This is a transcription of Episode 48 — Bookshops: Mostly Paper and Magic.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about bookshops. If you are listening to this on the day we released it, Happy World Storytelling Day. Mel’s going to tell you more about that in a little bit. Coming up in Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you about a bookstore-related medical phenomena.
David: Yep. Maybe you or someone you love suffers from it. We’ll get to that in a bit. And then we’re going to talk about five books we love.
Melissa: I’ve got a historical novel about a bookshop in London just after World War Two, and the women who work there have moxie.
David: Moxie, you say. I love a woman with moxie. I’ve got a police procedural where the cop angrily quits the force and starts up a bookstore.
Melissa: That’ll show him.
David: Yeah. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to date with the Bookshop 101.
Melissa: We usually start with orientation, so I’ll cover the basics, I guess.
Melissa: A bookshop is a store that sells books.
Melissa: I know.
David: I’ve been making them myself all along.
Melissa: It’s staffed by booksellers who seem to have a preternatural ability to put just the right book in your hands. A bookshop is a very special, magical place that can be found all over the world. People have been selling books since about 300 BCE. So right around the time of the Library of Alexandria.
David: They weren’t books then, though, were they?
Melissa: They were a more scroll like shape.
David: Go to the scroll shop!
Melissa: Then during the latter part of the Roman Empire, all of the best homes included a personal library. So booksellers then had a booming trade. Back then, the shops would post a list of the books they sold on their doors. The kind of store we think of now when someone says bookshop was initially tied really closely to printing. The first booksellers were also editors and printers who made the books, then sold them.
David: Oh my goodness.
Melissa: Eventually, those specialties split apart. Publishers worked directly with authors to produce the books, and then booksellers got them into the hands of readers. The oldest bookshop in the world, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, is the Bertrand Bookstore in Lisbon, Portugal. It opened almost 300 years ago in 1732, and it’s still going strong. The outside of the building has this groovy art deco sign that spells out its name, and the facade is covered in the blue and white tiles that you see all around Portugal. Inside there are dark wooden shelves and arched doorways, leading from one little room to the other and vaulted ceilings. And they sell all kinds of books. Their café serves Portuguese custard tarts called Pasteis de Nata.
David: That sounds delightful.
Melissa: Right? Why aren’t we in Lisbon right now?
David: It’s a good question. It deserves to be asked.
Melissa: So researching the oldest bookshop in the world got me thinking about other superlatives, and I thought I would do my own kind of bookshop awards to introduce everyone to cool bookshops around the world.
David: All right.
Melissa: First up, the best bookshop in paradise. There’s a pair of posh resorts in the Maldive Islands that include a bookshop for their guests.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: So just imagine perfect turquoise blue water, brilliant white sand beaches, thatched huts that sit right on the water. And then an open air bookshop where you can pick out the perfect read for your time in the hammock.
David: That sounds lovely.
Melissa: Every year, the resort hires new barefoot booksellers, so they get applications from all over the world. And in exchange for selling books and hosting events at the shop, the lucky bookseller gets accommodations, meals, and a salary. And they keep a blog. The current bookseller is named Melissa. It is not me.
David: Maybe it is you. Just the multidimensional you.
Melissa: Oh, in the multiverse I’m a barefoot bookseller. Oh, fantastic. Yeah. At the other end of the spectrum, my award for the spookiest bookshop goes to Butcher Cabin Books in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s new. It opened last October in time for Halloween, which is appropriate because it specializes in horror books for adults and kids.
David: Yeah. I remember seeing the pictures online of a bookstore with, like, it’s got blood red dripping down the outside of it.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really cute. It’s owned by Jenny Kiefer and her mom. How fun is that? Jenny is also an author, and her first novel is coming out in 2024. It’s called That Wretched Valley. It’s about four campers in the Kentucky woods who run into ghostly happenings. I want to visit her shop, not only for the books, but also for the decor. Because in addition to the outside looking very murdery, inside, it looks like a rec room from a 1980s slasher movie.
David: Oh, that’s great.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really cute.
David: It’s really fun.
Melissa: For something more welcoming. There’s typewriter books in Edinburgh, Scotland.
David: Close to my heart.
Melissa: That is the bookshop most likely to offer you a mince pie. [laughter] Which is exactly what happened to me when we visited a few years ago. It was almost Christmas time, but the weather was not merry at all. It was dumping rain and it was really windy and cold and we kind of straggled through the shop door like ragamuffins dripping water onto the ground.
David: Scotland was kind of doing its thing that day.
Melissa: And Tom, the owner, Tom Hodges, he looked up from whatever he was doing at his desk and smiled and said, Would you like a mince pie? while holding out a plate of miniature mince pies. Best welcome to a bookshop ever.
