One of the books I read during my vacation is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I have been waiting a couple months for my turn to come up at the library and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I was expecting cozy bookish goodness — 24-hour bookstore! But I got so much more.
I don’t want to give out too many details because part of the fun of this book is all the little surprising bits and pieces, jokes and puzzles. Still, I can give you something to pique your interest.
Clay, twenty-something and recently unemployed when the San Francisco bagel company he did graphic design work for went belly-up, is looking for a job. In a moment of depression he stumbles upon the help wanted sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. In he goes and is astonished to find a store that is “absurdly narrow and dizzingly tall” with shelves that go up three stories high. The on the spot interview consists of Mr. Penumbra asking Clay to tell him about a book he loves and then asking if Clay can climb a ladder. He gets the job.
Clay works the overnight shift and quickly learns that Mr. Penumbra’s is no ordinary bookstore. There are people who come in that present membership cards, ask for a certain book, and then are given it without having to pay. When they are done with the book they bring it back and ask for another. Clay is required to fill in a log book describing everyone who comes into the store, no names, but member numbers, what book s/he requested, what the person was wearing, how the person acted and anything interesting or unusual the person might have said. Most nights no one comes into the store so Clay decides to occupy himself by building a visualization of the store. He then enters in some of the books that have recently been asked for and notices what appears to be a pattern. He thinks it would be cool to be able to predict what book each customer will ask for next so, with the help of a roommate who works as a movie special effect and prop guy he has a replica of one of the log books made. Then, with the help of Kat, a woman who works at Google and who had come into the store because of advertising Clay had created, the log book is taken to Google and scanned. Clay and Kat upload the information to Clay’s bookstore visualization and are surprised by what it reveals: a face.
Thus begins a rollicking good ride that involves code breaking, Aldus Manutius, a secret society, old guard versus new guard, print versus digital, and a quest for immortality. There is lots of humor, Google gets made fun of, and people have bookish names like “Edgar Deckle.” Along the way we visit the home of one of Mr. Penumbra’s member readers, Ms. Lapin. Her home is described by Clay (did I mention Clay is the narrator?) as “the burrow of a bibliophile hobbit — low-ceilinged, close-walled, and brimming over with books.” Sounds like my own Hobbit hole!
We also get to visit a bibliophile bar in New York City where you find a stack of books and a cup of pencils on a table. Bar patrons are encouraged to choose a book and add to the marginalia of other patrons. How fun is that? Wouldn’t it be cool if there were really a bar like that?
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a great fun read. Even though the ending is a smidge predictable it did not take away from my pleasure of the whole book. It is a marvelous summer read that you can manage over a lazy weekend. And now Bookman is reading it and almost done. He is enjoying it too. I am looking forward to being able to talk with him about it so he had better hurry up and finish!