The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley ~ 1919. This edition: Lippincott, 1955. Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. Hardcover. 253 pages.
My rating: The bookish bits are an easy 10/10. The mystery bits, pretty bad, so only a 5/10. Okay, maybe a 6. Reflecting the time of writing and all that. The romance between the married couple, definitely a 10/10. Aubrey and Titania, hmm, they can have a 9. Another 10 for Bock the dog. It’s looking pretty good, here. Grand illustrations, too. How about an enthusiastic 9/10, with the note that this is very much a period piece, so proceed to read with that caveat in mind.
If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby-carriages, it is to be hoped you may chance upon a quiet by-street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.
This bookshop, which does business under the unusual name “Parnassus at Home,” is housed in one of the comfortable old brown-stone dwellings which have been the joy of several generations of plumbers and cockroaches. The owner of the business has been at pains to remodel the house to make it a more suitable shrine for his trade, which deals entirely in second-hand volumes. There is no second-hand bookshop in the world more worthy of respect.
It was about six o’clock of a cold November evening, with gusts of rain splattering upon the pavement, when a young man proceeded uncertainly along Gissing Street, stopping now and then to look at shop windows as though doubtful of his way. At the warm and shining face of a French rotisserie he halted to compare the number enamelled on the transom with a memorandum in his hand. Then he pushed on for a few minutes, at last reaching the address he sought. Over the entrance his eye was caught by the sign:
PARNASSUS AT HOME R. AND H. MIFFLIN BOOKLOVERS WELCOME! THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED
He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling of the muses, lowered his overcoat collar, and looked about.
It was very different from such bookstores as he had been accustomed to patronize. Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one: the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above, a gallery ran round the wall, which carried books to the ceiling. The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco. In front of him he found a large placard in a frame:THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts Of all great literature, in hosts; We sell no fakes or trashes. Lovers of books are welcome here, No clerks will babble in your ear, Please smoke--but don't drop ashes! ---- Browse as long as you like. Prices of all books plainly marked. If you want to ask questions, you'll find the proprietor where the tobacco smoke is thickest. We pay cash for books. We have what you want, though you may not know you want it. Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing. Let us prescribe for you. By R. & H. MIFFLIN, Proprs.
The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades. Passing down a narrow aisle between the alcoves the visitor noticed that some of the compartments were wholly in darkness; in others where lamps were glowing he could see a table and chairs. In one corner, under a sign lettered ESSAYS, an elderly gentleman was reading, with a face of fanatical ecstasy illumined by the sharp glare of electricity; but there was no wreath of smoke about him so the newcomer concluded he was not the proprietor.
As the young man approached the back of the shop the general effect became more and more fantastic. On some skylight far overhead he could hear the rain drumming; but otherwise the place was completely silent, peopled only (so it seemed) by the gurgitating whorls of smoke and the bright profile of the essay reader. It seemed like a secret fane, some shrine of curious rites, and the young man’s throat was tightened by a stricture which was half agitation and half tobacco. Towering above him into the gloom were shelves and shelves of books, darkling toward the roof. He saw a table with a cylinder of brown paper and twine, evidently where purchases might be wrapped; but there was no sign of an attendant.
“This place may indeed be haunted,” he thought, “perhaps by the delighted soul of Sir Walter Raleigh, patron of the weed, but seemingly not by the proprietors.”
His eyes, searching the blue and vaporous vistas of the shop, were caught by a circle of brightness that shone with a curious egg-like lustre. It was round and white, gleaming in the sheen of a hanging light, a bright island in a surf of tobacco smoke. He came more close, and found it was a bald head.
This head (he then saw) surmounted a small, sharp-eyed man who sat tilted back in a swivel chair, in a corner which seemed the nerve centre of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts, with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters. An antiquated typewriter, looking something like a harpsichord, was half-buried in sheets of manuscript. The little bald-headed man was smoking a corn-cob pipe and reading a cook-book.
“I beg your pardon,” said the caller, pleasantly; “is this the proprietor?”
Mr. Roger Mifflin, the proprietor of “Parnassus at Home,” looked up, and the visitor saw that he had keen blue eyes, a short red beard, and a convincing air of competent originality.
“It is,” said Mr. Mifflin. “Anything I can do for you?”