David: Yeah. And then we got to be friends with Tom. I interviewed him for our Scotland episode, and we are subscribers to his book delivery service, which is fantastic.
Melissa: Yeah, I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to the books that he’s picked out for me based on my interests. It’s really fun. He says that Typewronger is the smallest bookshop in Edinburgh, but to me it has the biggest heart and the best taste in books. He is very careful about what he chooses to put on his shelves. He also repairs vintage typewriters and hosts author events and open mic nights. They have zine-making workshops. He’s really made his little shop the hub of reading and writing life in Edinburgh.
Melissa: Finally, also in Scotland, the bookshop that can make your dreams of owning a bookshop come true. It’s the Open Book in Wigtown. Wigton is a village in the southwest corner of Scotland. It sits right on Wigton Bay, so there’s like a nice briny breeze blowing in town all the time. And it’s Scotland’s National Booktown. There’s a grassy green in the center of the village, and it’s bordered by about a dozen bookshops. Every year, the town hosts the Wigtown Book Festival, which is ten days of celebrating books, authors, and reading. Wigtown is also home to the shop called Open Book. It’s a used bookshop that’s also an Airbnb. So for a week or two, you can run the bookshop downstairs and live in the flat upstairs.
David: It’s true. We did it.
Melissa: We did. In December 2018, we invited friends to join us, and we all packed ourselves off to Scotland. It was really fun to be the bookshop boss without worrying about covering boring things like rent or managing employees. We just got to make little book displays. The bookshop hours are very flexible, and the people who live in Wigton year round do a lot to make temporary booksellers feel welcome. There are scones and bacon sarnies at the local cafés. You can tour the other bookshops and take a walk by the water or into the woods. You will probably be visited by the legendary shortbread lady.
Melissa: Do you remember when the shortbread lady came? She brought us freshly baked homemade shortbread into the shop.
David: Yeah. And we were told she was going to come and — oh, was very excited about that. And then she showed up.
Melissa: Anticipation was very high for a few days. And finally, you might be taken on a field trip to the nearby ruins of Baldoon Castle, where you’ll learn the story of the real person behind Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor. Running the bookshop is also a great excuse to see more of Scotland.
David: It’s also a great excuse to get together a bunch of people and just move into town with your little crew for a few days.
Melissa: And read and —
David: Talk about books. Yeah, great.
Melissa: If you want to run the open book yourself, you’ll need to join the waiting list. It’s currently booked up until January 2025. However, everyone is welcome at the book festival, and this year the festival runs from September 22nd through October 1st. When we went to Wigtown, our friend Anne Bogel, from What Should I Read Next?, was part of our little book crew. And she snagged a really great interview with one of the full time Wigtown booksellers. So I’ll put links for all of the bookshops I’ve mentioned and that interview in the show notes.
David: Ruth! Ruth had just bought the bookstore two doors down and was moving in. A lovely lady. Really pleasant.
Melissa: Really good taste in books. And she used to be a barrister. Yeah. Like, seriously, you need to listen to this interview with her. It’s amazing. Yeah.
Melissa: As Dave mentioned at the top of the show, today is World Storytelling Day. It’s a celebration of oral storytelling all around the world. I think we can agree that any day is an excellent day to read a story out loud to someone you love. But it’s a particularly good idea today. You might also want to swing by your favorite bookshop to buy a book to read to your favorite person or to yourself.
Melissa: Maybe those are the same thing.
Melissa: We’ll put some links in our show notes to good stories to read out loud. Happy World Storytelling Day!
David: I also want to say, if you are an adult and somebody has not read a children’s book to you for a while, give it a try. It is really delightful to sit and have somebody read a story to you. And children’s books, of course, are short and cute and really nice. And you can get a cup of coffee or a cup of tea or a cup of hot cocoa and sit there and have somebody just read you a little bit of a story. And it’s really lovely.
Melissa: I like to read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day when I’m in a grumpy mood because it in no way tries to talk you out of your grumpy mood. It’s true. Some days are just like that.
David: Yep. My favorite is Hug Machine. I like Hug Machine. There’s a line. There’s a persistent line in that book that says I am the Hug Machine. And the secret to that book is to read that line as if you’re Muhammad Ali. I am the Hug Machine.
Melissa: I can attest that having Dave read you the hug machine is one of life’s awesome experiences. Happy World Storytelling Day.
Melissa: Yeah, Happy World Storytelling Day.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I am.
David: Okay. I’m going to read three statements. Two of these are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here we go. First statement. After entering a bookstore, some people feel the overwhelming need to poop. The phenomena is called —
Melissa: You said poop on our show!
David: The phenomena is called Readers’ Digestion.
