Edited by Greg Ketter
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Perhaps it is inevitable that so many stories about bookstores will praise the qualities of independent bookstores over superstores, especially when the volume is edited to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of an independent, in this case Greg Ketter’s DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis. Many of the authors in Shelf Life have taken the magical qualities of books and extrapolated them to the repositories of books, creating nexuses of power for those who read. Although there is definitely the feeling that bookstores should be welcoming and safe, a large number of the stories Ketter has selected also infuse bookstores with a sense of dread and danger.
The anthology opens with Gene Wolfe’s “From the Cradle” of the ties that bind a book to its owners. When a woman insists that a used bookstore sell a copy of her late husband’s favorite book on consignment, she forges a link between the book and a young clerk who works in the bookstore. Over the, the clerk, Michael, is given the opportunity to read short passages from the book and comes to see a reflection of his own life in its pages. Although Michael sees the book as a mirror, it is also, influencing the course of his life, preparing him, eventually, for his destiny.
P.D. Cacek provides an interesting take on the nickname "People of the Book" referring to the Jews in “A Book, By Its Cover.” Set in the months following Kristallnacht, it examines the mysterious occurrences at Reb Shendelman's bookstore and the way it appears to Yavin Landauer, who lost his father on that night. As with other tales in Shelf Life, it examines the relationship people have to their favorite books, whether it it Yavin or his former best friend, Karl, now a Nazi. Cacek points out that not only are books a means of transferring information, but they also serve a very important service in supplying much needed escapism at times.
A.R. Morlan is a self acknowledged cat person and she turns her attention to ubiquitous bookstore cats in “The Hemingway Kittens.” Upon discovering that cats not only keep Bartlett and Browning's clear of mice but also attract customers, she decides to always have cats on the premises. The appearance of two feral Hemingway cats, with paws resembling hands, leads her to begin to suspect that there is more to the cats, and her assistant, Rik, than initially meets the eye. Although set in a bookstore, the cats themselves are the focus of this story, perhaps the only tale in Shelf Life which doesn't require the bookstore setting.
John J. Miller reflects on different types of lost texts in “Lost Books.” Mr. Amrou, the owner of a bookstore has his own hidden past which contains lost books, for which he is spending the rest of his life making amends. Duncan Broun, who initially stops in to sell some books to the store and comes to work there is a failed author who has been unable to live up to the hype of his first novel and the rest of his books are lost in the sense that they have not been finished. Miller continues to introduce new layers of lost books and the emotional weight of them throughout the piece until he finally reveals the true horror of lost books.
In the "Library of Babel," Luis Borges postulates a library which not only contains every book ever written, but also every book which could have been written. Many of the authors in this volume have elected to play with this idea, but Ramsey Campbell looks at it in an interesting light in “One Copy Please,” in which the unwritten volumes are brought to the attention of Clarence Colman Hope, an authors whose writing has become more formulaic and more popular as his career progressed. Campbell shows his reaction to being able to perceive the books he was capable of writing, but didn't for a variety of reasons, including financial.
In the story "Saskia," Charles de Lint introduced the wonderful concept of the Wordwood, an internet database that has taken on a life of its own. Although Holly Rue is one of the creators, the Wordwood does not figure into “Pixel Pixies,” although other problems with the internet arise. In this case, a nasty version of a virus escapes from the internet, pixies, who wreak havoc with Holly's store and the other stores on the street. Holly's version of anti-virus software is the hob which is living, unknown to her, in her bookstore. The story is told with all the charm Charles de Lint brings to his tales of fairies crossing over into our world.
Book collectors frequently have a relationship with their books. It is this relationship that Lisa Morton investigates in “Blind Stamped.” When a collector suddenyl begins selling books rather than buying them, and those not the sort of books Nathaniel Watson expects him to have, the bookdealer begins to wonder what is happening. Eventualy, Nathaniel is given the opportunity to explore his client's books and discovers a complex and wide-ranging discussion between the client and his collection in a manner reminiscent of a comment made by Helene Hanff regarding inscriptions in used books making them more valuable.
Jack Williamson points out the importance of ideas in the alien invasion tale “Shakespeare & Co.” Following the interstellar invasion by the wheelers, books and independent thought are one of the things banned. Nevertheless, some illicit bookstores still remain, for instance the titular store, which is not related to the New York store of the same name. It manages to disseminate ideas throughout the galaxy which eventually lead to the overthrow of the despots. Rather than focus on the physicality of the bookstore as so many other authors in the collection do, Williamson elects to focus on the bookstore as a nexus for ideas.
For many book hunters, the search is the thing, not the actual finding of the elusive tome. Gerald Houarner captures this hunt perfectly in “Ballard’s Books,” in which the search isn’t even for a particular volume, but rather is for the store which sells elusive books. However, Houarner’s story is about more than just the hunt, it is also about the way books reflect who we are and can change our lives, sometimes in more obvious ways than others.
