At first glance, a 24-hour bookstore makes no sense. At second glance also, and third, and really all glances because despite my valiant one-woman effort to visit all of them, bookstores are struggling. One need only look at the American Booksellers Association’s website (or the husk of a shuttered Borders) to know that bookstores are going the way of record stores: quaint, beloved, rare. It’s not so much a matter of if at this point, but when.
Fortunately, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a San Francisco outfit at which the hapless Clay Jannon is a newbie night clerk, isn’t your ordinary bookstore. The vast majority of MP24HB’s customers—who are few and far between—don’t bother with the popular fiction or latest fantasy titles at the front of the store; they’re concerned only with the back, where a collection of teetering multi-story shelves house what Clay calls the “Waybacklist,” nondescript hardcovers whose contents he is not allowed to explore.
Nor are these customers your ordinary bookstore patrons. They’re oddly dressed and oddly mannered, and they come into the store at all hours of the night and day, returning one book and requesting another, plowing slowly through the Waybacklist with a diligence Clay respects but doesn’t understand. Penumbra himself is mysterious and circumspect, and gives Clay only three mandates: Be here on time, don’t read the Waybacklist, and keep detailed records of every customer—what they buy, and how they looked, acted and seemed when they bought it. Normal, right? Totes normal.
Predictably, a curious and utterly bored Clay (dude has the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at a bookstore) finds himself seeking out more info on Penumbra, the store, and its oddball patrons and merchandise. It is his quest for answers that is the focus of MP24HB the book, and we as readers are along for the ride (as is a zany cast of side characters, including Clay’s genius Google-employee girlfriend Kat and his genius start-up CEO best friend Neel (who, and this is worth the double parentheses, got rich by developing the industry-standard software for 3D boob simulation)). It is a quest rooted in history, and one that ultimately has to do with how the past meets the future, and how the most cutting-edge technologies are being (or could be) applied to the oldest of information.
MP24HB is, overall, cute. It raises a lot of potentially annoying themes (namely, Technology) in a non-overbearing way, and with a lightness that lets you know Sloan doesn’t take himself too seriously. This is not a think piece on Big Data or The Future of Publishing, any more than Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff is a think piece on Jesus. Sloan’s levity keeps the book rolling, and makes the plot much more of a focal point than the real-world implications of its subject matter.
Moreover, Clay is a great leading man. He’s smart but not too smart, funny, nerdy, and ambitious in a kind of doofy Millennial way. (One of his first initiatives at MP24HB is to set up a hyper-local Google campaign, which searches for people who live nearby, like books, are up at night, carry cash, aren’t allergic to dust and like Wes Anderson movies.) Clay is reverent when it comes to Kat (who doesn’t love a guy who reveres intelligent woman?), and a champion of his friends and their talents: In the Penumbra quest, he characterizes Kat as the wizard, Neel as the warrior, and himself as the rogue. (…And let that serve as a general example of the kind of nerdery with which this novel is rife.)
My complaints about MP24HB are few and far between. The breeziness is such that the book can seem a little young adult, but a) that’s not necessarily a negative and b) early on, I was reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which is YA, and that bias stuck with me throughout. I wouldn’t say I found MP24HB to be as much of a page-turner as others did, but that’s okay. The novel is sweet, and unique, and would make a great movie. It’s a tribute to books and bookstores, and to the people—epitomized through Mr. Penumbra and his kooky cast of patrons—who frequent them, the people who still apply themselves to reading the way we so infrequently apply ourselves to anything anymore. For that alone, it’s worth a read.
TITLE: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
AUTHOR: Robin Sloan
PAGES: 304 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Ajax Penumbra 1969 (<– a short prequel to MP24HB), Annabel Scheme
SORTA LIKE: Ready Player One meets Youth in Revolt meets Lord of The Rings?
FIRST LINE: “Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fell off the ladder.”