The Haunted Bookshop
by Christopher Morley
A sequel to Parnassus on Wheels
Roger Mifflin and his wife Helen are the proprietors of Parnassus at Home, a cozy little bookshop in Brooklyn. Roger is in love with his work and forever lectures his wife and his customers about the glories of books and bookselling. When Aubrey Gilbert stumbles into the shop, hoping to add a new advertising account to those he represents at the Grey-Matter Advertising Agency, he is immediately swamped by Roger’s bookish philosophy. But it’s not all bad for young Aubrey. The beautiful daughter of one of his agency’s most prominent clients, Titania, has recently started working for the Mifflins as a shop assistant. But a mystery seems to haunt the bookstore; a copy of Thomas Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell seems to be disappearing from the store’s stacks, only to reappear a few hours later, and a strange man has been spotted lurking around the shop. Aubrey is determined to solve the mystery and protect Titania from the kidnapping plot he believes is being hatched by her employer, Roger Mifflin!
What a love letter to books and the life of a bookseller! Roger Mifflin loves to talk, and to talk about books and his shop. Too many years spent in a fug of tobacco smoke and yellowing pages seems to have given him plenty of time to form sermons on reading and literature. Roger is extremely opinionated about his work, and has no qualms about sharing his philosophy, as he does when he rebuffs Aubrey’s attempts to sell him on advertising:
Look here, you wouldn’t go to a doctor, a medical specialist, and tell him he ought to advertise in papers and magazines? A doctor is advertised by the bodies he cures. My business is advertised by the minds I stimulate. And let me tell you that the book business is different from other trades. People don’t know they want books. I can see just by looking at you that your mind is ill for lack of books but you are blissfully unaware of it! People don’t go to a bookseller until some serious mental accident or disease makes them aware of their danger. Then they come here. For me to advertise would be about as useful as telling people who feel perfectly well that they ought to go to the doctor…Physician, cure thyself! Let the bookseller learn to know and revere good books, he will teach the customer. The hunger for good books is more general and more insistent than you would dram. But it is still in a way subconscious. People need books, but they don’t know they need them. Generally they are not aware that the books they need are in existence.
He goes on, and on. The book was written right after World War I. A lot of attention is given to Woodrow Wilson’s upcoming peace talks, and Roger’s rambling lectures of books extends to multiple discussions of how books can be used to start war, justify the fighting and help to restore mankind’s sanity when the battles have ended. The story is definitely a product of its time, and some of the post-WWI anti-German and anti-Russian sentiments are found in his characters. Aubrey immediately suspects a pharmacist of being behind the kidnapping plot because he’s German, and angrily calls anyone he thinks guilty of wrongdoing a bolshevik.
As a booklover, I found many of Roger Mifflin’s many talks about his favorite discussion interesting. There are a lot of great book-related quotes here. Naturally, as a bookseller Roger constantly names off titles that I assume were popular – or at least well-regarded – in the early twentieth century, but many have since faded into obscurity. The book he rails against most often was one of the few I was familiar with…Tarzan. The subplot about the disappearing/reappearing Oliver Cromwell was pretty weak, as was the blossoming romance between Aubrey and Titania. If I could, I’d cut all that out and just boil the story down to a couple chapters about an old man puttering about his bookshop. It’s a charming, quick read for bibliophiles.
It doesn’t seem to be necessary to read the previous book in this series, Parnassus on Wheels, to understand this book. I didn’t even know it existed until I was already halfway through The Haunted Bookshop.
4 out of 5 stars