — all told through the people circling through an unconventional bookshop in San Francisco. Our hero Clay, a victim of San Francisco’s tech implosion, somewhat reluctantly takes a job in the bookstore of the title to lick his career wounds and begin to rebuild his life.

But it’s not long before he realizes there’s something unusual going on in the stacks of the shop. It seems to be more a lending library, with quirky customers appearing at all hours of the day and night. Plus, kindly Mr. Penumbra is keeping troubling and potentially lethal secrets. When he disappears, it’s up to Clay to figure out just what the devil is going on.

Author Robin Sloan’s prose captures the energy of both San Francisco and New York City, as well as the sinister allure of a secret library. Delivering plenty of big ideas to chew on while it takes us for a thrilling ride, this novel is an ode to books and bookishness, friends and loyalty, and the legacy we leave behind when we write our own stories. We also love the audiobook. {more}

Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this: 1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley. 2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it — those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches. 3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.) 4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific. 5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. — Robin Sloan


The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s 1945 in Barcelona. The furor of the war years has diminished, but the city is still healing from its wounds. Shadowy and somewhat sinister, but not without hope, the city is home to a young boy, a good-natured family friend, a troubled author, and a mysterious book — all caught in a web of intrigue together.

When Daniel awakens on his eleventh birthday and can’t remember his mother’s face, his father — the purveyor of fine books in the family’s shop Sempere & Sons — takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine collection of books left behind by the rest of the world. The books on the spiraling shelves wait for someone to care about them again. When Daniel carefully pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf, he unknowingly sets in motion an adventure that will change the lives of everyone he knows.

At the heart of that story is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the magical, sinister place where the real story begins and ends. It’s a celebration of literature and what stories mean to us. How they help us cope, understand the world, and find the truth of ourselves. {more}

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Sentence - Louise Erdrich

The Sentence
> Louise Erdrich

There’s a fantastic bookshop at the center of this story. A bookshop that’s loved fiercely and tinged with magic. But even that cannot prevent real life from intruding in significant ways. This is not your sweet, cozy bookshop story.

Our heroine and narrator is Tookie, a middle-aged Ojibwe woman. Her story begins when she helps a friend move a dead body across state lines. It’s a colossally bad idea, and the scene is very, very funny. As you might expect, Tookie gets caught.

Although she’s sentenced to 60 years in prison by the ‘lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife,’ a good lawyer negotiates her early release. Given that books helped her survive her incarceration, she takes a job at a small Native American bookstore in Minneapolis (modeled on the real-life Birchbark Books, owned by the author Louise Erdrich, who is a supporting character in this story).

As Tookie fumbles through her days, we get to know her, the store staff, her lovable husband, and a handful of quirky customers, including a ghost named Flora. Literature has a long history of grappling with the nature of haunting, trying to discern if it’s of a supernatural or emotional variety. This gorgeous, affecting book has both. {more}

Dissatisfaction is a hunched, sinewy, doggedly athletic Black man in his seventies. We see him running slowly around the lake and yet when he enters the store his tracksuit is immaculate. Today he wore the navy blue one with orange stripes, plus a black parka over the thin jacket… ‘What’s new?’ He stood in the entryway, glaring, belligerent. I glared back at him, furious that he’d interrupted my communication with Flora. Beat it! I’m talking to a dead customer! But I didn’t say that. I relented. By way of the fact he was impossible to please, Dissatisfaction was one of my favorite customers. — Louise Erdrich

Booked to Die - John Dunning

Booked to Die
> John Dunning

If you love crime novels and you love books — the smell, the sound, the acquisition, the very essence of books — then you’ll love the backlist, book-infused Cliff Janeway series. Let’s call it Bookshop Noir.

This novel, the first in the series, is set in the early 1990s and begins with an education on book scouts, the people who trowel through thrift stores and garage sales hunting for books to resell to book dealers. Unsurprisingly, it can be a fairly bleak and lonely life.

Our hero and narrator is Detective Cliff Janeway. He’s everything you might want in your 90s-era rumpled middle-aged cop. He’s a good man, and it’s easy to imagine him at the scene of the crime, gun under his coat, police lights swirling in the dark. He’s got a code, and it definitely gets in the way. He’s also got a temper, but he’s usually charming. You’re pretty sure he’s going to get played by someone, and he does.