Melissa: No it’s not. [laughter]
David: Two: There’s a bookstore in Japan that sells one book a week. And three: a poet sold one copy of one book in a used bookstore in Pasadena, California, and it made him a small fortune. So from the top. First statement: After entering a bookstore, some people feel the overwhelming need to poop. The phenomena is called Readers’ Digestion.
Melissa: That can’t be true. Reader’s Digestion?
David: Yeah. Okay. Made that one up. [laughter] The phenomena is real, but that’s not what they call it. So, back in 1985, a woman named Mariko Aoki wrote into a book magazine in Japan, and she said that when she’s in a bookstore, she will inevitably have to go to the bathroom. They published that because they thought it was interesting and maybe a little funny. And then they got responses. Like, hundreds of responses, and they named it the Mariko Aoki Phenomenon. It has gone on to be a thing. There are dozens of articles. There’s a lengthy Wikipedia article. Some doctors have studied it. At least one doctor in Texas said that he’s had people come to see him about their Mariko Aoki Phenomena. Nobody knows why it’s happened. Some people say it’s a myth. But it’s a thing.
Melissa: I wonder how she felt about having this phenomenon named after her.
David: She has been repeatedly asked that, and she has said that she is fine with it.
David: Yep. But it does remind me of an old joke. There’s an old joke. A man goes to a doctor’s to pick up his test results and the doctor says, Well, I have good news and I have bad news. And the patient says, What’s the good news? And the doctor says they’re going to name a disease after you.
Melissa: That is such a dad joke. [laughter]
David: Yeah. Statement two: There’s a bookstore that sells one book a week, and we’ve revealed the lie. So we know that’s true.
Melissa: One title or one book?
David: One title. Yep. There’s a bookstore in Tokyo that stocks one and only one title every week. He sells multiple copies of that title, but the display of the store is centered around a single title.
Melissa: That’s kind of cool.
Melissa: That’s like a food truck that serves you one thing. And you know it’s going to be really good.
David: Yeah. The store is called Morioka Shoten. Morioka is the name of the owner. Shoten is Japanese for bookstore. On the window, it says, A single room with a single book.
Melissa: Oh, love that.
David: Isn’t that great? Yeah. Every week, the store becomes a celebration of one title, so Morioka might sell a book on flowers and then have the flowers in that book in the store. He frequently has the author or the editors in person. He seems to do a lot of art titles, complete with prints of the work on hand. But he’s also stocked mysteries and children’s books and manga. The owner describes his store as an exhibition derived from a single book.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: Isn’t that awesome?
Melissa: I love that so much. Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of in the spirit of Strong Sense of Place. Yeah.
David: Yeah, it really is.
Melissa: We need to go visit him. Yeah.
David: Yeah, he. He’s been quoted as saying. I have a feeling that I’m inviting people into the books I sell. Which is really nice. Okay. Third statement. Also true. A poet once sold one copy of one book in a used bookstore in Pasadena, and it made him a small fortune.
Melissa: I feel like there’s a story behind this story.
David: So Wyn Cooper was a graduate student, when he published a short book of poetry called The Country of Here Below. He printed 500 copies of it. This was in 1987. Someone had a copy and got rid of it at a bookstore in Pasadena called Cliff’s Books. I have a little side story. Cliff’s Books was owned by Cliff Gildart, a former probation officer. He said that he opened it because he believed that literacy can change people’s lives.
Melissa: Right on.
David: If a person can’t read, he said, he is more likely to pull the trigger. Cliff’s was open for 27 years, but closed down about ten years ago, and we are all the worse for it. But back to the book. So Cooper wrote The Country of Here Below and went on to be a teacher and a poet. Seven years passed. One of the copies of that book sat waiting in Cliff’s until a music producer came through. He had been in a studio working with an unknown singer songwriter. She had a tune, but the lyrics weren’t working. He bought Cooper’s book and he took it back to the studio. I’m going to read you the poem that was adapted into the song. I’m going to read it to you for three reasons. First, it’s a good poem. Second, I think you’ll recognize the song. And third, I think it’s amazing what the artist did with the poem, both from what they took and what they left out and how they sort of changed the tone a little bit by doing the things that they did. So this is a poem called ‘Fun’ by Wyn Cooper.
apropos of nothing.
And I wonder if he’s ever had fun in his life.
like Billy and me.
From his bottles of Bud and shred them on the bar.
Before blowing and cursing them out.
smiling like idiots.
The bartender looks up from his want-ads.
David: Isn’t that amazing?
Melissa: That is awesome.
