In one of the brief reading lists/life wisdom capsules written by the title character and found at the beginning of each chapter of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014), is the following observation:
“People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?”
A.J. Fikry owns Island Books, the only bookstore on Alice Island, in New England. When asked to describe his taste in books by an already exasperated Amelia Loman, the agent who works for Knightley Press, and who meets him in the very first pages of the novel, A.J. Fikry responds:
“How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where there shouldn’t be―basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful―nonfiction only, please. I do not like literary mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred and fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and―I imagine this goes without saying―vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry or translations. […]
As rants go, this one yields a fantastic amount of insight into the protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s lovely little novel. Clearly, A.J. Fikry is opinionated and very knowledgeable; educated in the best and worst way (he was finishing a PhD in American Literature when he bought Island Books); judgemental, hard-headed and intransigent; an intellectual and cultural snob; wickedly funny; clearly misanthropic; perhaps withdrawn from the world at large; likely quite sad and unhappy; definitely a prickly pear. The few works of literature that still meet A.J. Fickry’s impossible standards he uses like a rampart.
Fikry’s long-winded opinions about literature also had me running through a mental check list, trying to figure out whether I agreed with him on anything at all: Postmodernism? Am I sure I know what that refers to? Magic realism? I really do dislike pigeonholing art. Literary fiction about the Holocaust? Perhaps the only way to express the truth of it. Crossbreeding of genres? Why not! Young adult fiction? Just another dumb label; Markus Zusak is a brilliant novelist, plain and simple…
How clever of Zevin to speak to the book lover in each of us.
It wouldn’t be shortchanging the novel to say that in many ways, from that point on, The Storied Life of A.J Fikry is about how the world around him forces him to alter many of those grumpy opinions by quite literally entering the bookstore into which he has retreated after the death of his beloved wife Nic, and rewriting his life (and book list).
There’s a satisfaction that comes from finishing a good book. And every now and then, there’s that novel that you read in a matter of hours, or barely a day. This little book (at 258 small pages with a generous size of font) is not only about the transformation of a feisty yet endearing protagonist; it’s also about writers and their readers, about books and their curators, and about the wonder and miracle of independent book shops.
Island Books isn’t just a grieving man’s struggling business: during the course of the novel, it becomes a safe harbour, the hub of the community and a gathering place for the book clubs that begin to pop up like stray weeds among the island’s population, including the Chief’s Choice Book Club, for law enforcement officers, started by Police Chief Lambiase, who favours crime fiction, but whose tastes expand during the course of the novel, along with his life.
The reader soon develops a real affection for Island Books, and begins to feel at home there, and to hope it will survive at least another generation. Reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reminded me of another extraordinary bookstore, and of 84 Charing Cross Road, the work that made it famous, which is also a slight little book (barely 97 pages).
84 Charing Cross Road, written by Helene Hanff and published in 1970, is in part the story of Marks and Co. Antiquarian Booksellers (the book’s title is the shop’s address in London, England). A lovely and evocative description of the shop is included in the book, in the form of a letter from Hanff’s good friend Maxine Stuart, recounting her visit to Marks and Co. in September 1951:
It is the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens, you would go absolutely out of your mind over it.
There are stalls outside and I stopped and leafed through a few things just to establish myself as a browser before wandering in. It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood.
[…] The shelves go on forever. They go up to the ceiling and they’re very old and kind of grey, like old oak that has absorbed so much dust over the years they no longer are their true color […]
The book is also the story of the beautiful friendship between Hanff, a freelance writer working and living in New York, and Frank Doel, the modest, though erudite chief buyer at Marks and Co. who for twenty years tracked down and shipped to Hanff the dozens of old books she longed for and cherished. The story is told in epistolary form, featuring the dozens of letters exchanged between Hanff and Doel , but also includes correspondence from other members of the bookstore staff, as well as a few letters from Mrs. Doel, Nora. Incredibly and sadly, Hanff and Doel never met (Doel died in 1968, and Marks and Co. closed shortly after, in 1971).
Helene is a marvelous correspondent. Here letters are written in a playful, informal, no-punches-pulled style, and her punctuation and use of capital letters are idiosyncratic. She’s passionate and opinionated about the tomes she wants, and her letters are witty and often hilarious. She’s also very kind.
Frank Doel’s are of course very formal and conventional at first, but over time, Dear Miss Hanff becomes Dear Helene, as their shared love of books and sophisticated literary tastes spawn the most delightful exchanges. The book was adapted for the stage as well as for cinema.
Hanff was also a devoted patron of New York City’s public libraries, doing all her preliminary reading and scouting of books there, saying that “It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on.”
There are, of course, many other books set in bookstores. Québécois author Jacques Poulin’s gentle and melancholy novel My Sister’s Blue Eyes (2007), which I read several years ago, is one of them, and so is Italian journalist and author, Paola Calvetti’s P.O. Box Love (2012) which I recently read in French translation.
Is there a book set in a bookstore that you recommend? If so, please leave a comment.
“The Bookshop has a thousand books,
All colors, hues, and tinges,
And every cover is a door
That turns on magic hinges.” -Nancy Byrd Turner
“Bookstores contain the residue of thousands of people who went in there to find an experience, a narrative that guided them to a new place or reinforced what they were doing.”
-Lauren Leto, Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere
*Update, 10/10/14 : I’ve just found a feel-good piece in Publishers’ Weekly, titled “How Bookstores Survive in the Age of Amazon”, in which the principle theme is that they don’t just survive, they can thrive.