This case — the murder of the bookseller named Bobby — takes Janeway deep into the world of antiquarian booksellers. As he follows the leads in his investigation, he runs into a slew of different book dealers with quirks, tics, and secrets, including Rita, the ice lady, a mysterious and beautiful appointment-only bookseller who doesn’t have time for idle shop chit-chat — a perfect foil for our daring hero. {more}

Book dealers are like everyone else: they come in all sizes and shapes and have the same hangups that you see in a squad room or on an assembly line. If you picture a wizened academic with thick spectacles, forget it. Once they get in the business, they have little time to read. They are usually a cut or two smarter than the average Joe. I’ve never met a stupid book dealer who was able to make it pay. Some of them, though, are definitely crazy. There are a few horse’s asses, a few sow’s ears, but today’s bookseller is just as likely to be an ex-hippie ex-boozer ex-junkie streetfighter like Ruby Seals. — John Dunning

Bloomsbury Girls - Natalie Jenner

Bloomsbury Girls
> Natalie Jenner

For 100 years, Bloomsbury Books has been correct. Dignified. Some might call it old-fashioned. But not the stodgy men who run the place. They know just how things should be done — and that is the way they have always been done.

The general manager Mr. Herbert Dutton has written a list of 51 rules that are strictly enforced. For example, Rule No. 17: ‘Tea shall be served promptly four times a day.’ There are also regulations about the observance of working hours, fraternizing between staff members, and the tenor of customer interactions.

Working inside this old boy’s club are three strong-willed women — Grace, Vivien, and Evie — who could tidily manage Bloomsbury Books if only Mr. Herbert Dutton and the other department heads would get out of their way.

Given this setup, you might expect a sweet trifle about an idealized shop in a twee version of London, all quirky characters and charming conversation. But this story has sharp teeth. Bloomsbury evolves as Grace, Vivien, and Evie assert themselves and wreak havoc on the leather-and-scotch status quo. Along the way, there’s a literary mystery and all manner of romances and sexual escapades, as well as satisfying scenes in which characters get their long-overdue comeuppance. And, because it’s 1950, there’s also racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia which is balanced out by forward-thinking characters and lots of talk about books and writing.

The audiobook version narrated by British actress Juliet Stevenson is excellent. She’s particularly adept with accents and does a brilliant job giving individual voice to each character. {more}

The entire neighborhood was full of spies. Grace and Vivient were not the only two bookstore employees out and about, checking on other stores’ window displays. London was starting to boom again, after five long years of post-war rationing and recovery, and new bookshops were popping up all over. Bloomsbury was home to the British Museum, the University of London, and many famous authors past and present, including the pre-war circle of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey. This made the district a particularly ideal location for readers, authors, and customers alike. — Natalie Jenner

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues - Nova Jacobs

This literary thriller set in modern Los Angeles features an eccentric family, a secret organization, a just-released felon, a struggling bookstore, a powerful mathematical equation, and death by Christmas lights.

The story opens with the death of famed mathematician Isaac Severy. He was elderly but healthy. So his death — brought on by the untimely introduction of Christmas light string to hot tub water — was made all the more tragic by its suddenness. Mysteriously, he had set a nearby table with breakfast things for two people, a breakfast never to be eaten.

Isaac was the patriarch of a large family comprised of other geniuses, kooks, and a few ne’er-do-wells. They’ve all gathered for his funeral: We meet his adult children and their spouses, his grandchildren, family friends — and Hazel, his adopted granddaughter and heroine of the story.

Although Isaac’s death has been ruled a suicide by the police, there is a possibility, perhaps, that he has been murdered.

While Hazel searches for the truth, she learns more than she should about her family members’ secrets: covert love affairs, hidden identities, math that might predict the future, a clandestine hotel room, betrayals, and another mysterious death. {more}

My Dear Hazel. My time is over. This fact has become as clear to me as the crescent moon setting outside my study window as I write this. I wish I could dodge my assassin, I wish I could flee to the Cote d’Azure or somewhere equally beautiful. But our killers find us all, so why flail so desperately? Hazel, I am counting on you to carry out an unpleasant request. I would do it myself were I not being followed. Know that I am of sound mind when I ask that you destroy my work in Room 137. Burn. Smash. Reformat the hard drives. I cannot get into why, only that you must do this quickly. Before others find it. The equation itself you must keep. (I leave it with the family member they would least suspect.) Deliver the equation to one man only: John Raspanti. His favorite pattern is herringbone. Important: 1. Do not stay in or visit the house past the end of October. Three will die. I am the first. 2. Do not share this with anyone. Do not contact police, even those related to you. Nothing can be done about the above. 3. Once you have committed this letter to memory, destroy it. Shore up your courage, my dear. Eternally, Isaac — Nova Jacobs

Dreamland - Nancy Bilyeau

> Nancy Bilyeau

The heroine of this historical mystery is 20-year-old Peggy Batternburg. Sure, she’s the heiress to a robber baron family and the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest men in America. But all she wants is to work at her beloved Moonrise Bookstore in Manhattan.

