Tag Archives: bookstore

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

There is a moment early in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when the narrator, Clay Jannon, first meets and describes his love interest, Kat Potente, describing her thus: “[T]his girl is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.” It’s narration that not only describes Kat, but also reveals Clay’s reaction to her, and, above all, it’s true: It’s the way a twentysomething geek might react to a girl to whom he’s attracted. I couldn’t help thinking, “Reading is fun again!” Over-the-top, perhaps, but that’s how I felt throughout the entirety of Robin Sloan’s 2012 novel.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The story begins in the wake of the Great Recession. Clay Jannon, recent art school graduate and employee of NewBagel, the pet project of two ex-Googlers, finds himself out of a job and in fear of living in a tent. Desperate for a job, Clay gives up on Internet searches (which invariably lead to hours spent bookmarking articles that are too long to read) and turns to the now-arcane art of “beating the pavement.” On one of his treks throughout San Francisco, Clay notices a “clerk wanted” sign on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Inside, Clay meets the kindly and aged proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, and takes the job; Clay will work the 10pm to 6am shift.

But (of course) the bookstore is not all it seems. The entryway is stocked in a desultory way with the kinds of books a reader might expect to find — A Steve Jobs biography, some Dashiell Hammett — but the bulk of the store’s cavernous interior is devoted to huge folios checked out by members of the “club.” Clay opens one of these books (despite Penumbra’s instructions not to) and finds that they’re all written in code. A data simulation run on Clay’s laptop reveals a strange pattern in the customers’ borrowing behaviors. And that’s when things start to get weird.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra's store.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra’s store.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delight to read. Clay’s narration is spot-on. Meeting Kat for a second time, he notices that she’s wearing the same t-shirt as she was during their first encounter. Clay concludes: “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.” Later, describing Kat’s enthusiasm for various Google initiatives: “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.” It’s that sort of knowing and just-slightly-jaded-enough tone that Clay uses throughout the story.

Of course, Clay’s commentary is informed by Sloan’s firsthand experience in the tech industry: Sloan has worked for Twitter, among other companies, and knows a thing or two about their culture. Several scenes take place on Google’s campus and, based on Sloan’s descriptions, it seems safe to say he’s been there. San Francisco, too, is lovingly described, and Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore will be recognizable to those bibliophiles who still indulge in haptic reading experiences.

Indeed, part of Sloan’s purpose appears to be the examination of the intersection of tradition and innovation, of old and new technologies. While Penumbra champions Clay’s use of technology, Corvina, Penumbra’s boss, takes umbrage: The “cult” (Clay’s word for it) should only use its traditional methods, which involve print books and slates for notes. Sloan recognizes that too great a reliance on any one idea or artifact is the basis for the cults he describes. He rightly points out that the movable type was a disruptive technology in its day, and that, of course, Google is not the antithesis of print (and other, more “traditional” forms of information and knowledge), but a continuation on a spectrum. The print book is a technology, among the most successful the world has ever known, but its use led to, and interacts with, the digital world. One does not negate the other. The story’s end points to a hopeful partnership between the two.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a pleasure to read. Sloan’s humor is snarky without resorting to cynicism; there is a touch of whimsy that buoys up what is ultimately an uplifting narrative. Even the secondary characters are recognizable, real, and readers will find themselves emotionally engaged with them, which, after all, is what you want from a good book. The “bibliomystery” aspect is really a device to move the plot forward, but book lovers, in the truest sense of that world, will especially appreciate it. Highly recommended.

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Philly Book Stores: Book Trader

Bookstores have personalities. They’re characters. If you can get past the smell of moldering books and, sometimes, cat urine, you’ll find that each bookstore is beautiful and unique in its own special way, much like the patients in movie lunatic asylums. (Fun fact: Did you know that the decay of books is really “burning,” albeit at a slow pace, as they release their carbon back into the atmosphere?)

Thus it’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to the Book Trader, which I would characterize as a slightly grumpy Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis iteration). Think Doc Brown meets Uncle Fester. Or not. Maybe I’m just confusing the Addams Family’s mansion with the bookstore.

Book Trader facade.

Book Trader facade.