Perhaps one of the strangest denizens of Shelf Life is David Bischoff’s Teddy Beacon in “Books.” Teddy is a non-reader who happens to stop in a used bookstore in Goshen, Indiana while passing through. Although Teddy claims he is trying to find used video games, upon learning they only sell books, he elects to stay to pick up a mystery novel. Interested in only making money, Teddy quickly sees the potential of buying and selling used books, especially since he’s found a place which appears to underprice everything.Sylvia has fled from an abusive relationship in Seattle to find solace working in a small bookstore in “Escapes,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Even as she finds comfort during her working hours in a store she begins to suspect is supernatural, Sylvia becomes more worried that Peter, her sadistic ex-boyfriend, will somehow track her down. Eventually, when her confrontation with him does occur, she is lucky enough to have an intervention in the most unusual way and achieve closure on multiple parts of her troubled past. Although Hoffman uses a bookstore as Sylvia’s solace, the safe place Sylvia has found can be anywhere someone feels comfortable and has friends who are willing to take a stand.
Patrick Weekes places corporate ideas of customer service against the wisdom and power of Gorhok the Immitigable in ““I Am Looking for a Book…”.” When the god’s favorite used bookstore, in which was hidden a book of power, is taken over by a large corporation, Gorhok cannot find the tome he needs and must rely on the services of others. There is an intrinsic irony in not being able to find a required volume in one of the massive superstores, and Weekes manages to milk the irony in a humorous manner making this light tale a success.
At one of the bookstores where I worked, at various times, we had an assistant manager who knew nothing about books and a manager who felt that people who bought books were rubes. These individuals are perfectly engendered in Melanie Tem’s “The Glutton,” not in the form of the story hungry Phoebe, but in Misty, the owner of the bookstore where Phoebe volunteers to work in order to be around stories. It isn’t just the books that Phoebe yearns for, but stories about anyone, real or imagined. In this need, Phoebe becomes the muse for those around her, whether they want a muse or not. She epitomizes the soul of what a bookstore should be.
The idea of characters in books having a life of their own is a common one, perhaps best done most recently by Jasper Fforde in his excellent novel The Eyre Affair. Marianne de Pierres takes a different look at this idea with “In the Bookshadow,’ about a clerk who finds herself confronted by gruesome images while working in a small independent bookstore. While the horror builds as de Pierres’s narrator facing hallucinatory images of hangings, monsters and murderers, de Pierres fails to provide any explanation for the images which afflict the narrator.
The title book in Rick Hautala’s “Non-Returnable” creates the reasons for some life changes for the bookstore clerk, Manda, who must deal with it. While the changes the book seems to control are interesting, the story loses steam in the end because Hautala does not fully provide a sense of closure, instead moving along to the book’s next conquest. Manda and the people she works with are sympathetic characters the reader would like to see more of, but the focus of the story is really on the strangeness which manifests itself in Manda’s life without any explanation provided.
In 2001, Harlan Ellison published a story about a magical disappearing shop. He follows it up with another magical store in “The Cheese Stands Alone,” in which Alexander Cort finds himself seduced and trapped by a strange bookstore in Monterey which provides answers to the unanswerable questions. Cort is aware of the dangers inherent in this type of store, yet his caution must wrestle with his curiosity when the shopkeeper tells him she has the answer to a specific question. Ellison manages to turn the tables nicely on the friendly shopkeeper when Cort begins to question her motives.
Shelf Life is an interesting and fun romp through the world of, mostly, second hand bookstores which invites the reader to think about books in new ways while experiencing a magic associated more with bookstores than any other types of store. Ketter has selected strong stories which make the reader want to learn more about the worlds their authors have created and to return to the magic inherent in them. Unfortunately, as Shelf Life is limited to an edition of 1,000 copies, many readers will not have the chance to explore this world of bookstores. With luck, Ketter will either choose to reprint the book in an unlimited run or find a larger publisher to publish the book.
|Gene Wolfe||From the Cradle|
|P.D. Cacek||A Book, By Its Cover|
|A.R. Morlan||The Hemingway Kittens|
|John J. Miller||Lost Books|
|Ramsey Campbell||One Copy Only|
|Charles de Lint||Pixel Pixies|
|Lisa Morton||Blind Stamped|
|Jack Williamson||Shakespeare & Co.|
|Gerald Houarner||Ballard's Books|
|Nina Kiriki Hoffman||Escapes|
|Patrick Weekes||"I'm Looking for a Book..."|
|Melanie Tem||The Glutton|
|Marianne de Pierres||In the Bookshadow|
|Harlan Ellison||The Cheese Stands Alone|