But her terribly rich, and generally terrible, family has other plans.

Peggy’s sister Lydia has been engaged to her wealthy beau for far too long; that relationship needs to be locked down. The family’s master plan is to decamp to the posh Oriental Hotel on Manhattan Beach for the summer with all hands on deck, including Peggy. The two families will sun and swim and dine together. They’ll form familial bonds, the fiancé will swoon, and a wedding date will be set. Lydia’s future, and the legacy of the Batternburg family, will be secured.

What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. Starting with a serial killer that’s terrorizing Manhattan Beach. On Peggy’s arrival, she practically stumbles on the first victim, a young girl found strangled under a pier.

Although Peggy doesn’t set out to be an amateur sleuth, she’s soon caught up in the crime. She also falls spectacularly in love, defies her family, tangles with the police, and mingles with Coney Island’s underworld all while muddling her way to solving the mystery and coming into her own as a modern woman. {more}

When I was twenty years old, I went to work every day at Moonrise Bookstore, a cramped two-floor shop on East Thirty-Ninth Street, and I was happy… The main floor was for the customers, as well as the novelists, poets, artists, editors, and illustrators who made their way to the shop. Moonrise Bookstore might have been a complete secret to the overwhelming number of people who lived in New York City, but it was a beacon for the select few set afire by new and contrary ideas. — Nova Jacobs

Top image courtesy of Ksenia Chernaya/Pexels.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

What's better than a charming indie bookshop with a cozy café next door? A bookshop with a café right inside. Or a café that sells a few carefully curated books. We love bookshops and cafés, is what we're saying.
Sometimes the real-life characters that populate a bookshop are as compelling as the fictional ones found in books stacked on the shop shelves. This poem stars a bookseller we would love to meet IRL or in a novel.
If you love books and bookshops, what's better than novels _about_ books _set in bookshops_?! These stories feature unforgettable characters who spend their days among the shelves of bookshops you will want to visit.
Forget the hard sell. A few key phrases will probably prove this delightful adventure is right for you: 24-hour bookstore. Mysterious library. Secret society. Loyal friendship. Flirty romance. Extreme bookishness.
Pssst... how'd you like to sleep INSIDE a bookshelf?! That's exactly what you'll get to do at Book and Bed Tokyo, a collection of six hostels devoted to reading (and a little bit of sleeping).
The Brattle Book Shop has been in business since 1825, and today, the unassuming three-story brick building is packed with more than 250,000 used books, maps, prints, postcards, and other paper collectibles.
The Waterstones in Bradford, England is a cathedral of books. You can browse the stacks of carefully curated books under soaring ceilings and stained glass windows, then enjoy a cuppa in the balcony café.
If you're looking for a zine about awesome pizza, indie magazines, or a Q&A with your favorite graphic novelist, Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago is your kind of place. Fulfilling all your weird book needs since 1991.
Daunt Books Marylebone is like Strong Sense of Place became sentient and took up residence in an Edwardian bookshop. Its collection of curated books, stained glass window, reading nooks make it a must-visit bookshop.
Typewronger Books in Edinburgh is the bookish retreat of our dreams: a cozy shop that only has the good stuff with a literary magician behind the counter. He looks into your soul and gives you the right book.
It's a readers' paradise: buttery scones and shortbread and tea, a windy landscape with the scent of the sea, and bookshops. Oh, the bookshops! Every genre, new and used, and a bookstore cat. What else could you need?
Bookshop.org is a new online book retailer that shares its revenue with local, independent bookstores. It's bridging the significant gap between online sales and the neighborhood bookshop (you love) down the street.
One of our favorite ways to mingle with locals in new-to-us cities is among the shelves of a neighborhood bookshop — it's even better when they include English-language books. These two in Stockholm are must-visits.
One of the treats of travel is browsing the shelves of a bookstore in a far-flung locale. It feels both completely foreign and blessedly familiar all at once. Add Atlantis Books on Santorini to your must-visit list.
What makes an already fantastic place even better? A bookshop, of course. And when it's a lovingly preserved historic shop with a friendly bookseller (in tweed) with stunning views out the windows, we're all in.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.