David: So if you didn’t recognize it, that poem went on to be Sheryl Crow’s ‘All I Want to Do.’ It launched her career. She would go on to sell 50 million albums and win nine Grammys. That would all start with All I Want to Do, which won a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1995. And Cooper made enough off of that to leave teaching. He went on to become a songwriter and a poet and a novelist. His latest just came out last year. It’s a thriller called Way Out West. It’s about a couple making a B movie in Nevada, and he’ll be reading a part of it at the Newburyport Literary Festival in April.
Melissa: What a great story.
David: Isn’t that nice? Yeah. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Of course I want to talk about books. I’m coming out swinging with my first book.
David: Oh, all right.
Melissa: It’s The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. There is a fantastic bookshop at the centre of this story, and it’s a bookshop that’s loved fiercely. It’s a safe space tinged with magic. But that doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t intrude in significant ways. This is not your sweet, cozy bookshop story.
David: So is this a bookstore of menace?
Melissa: It is not a bookstore of menace but the outside world infiltrates the space.
David: You have my curiosity.
Melissa: Before I get into the book, I want to talk about its author. Louise Erdrich is Native American. Her dad was German-American and her mom was half Ojibwe and half French. So Louise is a member of the Anishinaabe Nation. She writes poetry, fiction, essays, children’s books, and most of her stories deal with issues of social justice. But she explores those things through her characters and uses the social issues to build tension. There is no axe grinding here. You are caught up in the story that she’s telling.
Melissa: Her novel, The Night Watchman, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021.
David: Oh, so she knows what she’s doing.
Melissa: She does. And if she only did that, that would be more than enough. But she also owns an awesome bookshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s called Birchbark Books. All of the staff is either of native background or, as their website says, native friendly. We unfortunately have never been to Birchbark Books.
Melissa: Which is too bad because there was a time we were going to Minneapolis fairly regularly.
Melissa: But I looked at photos online and it’s pretty much the ideal for a bookshop. There’s lots of natural wood and really nice light. A handmade canoe hangs from the ceiling.
David: Oh, that’s cool.
Melissa: There are chairs and rugs here and there, and there’s a Gothic style confessional booth that you can go into for a sit and absolution.
David: I was hoping that you would sit on one side and the bookseller would sit on the other and you would say, Here’s what I’m going through. And the bookseller would hand you a book.
Melissa: I mean, I suppose you could get them to do that.
David: That would be great.
Melissa: Which brings me to the book. Our heroine and narrator is Tookie. She’s a middle aged Ojibwe woman. 15 years ago, she was sent to prison for her involvement in a body snatching caper.
Melissa: The book opens with the experience of her helping transport a body across state lines. It is such a bad idea, and it’s really funny.
David: So you don’t get grave robbing played for humor very often.
Melissa: It’s pretty dark humor, but it is funny. So Tookie got caught. And she was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Melissa: But a good lawyer got her out early. And given that books helped her through her incarceration, she gets a job at a bookstore. A small Native American bookstore in Minneapolis owned by a woman named Louise.
David: [laughter]Yes. Yeah.
Melissa: The real bookshop is the heart of this novel. Its author is a side character, and all of the action takes place significantly between November 2019 and November 2020.
Melissa: Cast your mind back to what was happening.
David: I mean, don’t have to go far to get there.
Melissa: Yeah. Okay. So we get to know the Tookie of now, and her coworkers and a handful of quirky customers. Which brings us to Flora. Flora is a frequent customer. She’s a white lady who claims to have native heritage. Tookie calls her a very persistent wannabe. When Flora dies on All Souls Day, she refuses to leave Birchbark Books and begins to haunt Tookie.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: Over the following months, Tookie tries to figure out why Flora can’t move on. Then 2019 turns into 2020 and external life invades the bookstore. The COVID pandemic hits. George Floyd is murdered in Minneapolis, and now we are in it with Tookie and her friends.
David: This isn’t just a very fascinating blend of tone.
Melissa: It is. And it has one of my favorite things, which is someone being haunted. And often the question is, are they being haunted by a supernatural being or are they being haunted by their past and emotions? And in this case, it’s all of it. All of those things are haunting this character. It’s fantastic. One of the best things about this book is that Tookie is just a hoot. She’s funny and she’s tough and vulnerable all at once. Her relationships with her husband and her friends are never easy. Sometimes they’re really, really nice, and they’re always just drenched in love, even when there’s conflict. And sharing a shift with her at the bookstore seems like it would be such a good time. If she was in the right mood.
Melissa: To give you an idea, I’m going to read you a bit from the book. This is Tookey talking about a customer that she calls Dissatisfaction: ‘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.’
David: That’s a nice piece of writing.
Melissa: She knows what she’s doing with a sentence.