Location and Hours

Book Trader has possibly the best location of all used bookstores in Philly. You’ll find the shop in Old City, right across the street from historic Christ Church. Book Trader is on 2nd Street just north of Market. Old City is a highly trafficked neighborhood, both during the day and at night. The district teems with restaurants and bars, and the nightlife is lively enough for visitors to feel safe well past Book Trader’s 10pm closing time. (Although looking for used books at 10pm seems…unwholesome.) The store opens at 10am daily.

Unwholesome: "Hello, mother..."

Unwholesome: “Hello, mother…”

Prices

Prepare to be mystified! Book Trader notes, using pencil, prices on upper right corner of the book’s first page. I can read Cyrillic, I can read Hebrew, but I can’t read the Book Trader’s handwriting. Most prices appear to me to be a lower case “g” followed by two zeros. That “g” could be a “9.” It could be a “4.” Frankly, I’m not convinced that the cashiers know, either, since their typical reaction is to pause and peer at the book before announcing its price. I imagine they’re doing quick mental calculations, futilely trying to divine the book’s price by comparing it to the hundreds of other tomes that have passed through their hands over the past few days.

I complained before about the price of used books. Perhaps I’m cheap or, to put a positive spin on it, “thrifty.” Book Trader’s books are on the expensive side. I know what you’re thinking. “Booksellers gotta feed their families, too!” Yeah, but Book Trader’s kids about to go on Social Security themselves, so that ain’t it. During my last visit, just this month (January 2013), the books I looked at averaged about $7 each, which is more than I’m willing to pay for most paperbacks, especially those that are battered.

The Book Trader makes some strange decisions. I once purchased there a copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic for $1.97. The store’s owner told me, “That’s a great book, but I can’t sell it for more than that because of the underlining!” I sold it on Half.com for $15. Indeed, I knew I could get that when I bought it. The economics of used bookstores is both mystifying and fascinating.

Precious + Useful.

Precious + Useful.

In theory, Book Trader will give you credit for any books you turn into him. I was told in 2008 that the exchange rate was approximately five to six of your books in order to earn one Book Trader book. Note: Book Trader doesn’t accept bestsellers.

Selection

Book Trader has an amazing, I would say overwhelming, selection of subjects. Nonfiction may be found on the ground floor. A store-length history section is abutted by shelves on politics, philosophy, psychology, film and the arts, the sciences, and religion. There’s also several shelves of VHS tapes for several dollars each, or 3 for $4. So enjoy that. I’ve had particular success in the American history and religion sections.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Ground floor, looking out the center aisle toward the entrance.

Fiction may be found on the second floor. And there is a lot of fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Just a portion of the fiction.

Think of the second floor as a big “U”: Mainstream fiction or “literature” comprises the “U,” inside of which are shelves holding genre fiction. Mysteries/thrillers and sci-fi/fantasy comprise the bulk of the genre shelves.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

Just some of the sci-fi and fantasy books.

I like Book Trader’s sci-fi section, which is one of the largest of all the bookstores I’ve been to in Philly. I was pleased during my last visit to find to two Catherynne M. Valente books, including Deathless, a favorite of mine. You might not find exactly the author you’re looking for, but you’re bound to find something, and that sense of discovery is one of the reasons we visit used bookstores, right?

Character

Book Trader is a little kooky, like your uncle who insists he has definitive evidence that Jesus had an older brother. Can I see it, Uncle Bob? Of course not.

Book Trader is an experience; my pictures don’t do it justice. Just a few years ago, the store underwent a major renovation, “major” to be understood as a relative term, that involved improving the lighting. Prior to said renovation, the store was incredibly dark, in part due to the monolithic shelves and cramped aisles. I expected to have to use my phone as a flashlight in the sci-fi section, but was pleased to discover that I was able to read titles and authors without any difficulty.

That’s not to say that Book Trader’s “improvements” have all panned out. I enter Book Trader with dreams of browsing for hours, but am forced to flee after about an hour due to a sense of claustrophobia as the cramped conditions take their toll on my already too-fragile psyche. Piles of books on the floor contribute to the sense of walls closing in. Hold me.

Do they ever move?

Do they ever move?

