On Shop Novels, Past and Present

Consider the campus novel. It’s a genre within literary fiction capable of encompassing works as thematically and stylistically diverse as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring, and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. As disparate as these novels are, however, one can find certain structures in common. Though no two colleges or universities are the same, the basic structures of most are similar enough that a hierarchy of characters can be easily established. (The same could be said for novels set in the military, or following the lives of musicians.) But campus novels also allow their authors a kind of shorthand: a way to bring in weighty thematic concepts while allowing a certain familiarity in the setting.

There is a long tradition of novels set in stores selling some kind of media — books or music chief among them. Shop novels, for lack of a better phrase. For some authors, writing a shop novel can be a way to incorporate their knowledge of literature or music. George Pelecanos has an encyclopedic awareness of musical history, and made one of the central characters of his The Sweet Forever the owner of a record store; the same could be said about Nick Hornby, whose High Fidelity is largely set in the London record shop owned by its protagonist. For other writers, it’s a way to invoke certain thematic strains from other works. Nearly all of the characters in Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore are bibliophiles, and it would be hard to set this novel down without shaking the feeling that its plot — about the creation of a bookstore devoted solely to great novels — doubles as a kind of recommended reading list. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either: Christopher Morley’s 1917 novella Parnassus on Wheels features abundant discussion of books conducted by its three central characters: Helen McGill, who purchases a mobile bookstore; Roger Mifflin, the bookstore’s founder; and Helen’s brother Andrew, a bestselling author whose turn for the pompous sets the book’s events into motion. Shop novels also allow writers to give characters a number of expected scenarios in which to interact: owners with employees, employees with customers, and so on.

In recent months, a pair of high-profile novels have been released that seemingly place the selling of books and music at their core. One revolves around a used record store, while the other takes its title from the bookstore at the center of its plot. And while both do feature plenty of banter, loving references to certain books and albums, and a general “us against the world” feeling, these don’t fit neatly into the shop-novel tradition. The stores in these two novels aren’t simply stores — there’s a kind of symbolic value to them as well. A blurb on the back of one of them — Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — includes a reference to “the warm little secret societies we used to call ‘bookstores.’” (Admittedly, that blurb comes from humorist John Hodgman, so it’s probably intended to be read with tongue at least somewhat in cheek.) Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore follows the life of Clay Jannon, who takes on a late-shift job at a mysterious bookstore in the Bay Area, while Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue centers around the owners of Brokeland Records, a used record store located near the border of Berkeley and Oakland. Both Chabon and Sloan are compassionate about the stores at the hearts of their novels, but they aren’t necessarily shop novels in the same way that High Fidelity or A Novel Bookstore are. For Chabon and Sloan, the shop isn’t a setting to take for granted any longer — instead, it’s something to interrogate; an institution whose symbolic value might overshadow the rest of it.


Sloan’s novel blends quotidian details of daily shopkeeping with a burgeoning intellectual conspiracy. As Clay learns as he begins to investigate the strange customers he deals with on a nightly basis, Penumbra’s shop is something of an anomaly among the stores of the Bay Area. For all that some of its clientele do seek out specific books, it’s still as much of an outpost for a shadowy organization dedicated to analyzing specific pieces of information as it is a traditional bookshop. Sloan does lovingly describe a crosstown rival, Pygmalion Books, which becomes a de facto gathering place for many of his characters. The plot of Sloan’s novel is ultimately more about the ways in which information can be represented than about stores large or small. That books do play a role isn’t surprising: over the course of the novel, Sloan takes pains to point out that virtual and physical texts each have their own advantages. Alternately: that there is a difference between books and, as one character puts it, “strings of letters.”

For all of that, though, Sloan does have a few jabs at certain arguments about the superiority of books as objects. “You know you are finished when people are taking about the smell,” Penumbra notes wryly. And later, a Google employee sheepishly apologizes to Clay for “putting you guys out of business.” (It should be noted that Sloan also takes a couple of jabs at the superiority of certain large data companies, including Penumbra giving a quick lesson in the history, and dwindling relevance, of Standard Oil.) Sloan has integrated a lot of arguments about bookselling within the storyline of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t ultimately on the pro-bookstore side: a few scenes in which Clay attempts to use localized advertising to increase business at Penumbra’s read more than a little like Sloan offering advice to bookstore owners everywhere.

Sloan is equally comfortable outlining ornate intellectual conspiracies and describing obsessive fandom surrounding a series of fantasy novels. At one point, reading his novel, I found myself wondering if a minor character named Zaid was named as a kind of tribute to Gabriel Zaid, whose 1996 work So Many Books explores issues of information and reading that parallel Sloan’s preferred themes. The knowledge of culture that Michael Chabon brings to Telegraph Avenue is impressively broad, encompassing obscure jazz albums, cinematic history, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. Several of his characters play in a funk band called the Wakanda Philharmonic, their name a nod to the home country of the Marvel Comics superhero the Black Panther.

Telegraph Avenue is also set in the Bay Area — specifically, at a record store called Brokeland Records, located at the junction of Oakland and Berkeley. Co-owners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe talk shop throughout; their funk band plays a fundraiser for a circa-2004 Barack Obama; and their wives and children have similarly intertwining lives. And their way of life is threatened by the prospect of a gigantic media store opening nearby. This fictional megastore, owned by Gibson Goode, a former football star with a fondness for zeppelins, is the least convincing aspect of the novel’s plot.

Goode does end up making one of the most convincing arguments in favor of book or record stores, though: that of providing a context for the work being sold. “Explain what all those broken-up old pieces mean, why it’s all important,” he tells Archy. Elsewhere in the novel, Chabon uses an almost cinematic style of editing to lay out contrasting points of view. A section that ends with a despairing Nat saying, “It’s just a fucking record store” segues into one that begins with another character saying, “This is sacred ground.”

The feeling of community that Sloan’s characters find in bookstores is something that Chabon neatly evokes in the final pages of Telegraph Avenue. His protagonist Archy concludes that a specific store is less important than “that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild.”


Think-pieces on the future of bookstores aren’t likely to dry up any time soon. But for all that speculation about the future of bookstores takes places, there may be unintended side effects to the discussion. Recently, author Ann Patchett wrote about her experience opening an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville . She first points out that the two bookstores shuttered in the city before she and her business partner opened Parnassus were, in fact, profitable. She subsequently discusses the search for a space:

The place we both favored had once been a sushi restaurant and now had a lien against it. When the manager finally gave us an answer, he pronounced bookstores dead and said he wouldn’t rent to us at any price.

It’s understandable that writers such as Sloan and Chabon would look at a bookstore or record store and place it in a broader context. Even A Novel Bookstore, which delights in the minutiae of running an independent store, addresses questions of selling books online. And if Vanessa Veselka’s account of attempting to unionize an Amazon.com warehouse  is any indication, there’s probably a grand Steinbeckian novel of discord lurking in the background of e-commerce services waiting to be written. But for all of the ways in which the selling of books and music has changed, certain basics remain the same — and, for the sake of both book and record stores and those who write about them in their novels, one hopes that the basics of the genre will persist even as writers take a grander view.

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