Melissa: Finally, this book about a bookshop and life is stuffed full of other books. Tookie opens the story by talking about how a dictionary got her through her incarceration and then continues to drop book titles like literary confetti throughout the book, there’s a handy appendix called A Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books that includes several years’ worth of excellent reading. In my reading journal, my notes for this book say PHEW in capital letters and then, Reading this was like that good-bad feeling you get when you poke a black and blue mark. That is honestly some of the highest praise I can give. That’s The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.
David: My first book is Booked to Die by John Dunning. This is an old-school backlist and then some police procedural. Maybe we should call it a classic. You might find a copy of this in a Goodwill or a laundromat or on your grandfather’s shelf. It came out in 1992. There was a 25th anniversary edition that came out seven years ago. It’s about a cop who becomes a rare bookseller. The book starts with an education on book scouts. So book scouts are are people who go through thrift stores and garage sales looking for books to resell to dealers. According to the book and it’s not hard to imagine, it’s a pretty bleak, lonely life. The book starts with the line, ‘Bobby the book scout was killed on midnight on June 13th, 1986.’ Then Dunning tells us a bit about book scouts and Bobby in particular. That introduction ends with ‘This is the story of a dead man, how he got that way and what happened to some other people because of his death. He was a gentle man, quiet, a human mystery. He had no relatives, no next of kin to notify. He had no close friends, but no enemies either. His cats would miss him. No one could think of a reason why anyone would kill Bobby. Who would murder a harmless man like that? I’ll tell you why. Then I’ll tell you who.’
David: I was all on board after that. Okay, let’s go. The narrator is Detective Cliff Janeway. He’s everything you might want in your 90s-era rumpled, middle aged cop. He’s a good man. It’s easy to think of him at the scene of the crime gun under his belt. Police lights swirling around. He’s got a code, and it definitely gets in his way. He’s got a temper, but he’s usually charming. You’re pretty sure he’s going to get played by somebody. And he does. The case goes into the world of antiquarian booksellers. There’s a pretty good education about what that life is like. The detective himself opens a bookstore about a third of the way into the book. Janeway has opinions about what makes a good bookstore, which made me toughen up my views on that. It was fun to think about what kind of bookstore we would open if we did that. The detective converts basically an empty room into a bookstore, and he brings you along on all those decisions. So you know, what kind of a location would we want and what paint would we choose and where would we put the things —
Melissa: All the fun parts.
David: Yeah. Yeah, that was sort of a fun diversion. In the course of the mystery, Janeway interviews a bunch of booksellers that gives the author a chance to write about how different people sell books. The first booksellers we made our Ruby Seals and his arrogant partner, Emery Neff.
Melissa: Those are awesome names.
David: Yeah. Ruby is brought on with this paragraph: 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.
David: Dunning also introduces Rita McKinley, the ice lady, a mysterious and beautiful appointment=only bookseller who doesn’t have time for idle shop chit chat.
David: Played in my mind by?
Melissa: Eva Green?
David: Obviously. She’s talked about off-screen early in the book, which does a fantastic job of setting up a clock. When are we going to get Cliff and Rita together? The author, John Dunning, seems to know what he’s talking about, both from the perspective of a cop and a bookseller. He was a police reporter for The Denver Post in the 1970s. He also owned a bookstore, and until he retired, he was a professional, rare book trader. According to a Denver Post article, he considered himself a book dealer who wrote and not the other way. All of that comes along for the ride in this book. I left the book wanting to read the other titles he recommends. This book is also full of recommendations. Booked to Die is the first in a series. There are five Janeway novels. According to the reviews, they’re all worth a read. Everyone goes deeper into the world of the rare book trade.
Melissa: I read Booked to Die when it came out in 1992 and worked my way through, if not all of the books in the series, a good chunk of them. And when we were preparing for this show, I actually picked up the second book in the series called The Bookman’s Wake. In that one, he’s hired to find a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Which is why I picked that one, because I love The Raven so much. And then he learns that everyone who’s known to have owned a copy of this particular edition met untimely deaths.
David: Whoa, whoa.
Melissa: One of the things that really struck me that you mentioned is how much of an education he shares about the book trade, and how the scouts and the book traders almost to me felt like poker players where it’s not this, you know, joyous fun activity. It’s a grind against numbers just to eke out a living.
Melissa: But somehow it’s also a little romantic.
Melissa: Yeah. Anyway, I agree with you. Those. Those books are great. Second endorsement.
David: Yeah. Booked to Die is a solid mystery. It won a Nero Award the year it came out. That’s a literary award for books in the mystery genre. It hooked me with a first sentence and kept me wondering about the details until the last page. Literally. There is a bit where. It sort of revealed in the last paragraph how he did it and then he’s out, which I thought was really nice. I enjoyed the characters and the setting and the education on book dealers. This is Booked to Die by John Dunning.