Service at Book Trader is…different. Or perhaps typical of used bookstores? I’ve had a few giggles as inexperienced customers approach the cashier and ask if they have a specific book in stock, only to be answered with “I don’t know” or “If we did, it would be in the [insert subject] section…” Which is really only a slightly more polite way of saying “I don’t know.” That said, the store’s attendants are otherwise friendly and more than willing to talk about books. Just don’t expect them to be able to help you find anything. You’ll understand if you ever visit. (I did not take pictures of the box fans sitting atop bookshelves, extension cords dangling in the spaces between the shelves.)

Art in the sci-fi section.

Art in the sci-fi section.

There’s always music playing, usually bombastic classic tunes that are in no way conducive to browsing, but are perhaps better suited to storming the gates of Valhalla. It was a rainy Saturday when I last visited, and an Everly Brothers compilation was playing, a nice change of pace. The story is never “busy,” per se; you’ll be joined at most by two or three fellow browsers.

Conclusion

Book Trader is an institution, and, like an institution, has the prerogative to indulge its quirks. You don’t like it? Too bad. I suspect Book Trader doesn’t care.

If you’ve never been to Book Trader, you need to go at least once, just for the experience. I’ve enjoyed taking virgins to the store only to see them gawp in horror at the labyrinth with which they’re confronted. Then I drink their tears. Book Trader virgin tears help keep my skin looking young.

I try to visit every few months, but it never pans out the way I imagine. I assume I’m going to find books x, y, and z, but I don’t, and my patience for browsing wears thin as the shelves begin closing in on me. I’m pretty sure that, if I died on the second floor, my body wouldn’t be discovered for weeks.

Book Trader isn’t the best used bookstore in Philly, but it’s one of the biggest, and you really should visit.

Judging Books by Their Covers, Part III

I previously shared some interesting book covers here and here.

Whilst browsing a Philly bookstore (in order to contribute to my documentation of such locales as The Book Corner and The Next Page), I encountered some additional treasures:

Don't be fooled into buying the unofficial handbook.

Don’t be fooled into buying the unofficial handbook.

I was going to say something snarky, but then I saw Gaiman and Oates on the cover.

I was going to say something snarky, but then I saw Gaiman and Oates on the cover.

This isn't a book, but...I just...I don't even know.

This isn’t a book, but…I just…I don’t even know.

Judging Books by Their Covers, Part II

I found some more winners at Book Corner.

I'm from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

I’m from Amish country, so I had to include this one, vunst.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

In case you were *really* interested in gerbils.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Pro: Built-in audience. Con: Audience has difficulty turning pages.

Um.

Um.

I kind of love this one.

I kind of love this one.

Based on Strange Encounters, I think I might need to start asking readers to guess the publication year based on the book’s cover art.

 

 

 

A Visit to the Book Corner

The first time I visited Book Corner, in 2008, I waited at the counter for several minutes as three employees stared slack-jawed at a laptop. I had to pee, pretty badly, really, so I persevered. “Do you have a restroom I might use?” I asked. The employee who was seated barely looked my way before brushing me off with a “no.” She didn’t even direct me to the Parkway Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), to which Book Corner is immediately adjacent, at which restrooms are plentiful and the customer service makes even the poorest man feel like a king. I stomped away, grumbling that I would never return.

Several years and countless visits later, my library consists disproportionately of books acquired at Book Corner.

Book Corner facade.

Book Corner facade.

Location and Hours

Book Corner is located at 311 N. 20th Street, a location that means nothing to most people. If you need a landmark, think of it as the little building behind the central branch of the FLP, which is on the Parkway. It’s accessible by both foot and bus, but good luck finding parking if you decide to drive. It’s not hard to find: There’s a giant sign that says “BOOK CORNER.” It’s open daily from 10am to 6pm.

The neighborhood in which Book Corner is situated is undergoing the first stages of gentrification. There’s a Starbucks a block away and a Whole Foods across the street. The Barnes Museum, now adjacent to the library building, relocated from the suburbs in 2012. Housing is becoming expensive; The Granary is one block north of the library and is demonstrative of the changing tenor of the Art Museum and Fairmount districts.

