Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Haunted Bookshop

The Haunted Bookshop
By Christopher Morley
Illustrated by Douglas Gorsline
Publisher: Lippincott
Published on June 1955
ISBN-13: 978-0-3970-0055-5
255 pages

Page 120: That's why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven't read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There's only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.

The Haunted Bookshop draws me straight into its story. I am intrigued by its title and this American classic first catches my attention when I read the review by Wendy of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. It's a story that booklovers will enjoy - a romance with books and a mystery to be solved. By the way, there is nothing haunted or spooky about it.

Roger Mifflin owns the second-hand bookshop on Gissing Street, Brooklyn. The bookshop operates under the name "Parnassus at Home," and is known as the Haunted Bookshop. He has a loving wife, Helen, and she is a fantastic cook. Her signature dish is the chocolate cake that every member of the Corn Cob Club relish. The Corn Cob Club is held at the bookshop for bookish discussions by the booksellers. I particularly enjoy and appreciate their discussions. For example, one of the booksellers, Benson said: "Look at the way a man shells out five bones for a couple of theatre seats, or spends a couple of dollars a week on cigars without thinking about it. Yet two dollars or five dollars for a book costs him positive anguish."

I can definitely relate to the thought above. Although the story dated way back in 1919, it is still true today. We could easily spend money on clubbing, movies, cigarettes and so on without blinking an eye but when asked to invest in good books, it sounds almost obscene to the other party. Again, Mr Mifflin articulated it very well in his dialogue with Titania, when he said: "You see, books contain the thoughts and dreams of men, their hopes and strivings and all their immortal parts. It's in books that most of us learn how splendidly worthwhile life is." Those are beautiful statements. A good book meets human hunger. A good book for you may not be a good book for me, so there's a book for everybody. And that's what Mr Mifflin takes pleasure in doing - he 'prescribes' books for such 'patients' as they visit his bookshop and who are willing to tell him their symptoms. Such is his passion for the art of bookselling.

The life led by the bookseller and his wife is easy-going and simple. Every day, they do business until about ten o'clock at night. Then Mrs Mifflin would brew a pot of hot cocoa and they would read or talk for a while before bed. Sometimes Mr Mifflin would walk their dog, Bock (short for Boccaccio). I would love a simple life like that. Often, I have such daydreams and hope that I would retire like the Mifflins and possess a passion like theirs.

The story does not just stop there. One day, a young advertising man named Aubrey Gilbert comes into the Haunted Bookshop hoping to sell copywriting service for his agency. In fact, the story almost begin with this young man. Mr Mifflin does not believe in paying for advertisement and goes on to explain his rationale to the young man. They became acquainted that way and even had supper together because Mrs Mifflin is out of town. Together, they discuss about literature.

Later, a young lady named Titania Chapman, the daughter of one of Mr Mifflin's best friends come to work for him. Her father believes that his daughter is frivolous due to her wealthy upbringing and education, so seeks Mr Mifflin to take her under his wings to teach her about earning her own living. Mr Mifflin is very excited about this opportunity and prepares for her arrival. Titania turns out to be a bright and very likeable girl. She is also very eager to learn about the trade.

More excitement and mystery unfolds - all in the span of a week while Titania is working at the Haunted Bookshop. Aubrey is obviously smitten by Titania's beauty. Meanwhile a copy of Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell keeps appearing and disappearing from the bookshop's shelf. Then there is a German pharmacist and chef who are acting very suspicious. They are seen with missing copy of Cromwell - something nasty is cooking. What could they possibly want to do with a book? At this time, the World War I had just ended.

I have totally enjoyed reading The Haunted Bookshop and will check out the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. This is a book that can be finished in one sitting and see the plot unfolds. There are some misunderstandings in the story. Some surprises. Twists and turns. The characters are likeable. I just wished for a happier ending for Bock the dog though...

NOTE: I share the favourite parts highlighted in Wendy's review.

Related Post: Book Morality