Readers and writers are drawn to bookstores like mountaineers are drawn to views. For some of us, it’s hard to walk past without swerving to check out the storefront, at the very least.
There is something inherently hopeful about bookstores. Refuges for diverse spirits, the best convey a sense of possibility and community. It’s no surprise that novels set there abound. Most are heartwarming hymns to healthy bonds forged between readers. Many have been made into movies, like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The book store (1978), Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookstore (2013) and Gabrielle Zevin The troubled life of AJ Fikry (2014).
These novels are populated by strangers or loners who often immerse themselves in literature at the expense of their lives. In a frequent storyline, the luckiest of them connect with a kindred spirit through a shared fondness for a specific bookstore or book. Other scenarios involve the growing threat of big bad corporations or declining book sales and literacy in the digital age of smartphones, social media and video games – and the avid readers who come together to save their beleaguered local store.
Sometimes booksellers are not bound within four walls, but instead sell their wares directly to customers from bookmobiles. At Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2008), one of these clients is the Queen of England, who belatedly discovered the joys and benefits of reading.
Two best-selling foreign short novels newly translated into English – one from Germany, the other from Japan – hit many of the genre’s high points, including a dedicated bookseller who makes house calls, hauling his wares in a backpack.
The door-to-door bookstore by Carsten Henn
This charmer, translated from the German by Melody Shaw, is a decidedly sentimental and decidedly uplifting novel about the friendships forged through books.
Carl Kollhoff, a 72-year-old bookseller from southern Germany, is popular with his customers for finding the right books for them. But its purpose is threatened when the ruthless daughter of her longtime boss takes over the family business, determined to drive out her father’s star employee and dear friend. (Bill Nighy, who was so stellar in Fitzgerald’s 2017 film The book storewould be perfect in the role.)
The highlight of Carl’s tightly circumscribed life is delivering books every night to a handful of locked-in customers. Selections are dictated by their stated preferences – for happy endings, tragedy, philosophical works, etc. Trouble ensues when a supernaturally wise (and sickeningly wise) motherless 9-year-old girl accompanies him on his tours. She decides that Carl isn’t actually giving his customers what they really need and hatches a plot to fix this.
Like Carl’s backpack, Henn manages to fill his novel with books without weighing it down. The chapter titles allude to classics: A Man for All Seasons, The Stranger, The Red and the Black, Great Expectations. Carl, who is terrible with names, assigns a literary character to each customer – Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Longstocking, The Reader – to help keep them straight.
We gradually get to know these city dwellers: the abused woman; the melodious budding writer who is paid to read classics to cigar factory workers; the retired schoolteacher who enjoys spotting suggestive typos like “At his sight, he could barely contain his arbor”.
The door-to-door bookstore is also peppered with amusing observations. Carl divides the readers into hares, who skim through the books; the fish, which let themselves be carried away by the books on their current; curious lapwings, which leap ahead to see the end first; and the turtles, who fall asleep every night after just one page and take months to read through a book, forcing them to go back repeatedly to check what they forgot.
Readers will have fun finding their way through these pages.
Days at Morisaki Bookstore by Satoshi Yagisawa
Translated from Japanese by Eric Ozawa, this slim novel — first published and filmed in Japan in 2010 — is another solace on how literature helps open up emotionally constipated people who aren’t good at expressing their feelings.
Takako, the novel’s outspoken 25-year-old narrator, is taken aback when a coworker she’s been seeing for over a year announces he’s going to marry a beautiful woman in the same office. Tokyo. In her grief, Takako quits her job and goes to bed. Given a choice between returning home to Kyushu or moving into the musty guest room above her eccentric uncle’s second-hand bookstore in Tokyo’s Jimbocho book district, she chooses the latter.
The unadorned simplicity of Takako’s voice is anything but subtle, but it somehow wins in its candor. About her time at the Morisaki Bookstore, she says, “That’s when my real life began. And I know, without a doubt, that if it wasn’t for those days, the rest of my life would have been bland, monotonous and lonely.”
Takako gradually comes to like her uncle Satoru, whom she initially characterizes as “the exact opposite of anyone’s idea of a worthy man.” Disheveled but nice, his uncle urges him to consider his bookstore as his home base, and tells him about his own itinerant youth before he took over his father’s business. “Maybe it takes a long time to figure out what you’re really looking for,” he says.
Much to her uncle’s delight, a non-reader Takako is gradually drawn into the modern classic Japanese novels crammed all over her shop – Junijiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai. His perspective broadens. Satoru introduces her to his favorite cafe, where she befriends other bibliophiles. Takako tries to help her uncle understand why his wife Momoko left him without a word of explanation years ago, and what Satoru – and herself – could do differently in their relationship.
Days at Morisaki Bookstore establishes a strong connection between the empathy released by great literature and Takako’s growing sense of self-confidence and well-being. The reading, she tells us with the typical frankness of this sweet tale, “opened a door I didn’t know existed”.