Melissa: My second recommendation is Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner. This is historical fiction set in post-World War II London at a shop called Bloomsbury Books. For a hundred years, Bloomsbury has been correct, dignified. Some people might call it stodgy or old fashioned, but not the men who run the place. They know just how things should be done, and the way they should be done is the way they have always been done.
Melissa: The four-story shop sells new and rare books, fiction, history, science. The various departments are headed up by men and the general manager, Herbert Dutton, has written a list of 51 rules that are strictly enforced.
David: So big imperial vibe coming off this.
Melissa: Exactly, yeah. For example, rule number 17: Tea shall be served promptly four times a day. There are also rules about observance of working hours, fraternizing between staff members, and interactions with customers. Working in this old boys’ club are three strong willed women who could easily run the show at Bloomsbury Books. If only Mr. Herbert Dutton and the other department heads would get out of their way. There’s Grace. She’s a secretary, and she’s often responsible for making the tea mentioned in rule number 17. She is capable of far more than making tea.
Melissa: She’s been supporting her family of two kids since her husband had a breakdown after the war. And that she’s named Grace is no accident. She’s lovely, intelligent, capable, kind. But she’s a little lost in the weeds of her life. She is best pals with Vivian. Vivian is a hothead. She dresses in black pencil skirts and red lipstick. And she’s angry. So angry at the world, at her dead fiance’s snooty family, at the war that took her fiance, at Alex, the head of fiction at the bookshop. She is fashionable fury personified. And just to name drop her again in my imagination, she is, of course, played by —
David: Eva Green.
David: I had not considered before how very angry a widow after World War Two could be.
Melissa: Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that either. And yeah, she’s carrying it with her.
Melissa: And then there’s Evie. She was in the first class of female students to graduate from Cambridge University. She has an amazing memory, and she’s a whiz at cataloguing books. But when she loses out on a job as a research assistant at Cambridge, she joins the staff of the bookstore.
Melissa: What the rest of the bookstore crew don’t know is that Evie has ulterior motives for taking this job.
David: Hmm. What are those?
Melissa: I’m not going to tell you.
David: Darn it.
Melissa: You have to read the book. So given this setup, I expected, you know, maybe a sweet trifle about an idealized bookshop in London. Quirky characters, charming conversations. Yeah. And there is some of that. But this story had much sharper teeth than I expected. I loved it. I was really invested in the characters. Their descriptions make them sound a little like they could be stock characters, right? The good girl, the vamp, the egghead student. The men are kind of caricatures when it starts out.
Melissa: But all of them really surprised me because as the story goes on, they each prove themselves to be much more complex than they seemed at first. They were daring and vulnerable and relatable. And at different times they all said or did remarkably stupid things where you’re just like, No, why are you doing that?
Melissa: But overall, it was a pleasure to spend time with them and kind of muddle through their lives. And in a way, this book is a coming-of-age story for the bookstore and how it reflects changes happening in England after World War Two.
David: That’s cool.
Melissa: The shop kind of grows up as the three women assert themselves and kind of wreak havoc on the leather and scotch world that everybody is used to.
David: Right. So the author is telling the larger story of the society by telling the smaller story of the bookstore.
Melissa: Exactly. Look how concisely you said that. Along the way, there is a literary mystery which I alluded to with Evie. There’s all manner of romances and sexual escapades.
Melissa: There are very satisfying scenes in which characters get their long overdue comeuppance. There are a few spots that made me cry. All the greatest hits of how crappy people can be to each other are here. There’s racism, sexism, classism, but there’s also really strong friendships. And there’s lots and lots of talk about books and writing.
Melissa: Yes. Good call, Dave.
David: Yeah. [laughter]
Melissa: Rule number 41 in the list of rules is this, All shop events must be held after hours. But Vivian and Grace, in blatant disregard for the rules, set out to host an afternoon literary luncheon with Daphne du Maurier.
David: Oh, yeah, that’s nice to see her.
Melissa: Yeah. And when the head of fiction gets wind of their idea, he scoffs, Daphne du Maurier, the romance writer? Mm hmm. But despite their male colleagues’ skepticism, the event with the author of Rebecca, is a triumph and it introduces them to other boundary crushing women who help them kind of revolutionize what is happening at Bloomsbury Books. I should also mention that a real sci-fi book plays a part in the plot. The book is called The Mummy! with an exclamation point at the end.
