You’ve noticed, I’m sure, how something can be ignored for years and then suddenly become a media darling. Hardly anyone gave a thought to zombies since the B-movies of the 1950s, for example, and then they started shuffling into magazines and onto TV shows, first as single spies and then in stinking, decaying battalions. For whatever reason, they were having a moment.
In that respect, bookstores are like zombies. We’re brainier, more vital, and better-smelling, of course, but we’ve also become the focus of increased attention. As we all hurtle into a confusing future that comes faster every minute, shops like ours have become a symbol of sorts. Traditional, authentic, and operating on a human scale, but also engaged with the life of the mind and therefore open to novelty, freshness, and innovation—no wonder everyone is talking about us.
The charm of the independent bookshop has been described dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years (the platonically romantic 84, Charing Cross Road is an ur-text) but the current fashion may have begun with the publication of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in 2012. We’ve written previously about the pleasing blend of high-tech caper and paean to print that author Robin Sloan produced, should you want to take a spin through our archives. Other recent books on the topic include Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, about a Parisian shop that stocks only masterpieces, and Deborah Meyler’s The Bookstore, which features an engaging cast of clerks who rally to support a young pregnant woman in Manhattan. More offbeat and serious stories have come from overseas of late, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina out of Guatemala, about a haunting book thief, and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason from Algeria, in which a steadfast bookseller resists theocratic vigilantes out to suppress art and human expression.
I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to write about these and other titles, but those thoughts, like so many of mine, stayed idle and vague. Until another new book arrived, that is. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin hit the shelves this week and immediately became the poster child for everything I’ve been discussing. “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World” is the perfect motto of the bookshop at the heart of this ingratiating new novel. I’d tell you more about it, but there are at least two people better equipped than me to do so.
The first is Gabrielle Zevin herself, who’s going to be here at Island Books at 10 a.m. on Monday, April 7th. She’s on a whirlwind tour, so this will be a quick meet-and-greet; come early if you want to say hello and take home an autographed copy. The second is our own Emma Page, who is the ideal audience and mouthpiece for The Storied Life, as you’ll see below.
It was a bitter Massachusetts day in early March when I was handed a copy of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and noticed that it has a very personal connection. The title character is a widower and the owner of a small independent bookstore called … Island Books. He is also a man with very particular tastes. Early in the novel this prematurely curmudgeonly bookseller grumpily informs a young publisher’s rep that he does not like “postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magical realism … literary fantasy … children’s books … debuts … poetry, or translations.” As a fan of all of those things, I wasn’t sure that A.J. and I were going to get along very well. To make matters worse, The Storied Life makes heavy use of one of my own literary pet peeves. I usually can’t stand books about books. As a bookseller and a college student studying literature, I’m always wary of becoming one-sided. Usually I want what I read to broaden my horizons, rather than just feeding me comfortable images of other bibliophiles doing what we do best.
Normally, then, I wouldn’t have even picked up Zevin’s book, which has more than just a nod or two to the reading public. But I was already pining for Seattle, so despite few indications that this was going to be my kind of story I snagged a copy for purely sentimental reasons. After devouring the entirety of Storied Life on a plane ride home from Boston I was feeling conflicted. Yes, pandering, but oh how lovely to be pandered to so effectively. I felt as though someone had opened a window into my life, changed a few names and important details and written it all up as a sweet, quirky love story. When a mysterious package abandoned in the store turns out to be a baby girl named Maya, Fikry decides he’d rather take on the challenge of raising the child than see her disappear into the foster system. Later, she ponders her unusual childhood:
Maya knows that her mother left her in Island Books. But maybe that’s what happens to all children at a certain age. Some children are left in shoe stores. And some children are left in toy stores. And some children are left in sandwich shops. And your whole life is determined by what store you get left in.
I wasn’t abandoned on the doorstep of Island Books, but know just what Maya means. Zevin tells us that “The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long. She knows this because she once spent an afternoon measuring it by lying her body across the room.” I’ve never measured Island Books, but I can date my memories by how much I had to duck to enter the playhouse in Children’s, or how high the counter looked as I peered up at my parents. I know exactly how long it takes me to walk from the front counter wrapping station to Garry’s shipping desk in back on a crowded December day, and which letters of the alphabet I’ll need a step stool to shelve in Young Adult. Zevin writes that “the place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world.” I didn’t grow up above Island Books, or even on Mercer Island, but that sentence speaks to me as much as anything I’ve ever read. I’ve always known that The Bookstore is the best place in the world, and Gabrielle Zevin has confirmed that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Although I hope fate treats our own curmudgeonly shopkeeper more kindly than it does Mr. Fikry, I’m happy just knowing that our store means as much to so many as his does.