Title: Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores
Editor: Greg Ketter
Published: 3 October 2012
Publisher: Prime Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
In 1977, Greg Ketter opened a bookstore mostly so he could get his own books more cheaply. 25 Years later, he still runs an independent bookstore and publishes work by authors he likes. As the 25-year anniversary approached, he decided to put together this sff and horror anthology “in which the bookstore was a character, a major component of the story, a true motivating factor”. He rejected those that were simply set in a bookstore, as well as stories that were book-oriented but did not have a suitably strong bookstore element.
The very first story actually seems like it should be in the latter category though, because its about fantastical book that just happens to be in a bookstore. In “From the Cradle” by Gene Wolf, a widow is looking for a new owner for a book that belonged to her husband. The story is told from the POV of a shop assistant who later becomes the store owner. Every time he brings this book out of its display, it flips open to a story that resonates with his own life. The store, however, is just a means of bringing the protagonist into regular contact with the book, and it could easily have been written differently.
Most of the stories in Shelf Life are true to Ketter’s rationale though. Not surprisingly, most of them use the romantic ideal of the old, cosy, often mysterious indie store where book-loving protagonists almost always find the perfect read, often with the help of a slightly eccentric owner or sales assistant. I find that this ideal bookstore is a bit of a fantasy in itself, although I’ve never had the pleasure of going to an indie bookstore in the US or England, where almost all of these stories are set. Other common tropes come up too, like seemingly vast bookstores full of treasures, bookstores that defy the laws of physics or have taken on a life of their own, and of course many characters wax lyrical abut the charm and beauty of a great bookstore. There’s an entire introduction by Neil Gaiman doing exactly that.
“A Book by it’s Cover” by P.C. Cacek is set in Nazi Germany and features a bookstore that has come to life like a golem because of all the ideas inside it. It’s gained the magical ability to turn people into books, with both wonderful and disastrous consequences.
In “Lost Books” by John J. Miller a broke writer is offered a home in a bookstore by the owner, an old man who he finds unnervingly familiar. He later recognises him as a famous Egyptian warrior from 4000BC.
In “One Copy Only”, Ramsey Campbell’s rather overwrought prose tells the tale of a bookstore that hits all the fantasy ideals – it’s a tumbledown old place known only to an tiny, passionate clientele, with an owner who recommends the most amazing books. It also has an otherworldly reading room, where the most favoured customers can read books that don’t exist anywhere else.
“Pixel Pixies” by Charles de Lint is a sweet fae story about a hob living in a bookstore that gets overrun by pixies from the internet.
These stories were all nice, but the only one I really loved was “The Hemingway Kittens” by A.R. Morlan. This might just be the cutest story I’ve ever read. A bookstore owner gets a pair of cats to kill the rats in her store, but they become permanent residents, beloved by the customers and extremely good for business. Years later, the third set of bookstore cats is provided by her quirky assistant Rik. He gives her two beautiful [Hemingway Kittens or polydactyl cats], which have have extra toes, giving them hand-like paws. The two kittens, named Jay and Zelda, display an uncanny intelligence, as if they actually understand speech and can read the books. I have to admit that there’s one aspect of these story that’s deeply implausible (no, it’s not the idea of cats who can read) but I found it so utterly charming that I didn’t care.
About halfway through the anthology though, I started to get bored. Either the less interesting stories got shoved in the back, or I just got increasingly tired of the theme. These stories sometimes had interesting ideas, but I didn’t like any of them that much, and I had to rely heavily on my notes to recall what they were about.
There are several more magical bookstores. In “Ballard’s Books” by Gerard Houarner, a man spends many years of his life search obsessively for a mythical bookstore that he once heard his father and uncle talking about. “Books” by David Bischoff features a suspicious secondhand bookstore full of priceless first editions being sold for only a few dollars. “Escapes” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman uses the idea of a books and a bookstore as an escape from life, particularly for the new employee, a woman who’s run away from her abusive partner. The magical bookstore offers both comfort and protection. In “The Cheese Stands Alone” by Harlan Ellison, a man stumbles across a decidedly creepy bookstore full of people who are just standing still, staring at the books in their hands. An very old woman tries to make him choose a book as well.
Most of the other stories are fantasy as well. “I Am Looking For a Book” by Patrick Weekes is the only humorous story, about a sorcerer or something looking for a book of power (or something) in a modern bookstore, only to be thwarted by unhelpful staff and caramel raisin biscotti. There’s a kind of story-vampire in “The Glutton” by Melanie Tem. Rather than feeding on blood, she lives off the stories people tell, but eventually drains them dry. This one’s also not really about the bookstore – it’s just a good place for the ‘vampire’ to feed. In “In the Bookshadow” by Marianne de Pierres, demons start appearing in a bookshop because too much soulless commercial crap is being sold. Based on that logic there should be demons in all the biggest bookstores, but perhaps this particular bookshop is being punished because it has the look and feel of an old-fashioned store but the manager is running it more like a chain store. In “Non-Returnable” by Rick Hautala, a bookseller keeps trying to return a book she ordered to the publisher, but it keeps coming back and also seems to be drinking her blood.
Finally “Shakespeare and Co.” by Jack Williamson was my least favourite story, a bit of dystopian sci fi with far too much boring infodumping. Also, it’s not about the famous bookstore in Paris, as I had hoped.
I would have liked to see a bit less nostalgia in this collection, and a bit more about about bookstores that aren’t magically quaint. Those might be the kinds of stores we love most, but it’s not the only kind we love. Online shopping has its own pleasures and conveniences (we don’t all live close to wonderful stores stocking everything we want), and I thought a story like “The Other Amazon” by Jenny Davidson (Clarkesworld Magazine, December, 2006) would add some variety. It’s about a woman with a serious Amazon book-buying habit, who one finds that she’s able to buy books that haven’t been written or published, but will be or could have been.
Naturally, a few of the stories in Shelf Life express disdain for large commercial chains, and that’s understandable, but as a booklover I still get excited when walking into those stores, I enjoyed working in one, and they’re an important source of books for many readers. The sales assistants might not be well-read and insightful enough to recommend the perfect book, but I have bloggers, and literary magazines, and Goodreads and my own judgement to help with that.
What about bookstores in non-Western settings? Or why not something completely off the charts? One of the most interesting stories I read last year was “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed Magazine, August, 2012) – an imagining of the ‘books’, ‘reading’ practices and literary habits of alien species. It makes me think – what might an alien bookstore be like? What would the idea of a bookstore be to beings who ‘read’ in a completely different way? That would really bring something fresh to Shelf Life.
Anyway, I’m just throwing ideas around now. I think this collection could have been much, much better, but as it stands, it’s just nice. Quaint, a little stuffy. I’m sure most readers would find something to like or love here, but chances are the collection as a whole is not going to blow you away. It lacks the wild, expansive quality of sff, and is bogged down by too much of the same sort of thing. Maybe it’s best to read it slowly, a bite or two in between novels, rather than consuming it all in one go.