Melissa: The Mummy! It was written by Jane Webb Loudon in 1827 when she was 17 years old. It’s a sci-fi horror novel about the Egyptian mummy Cheops being brought back to life in 2126. The first line of the book says, ‘In the year 2126, England enjoyed peace and tranquillity under the absolute dominion of a female sovereign.’ That is available on Project Gutenberg if you want to give it a go. I listened to Bloomsbury Girls on audio, and I 100% recommend that experience. It’s narrated by the British actress Juliet Stevenson, who is one of my favourite narrators. She’s very good with accents, and she does a brilliant job giving individual voice to each character.This book is Bloomsbury Girls, and it’s by Natalie Jenner.
David: Okay. I’m going to tell you about two books.
Melissa: Cheater. Cheater McCheaterson.
David: That’s true. But both of these are small. Both of these books would make nice gifts for book lovers. The first is Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount. I would classify this as graphic nonfiction, although it’s heavy on the text. There are paint-and-ink drawings on every page, and the book would kind of fall apart without them. It reads a bit like a lovingly hand-crafted and well considered BuzzFeed.
Melissa: Ooh, I like it.
David: Yeah. Every few pages brings a topic like, writer-owned bookstores or historical fiction or books with unhappy families, and then the author writes a bit about it. Usually there’s little intriguing facts about how a book came together, and then she’ll have a paint and ink sketching to support the writing. So, for instance, in the couple of pages on Southern Lit, there’s a small painting of the author, Edward P Jones, and and this text: ‘Edward P Jones composed The Known World in his head for ten years and then finally put it all to paper in just three months in 2001, after being laid off from his day job at a tax journal. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004.’
Melissa: What a great story.
David: Yeah, there are all sorts of fascinating bits in this book like that. I learned there’s a bookstore in Baltimore where John Waters picks up his fan mail, for instance. And now I want to go hang out in a bookstore in Baltimore. This book has dozens and maybe hundreds of recommendations for books and bookstores and libraries. One of the things that I liked about this title is that it was released in 2017, so the list of notable books is pretty up to date. Anne of Green Gables is here, but so is Lincoln in the Bardo and the Night Circus. If you like what we do, I expect you’ll find this book very charming. There is a Kindle version of this book. It’s currently $2. Do not be fooled.
Melissa: You can’t see the watercolors and ink drawings on your Kindle.
David: Yeah, I mean, even with a colored Kindle, you can kind of see it, but it jacks the format up and it’s just not the same experience at all.
Melissa: And this is from people who love their Kindles. I’ve been known to clutch my Kindle to my heart.
David: I love both formats. I love having an electronic version that I can walk around with, but I also love the carefully considered book as an object presentation, right? And this is what this is. Also, you should know that the author, Jane Mount, has a site where you can buy her paintings of books.
Melissa: Oh, fun. Yeah.
David: They’re available as prints, pins, phone cases, other things. Those are all at idealbookshelf.com. We’ll put a link in the notes. If you’re looking for a gift for a reader, that would be a fine place to start. That is Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount.
David: The second book I want to tell you about is Spine Poems: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers by Annette Dauphin Simon. Simon used to be a bookseller. At one point, she started amusing herself by stacking up the spines of books so that the titles made a little poem when read from the side.
Melissa: Oh, that’s fun.
David: So, for instance, she had a book, A Little History of Poetry, and under that she put a biography titled Your Voice in My Head, and then a memoir Floating in a Most Peculiar Way. And if you stack those up and read them, it makes a tiny found poem: A little history of poetry / Your voice in my head / Floating in a most peculiar way. This is a book full of those little poems. A lot of them are funny. There’s this one: While you were napping. / The bear ate your sandwich. / It wasn’t me. / Dragons lov tacos.
Melissa: [laughter] Which also informs you there’s a book called Dragons Love Tacos.
David: Yeah, yeah. Some of them are sweet. An ordinary day. / Nothing special. / Then/ You. / Exclamation mark.
Melissa: So sweet.
David: Isn’t that nice?
David: Each page in the book has a picture of the spines of the books that make up the poem. And then there are little informational bits and quotes from books and authors and such that sort of round out the page. So, for instance, there’s a page with a picture of spines that say Zoom / disrupted / distracted / Everybody says Meow / Working from home with a cat. And then on the opposite page, there’s a quote from Margaret Atwood about working with cats and a bit of T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And that kind of thing. This is sort of a birthday cake slice of book. It is delightful and colorful and short. The thing that I liked most about it, though, is the implied activity, right? You could go to a used bookstore and make your own spine poems, and that seems like fun. Wish we’d had this idea when we were working at the bookstore in Wigtown. I can also imagine buying books to bring them home and delight myself with a hidden poem on our bookshelf.
Melissa: I was thinking while you were explaining it, that would be a great gift to get for somebody is make them a poem out of the books that you buy them.
David: Yeah. This book just came out last year. It’s Spine Poems: An Eclectic Collection of Found Verse for Book Lovers’ by Annette Dauphin Simon.