Prices

You’re in luck, book hoarder. Book Corner adheres to a strict and straightforward pricing policy:

  • Mass market paperbacks, $1
  • Paperbacks, $2
  • Hardbacks, $3

You will not find lower used book prices anywhere in Philly.

SWOON!

SWOON!

Book Corner also holds periodic sales during which they drop prices and vomit forth their hoarded tomes onto the sidewalks. In fact, there’s one coming up on October 18 and 19. Pack a tote. Or two.

October 18 and 19.

October 18 and 19.

Remember: Book Corner is run by the Friends of the Free Library. Any profits go to support FLP, which faces chronic budget difficulties. Do the FLP a solid and buy somethin’.

Selection

Book Corner’s biggest weakness is its selection. As a dumping ground for unwanted books, the store ends up with all manner of titles that no one wants. Consider this:

Gorbachev did happen. He really did.

Gorbachev did happen. He really did.

Just to the right of old Gorby, there, you’ll see The Soviet Dictatorship. I didn’t crack it open, but I suspect that The Soviet Dictatorship was published in the 70s at the most recent. The country to which it refers hasn’t existed for over 20 years. It’s the same with much of the material in the “Russia” section.

Book Corner needs a good weeding. The store should consider ridding itself of the many, many outdated books on its shelves that no one will ever buy. They not only take up real estate that might be better filled with more current material, but they also make the entire establishment seem dated. The store has a surfeit of material; surely it could remove the older titles in favor of newer ones, which often end up in USPS crates on the floor.

Is this an authorized use of USPS property, HMM?

Is this an authorized use of USPS property, HMM?

So a lot of books sit…and sit…and sit. Book Corner has an aura of permanence about it. Still, there is a good flow of new material into the store. Two years ago I found Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy for two bucks a pop. Not bad.

And there are A LOT of books to look at. A LOT.

This is only part of the fiction section.

This is only part of the fiction section.

This is a sampling of the nonfiction, which contains sections on African-Americans, Native Americans, and LGBT.

This is a sampling of the nonfiction, which contains sections on African-Americans, Native Americans, and LGBT.

There's a nice table in the middle of it all on which the staff rotates features.

There’s a nice table in the middle of it all on which the staff rotates features.

If you’re like me, you’ll make a beeline for the science fiction and fantasy section (ELBOWS OUT), which, sadly, is a little sparse.

What, no PKD?

What, no PKD?

Book Corner’s got you covered if you’re a Twilight fan, though.

Shudder.

Shudder.

Of course, part of the fun in visiting a used bookstore is the joy of the unexpected discovery. Book Corner won’t disappoint you. You’ll definitely find at least one of those books you’ve been hunting for over the years.

On a sad note, the store seems to ship the “good” titles over to the Next Page, their Center City store, at which they charge higher prices.

Character

Book Corner isn’t one of those little indie bookstores with a coffee shop and some dude playing acoustic guitar. You don’t don’t visit Book Corner for the ambiance. (Does anyone visit Philadelphia for the ambiance?) This place is functional.

Yes, I am grieving.

Yes, I am grieving.

The staff has been making improvements over the past few years, but Book Corner utilitarian, with a climate that’s insufficiently cool in the summer and stuffy in the winter. The floors creak. The windows are dirty. The hobos are surly and will begrudge you the books they use to feed the fires over which they cook their beans. Just kidding! You can see light through the windows.

Decor aside, Book Corner is spacious and welcoming. The quality of customer service has improved since my first visit: Just today I was welcomed with a smile and a “Hello, how are you?” As someone with a social phobia, I nearly shrieked in terror, but I appreciated the politeness nonetheless.

Book Corner recently acquired an orphaned cat that they’ve named “Chaucer.” He’s become the store’s mascot. I couldn’t get a picture of the little rascal. As a cat, he was determined to thwart me in whatever I do. Still, he’s a friendly little guy, and you’ll sometimes find him curled up on a pile of books. Don’t be afraid to pet him. I suspect he moonlights as a mouser.

Conclusion

You should visit Book Corner at least once to get a sense of it yourself. Philly doesn’t have a lot of used bookstores, and Book Corner’s cheap and accessible. Besides, any money you spend will benefit FLP. And if you’re a reader, I know you wanna pet that cat.