So begins this charming story, which was literally forced upon me by the proprietor of Murdoch’s Bookshoppe in Mission, B.C., during a recent visit. “Have you read that?” he demanded of me as I browsed through it at the front desk while he was totting up my other purchases, giving me a stern look after he plunked each tempting hardcover down after noting the pencilled-in price. “No!? What do you mean, you’ve heard of it? You must READ it. Buy it!”
So I did. And I have. Bought it and read it.
How to describe this? Well, first off, it’s a stand-alone sequel to an earlier book, Parnassus on Wheels, in which our hero apparently operates a kind of travelling bookshop. Haven’t read that one yet, but it’s on my to-acquire list. (Though I see it is recently available via Project Gutenberg, as is The Haunted Bookshop itself and a number of Morley’s other works. I still prefer a physical book, after having experimented with a friend’s e-reader, and after reading a number of works online through Gutenberg. Print on the paper page, please, though I firmly believe that Gutenberg is providing a crucial resource by making available so many out of print gems. I occasionally do some proofreading for Gutenberg projects, which is an incredibly satisfying volunteer pastime. Maybe I should write a post about that one day.)
I am digressing, which is appropriate, as The Haunted Bookshop is a great series of digressions itself.
It is also a love story (or two), a mystery story, an ode to the printed page and the ideas found between covers, and, most vividly, an anti-war tirade, being published immediately post World War I, when the world was still reeling from the brutality of that event.
Roger Mifflin and his wife Helen have settled down in New York to pursue the bookselling trade from a fixed location. They are about to take into their household the daughter of a wealthy friend, who wishes young Titania to sober herself from her frivolous ways by learning what it is to toil and earn her living by her labour. Titania turns out to be a true treasure, and she soon attracts a swain – a certain Aubrey Gilbert, who has come into the shop to attempt to sell advertising to Mr. Mifflin, and, though turned down on this front, becomes attached to happily eccentric Roger and makes the shop something of a second home
A mystery regarding the continual disappearance and reappearance of a Thomas Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell on the shop’s shelves leads to encounters with sinister Germans, and a plot to assassinate Woodrow Wilson on his way to a Peace Conference. All’s well that ends well (except for a casualty or two in the final dramatic scene.)
This is quite the period piece, as I mentioned earlier, but is more than redeemed by the glorious bits of rambling prose. I will leave you with another sample, which made me laugh out loud – not sure what that says about the nature of my sense of humour, but I found this very funny. I won’t force this book upon anyone in the forthright way of Mr. Murdoch, but I will give it a cheerful recommendation. And here is the author describing one of Roger’s domestic weaknesses.
I hesitate to touch upon a topic of domestic bitterness, but candor compels me to say that Roger’s evening vigils invariably ended at the ice-box. There are two theories as to this subject of ice-box plundering, one of the husband and the other of the wife. Husbands are prone to think (in their simplicity) that if they take a little of everything palatable they find in the refrigerator, but thus distributing their forage over the viands the general effect of the depredation will be almost unnoticeable. Whereas wives say (and Mrs. Mifflin had often explained to Roger) that it is far better to take all of any one dish than a little of each; for the latter course is likely to diminish each item below the bulk at which it is still useful as a left-over. Roger, however, had the obstinate viciousness of all good husbands, and he knew the delights of cold provender by heart. Many a stewed prune, many a mess of string beans or naked cold boiled potato, many a chicken leg, half apple pie, or sector of rice pudding, had perished in these midnight festivals. He made it a point of honour never to eat quite all of the dish in question, but would pass with unabated zest from one to another. This habit he had sternly repressed during the War, but Mrs. Mifflin had noticed that since the armistice he had resumed it with hearty violence. This is a custom which causes the housewife to be confronted the next morning with a tragical vista of pathetic scraps. Two slices of beet in a little earthenware cup, a sliver of apple pie one inch wide, three prunes lowly nestling in a mere trickle of their own syrup, and a tablespoonful of stewed rhubarb where had been one of those yellow basins nearly full—what can the most resourceful kitcheneer do with these oddments? This atrocious practice cannot be too bitterly condemned.
I do believe I will print that passage off and attach it to my fridge, in the hopes that my own domestic affairs will see an improvement in this area!