Melissa: Now I just want to go to my bookshelf and see if I can make some poems.
David: I noticed the other day that we have a book called This Is the World, which seems like it’s just ripe for that.
Melissa: My final recommendation is The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs. This is a literary thriller built around an eccentric family. Set in modern Los Angeles. The story opens with the death of Isaac Severy. He was a famed mathematician. Elderly, but healthy. Sadly, he died in his hot tub when a string of Christmas lights fell into the water.
David: Oh, no.
Melissa: Mysteriously, he had set the nearby table with breakfast things for two people. He was the patriarch of a large family, made up of other geniuses and a few ne’er-do-wells. And they have all gathered for his funeral. So we meet his adult children and their spouses, his grandchildren, family friends, and Hazel, his adopted granddaughter and the heroine of the story. There’s also a mysterious young man who no one seems to recognize. And after someone reads a very appropriate Emily Dickinson poem, the mystery man stands up and reads one of Isaac’s mathematical proofs: Let d x over d t equal a times x plus f if x… you get the idea. It goes on and on. Everyone at the funeral is like, Who is this guy and why is he reading an equation.
David: That’s a certain type of character to read an equation in somebody else’s funeral.
Melissa: And that was the moment when I was all in because it was just so deliciously weird.
Melissa: The whole funeral scene got me. It kicked off the book with the vibe of a manor house mystery, but without the enclosed setting. There’s a large cast of characters with questionable motives, and although Isaac’s death has been ruled a suicide, maybe he was murdered. The narrative unfolds through three perspectives. There’s Isaac’s son Philip. He is a professor with ego issues. There’s Gregory. He’s an LA cop and Hazel’s brother. And then there’s Hazel. Even though they share storytelling duties, Hazel is the heart of everything. And she is a little bit of a mess. She owns a bookshop in Seattle called The Guttersnipe. And her shop is doing so poorly, she’s had to give up her apartment. She’s currently living in the backroom of the shop on an air mattress and using the bathroom to take sponge baths.
David: That sounds terrible.
Melissa: And it gets worse. To keep up appearances, she leaves the shop through the front door at the end of the day, walks to the bus stop, and then doubles back and re-enters from the alley just in case anyone is watching.
David: Oh. Aw.
Melissa: So she’s not in great shape. Homeless, failing business. And now the adopted grandfather she adores has died. Yeah. And then she receives a letter he wrote to her the day before he passed. I’m going to read you the whole thing because it’s so good.
Melissa: 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
David: Well, that’s all you need to know to read that book.
Melissa: Right? While Hazel tries to figure out the riddles and clues In Isaac’s note, she learns a whole lot about secrets that other members of the family have been keeping. There are covert love affairs, hidden identities, an equation that might predict the future, a mysterious hotel room, betrayals, and another mysterious death. There are fantastic surprises in this book right up until the end, and it has a very satisfying ending that warmed my cold black heart. The tone and the sort of unexpected turns that this book takes reminded me of the book Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory that I recommended in our Chicago episode. Both of these books have the spirit of a sort of 1930s screwball comedy while they’re exploring weighty emotional issues like, Am I living up to my potential, and do I fit into this family at all? If you wanted to pair it with a movie, you might watch The Royal Tenenbaums or The Brothers Bloom. It’s got that kind of vibe to it. This is The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs.
Melissa: Before we wrap up.
David: Oh, yeah.
Melissa: I just want to shout out four more books that are set in bookshops. We’ve mentioned some of them before.I’ll include links in the show notes to the write up or to the relevant podcast episode.
Melissa: If you’d like another book with a hint of mystery Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan is really fun. It features an unconventional bookshop and an unusual library. So you get both two fer along with a secret society, young love and the early days of Google.
Melissa: For books that will make your heart feel all squishy about good booksellers and how they know just what book to put into your hands. I have two titles.
Melissa: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. The first one will take you to France, the other to an island off the coast of New England. Both have very vivid settings in which they’ve put their bookshops, and both of them made me ugly cry multiple times. But in a good way.
Melissa: Finally, last one: I recently recommended The Shadow of the Wind in our Spain episode. The family at the heart of that story owns a pretty special bookshop, and that’s where all of the action of the story really begins. There will be links to all of those in our show notes.
David: Fantastic. Those are a whole bunch of books we love set in bookshops. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. It’s going to be amazing.
Melissa: It’s a bookshop-a-palooza. [laughter] It’s a bookshopscapade.
David: Bookstore and more.
David: Its quality content we’re generating right now. Where are we going for our next episode?
Melissa: We are taking a virtual trip to the troubled but stunningly beautiful tropical island country of Sri Lanka.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Ivo Rainha/Unsplash.
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