Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 2

  “Really?” North Face pouted. “Shoot. Well, I guess I’ll buy it online. Thanks.” She wandered back out into the night, and so far she hasn’t returned.

  Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this:

  1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley.

  2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it—those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches.

  3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.)

  4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific.

  5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

  So I set myself to righting the ship. No, I do not know anything about bookstore management. No, I do not have my finger on the pulse of the post-strip-club shopping crowd. No, I have never really righted any ships, unless you count the time I saved the Rhode Island School of Design fencing club from bankruptcy by organizing a twenty-four-hour Errol Flynn movie marathon. But I do know there are things that Penumbra is obviously doing wrong—things he isn’t doing at all.

  Like marketing.

  I have a plan: First I’ll prove myself with some small successes, then ask for a budget to place some print ads, put a few signs in the window, maybe even go big with a banner on the bus shelter just up the street: WAITING FOR YOUR BUS? COME WAIT WITH us! Then I’ll keep the bus schedule open on my laptop so I can give customers a five-minute warning when the next one is coming. It will be brilliant.

  But I have to start small, and with no customers to distract me, I work hard. First, I connect to the unprotected Wi-Fi network next door called bootynet. Then I go one by one through the local review sites, writing glowing reports of this hidden gem. I send friendly emails with winking emoticons to local blogs. I create a Facebook group with one member. I sign up for Google’s hyper-targeted local advertising program—the same one we used at NewBagel—which allows you to identify your quarry with absurd precision. I choose characteristics from Google’s long form:

  • lives in San Francisco

  • likes books

  • night owl

  • carries cash

  • not allergic to dust

  • enjoys Wes Anderson movies

  • recent GPS ping within five blocks of here

  I only have ten dollars to spend on this, so I have to be specific.

  That’s all the demand side. There’s also supply to think about, and Penumbra’s supply is capricious to say the least—but that’s only part of the story. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is, I have learned, really two stores in one.

  There’s the more-or-less normal bookstore, which is up front, packed in tight around the desk. There are short shelves marked HISTORY and BIOGRAPHY and POETRY. There’s Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Trevanian’s Shibumi. This more-or-less normal bookstore is spotty and frustrating, but at least it’s stocked with titles that you could find in a library or on the internet.

  The other bookstore is stacked behind and above all that, on the tall laddered shelves, and it is comprised of volumes that, as far as Google knows, don’t exist. Trust me, I’ve searched. Many of these have the look of antiquity—cracked leather, gold-leaf titles—but others are freshly bound with bright crisp covers. So they’re not all ancient. They’re just all … unique.

  I think of this as the Waybacklist.

  When I started working here, I assumed they were just all from tiny presses. Tiny Amish presses with no taste for digital record-keeping. Or I thought maybe it was all self-published work—a whole collection of hand-bound one-offs that never made it to the Library of Congress or anywhere else. Maybe Penumbra’s was a kind of orphanage.

  But now, a month into my clerkship, I’m starting to think it’s more complicated than that. You see, to go with the second store, there’s a second set of customers—a small community of people who orbit the store like strange moons. They are nothing like North Face. They are older. They arrive with algorithmic regularity. They never browse. They come wide awake, completely sober, and vibrating with need. For example:

  The bell above the door will tinkle, and before it’s done, Mr. Tyndall will be shouting, breathless, “Kingslake! I need Kingslake!” He’ll take his hands off his head (has he really been running down the street with his hands on his head?) and clamp them down on the front desk. He will repeat it, as if he’s already told me once that my shirt is on fire, and why am I not taking swift action:

  “Kingslake! Quickly!”

  The database on the Mac Plus encompasses the regular books and the Waybacklist alike. The latter aren’t shelved according to title or subject (do they even have subjects?), so the computer assist is crucial. Now I will type K-I-N-G-S-L-A-K-E and the Mac will churn slowly—Tyndall bouncing on his heels—and then chime and show its cryptic response. Not BIOGRAPHY or HISTORY or SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, but: 3-13. That’s the Waybacklist, aisle 3, shelf 13, which is only about ten feet up.

  “Oh, thank goodness, thank you, yes, thank goodness,” Tyndall will say, ecstatic. “Here is my book”—he will produce a very large book from somewhere, possibly his pants; it will be the one he’s returning, exchanging for KINGSLAKE—”and here is my card.” He will slide a prim laminated card across the table, marked with the same symbol that graces the front windows. It will bear a cryptic code, stamped hard into the heavy paper, which I will record. Tyndall will be, as always, lucky number 6WNJHY. I will mistype it twice.

  After I do my monkey business on the ladder, I will wrap KINGSLAKE in brown paper. I will try to make small talk: “How’s your night going, Mr. Tyndall?”

  “Oh, very good, better now,” he will breathe, taking the package with shaking hands. “Making progress, slow, steady, sure! Festina lente, thank you, thank you!” Then the bell will tinkle again as he hurries back out into the street. It will be three in the morning.

  Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?

  These are the things I ask myself when I sit here alone, after Tyndall or Lapin or Fedorov has left. Tyndall is probably the weirdest, but they’re all pretty weird: all graying, single-minded, seemingly imported from some other time or place. There are no iPhones. There’s no mention of current events or pop culture or anything, really, other than the books. I definitely think of them as a club, though I have no evidence that they know one another. Each comes in alone and never says a word about anything other than the object of his or her current, frantic fascination.

  I don’t know what’s inside those books—and it’s part of my job not to know. After the ladder test, back on the day I was hired, Penumbra stood behind the front desk, gazed at me with bright blue eyes, and said:

  “This job has three requirements, each very strict. Do not agree to them lightly. Clerks in this store have followed these rules for nearly a century, and I will not have them broken now. One: You must always be here from ten p.m. to six a.m. exactly. You must not be late. You cannot leave early. Two: You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all.”

  I know what you’re thinking: dozens of nights alone, and you’ve never cracked a cover? No, I haven’t. For all I know, Penumbra has a camera somewhere. If I sneak a peek and he finds out, I’m fired. My friends are dropping like flies out there; whole industries, whole parts of the country, are shutting down. I don’t want to live in a tent. I need this job.

  And besides, the third rule makes up for the second:

  “You must keep precise records of all transactions. The time. The customer’s appearance. His state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it. Does he appear to be injured. Is he wearing a sprig of rosemary on his hat. And so on.”

  I guess under normal circumstances this would feel like a creepy job requirement. Under the actual circumstances—lending strange books to s
tranger scholars in the middle of the night—it feels perfectly appropriate. So, rather than spend my time staring at the forbidden shelves, I spend it writing about the customers.

  On my first night, Penumbra showed me a low shelf inside the front desk where, lined up, there was a set of oversized leather-bound tomes, all identical except for bright Roman numerals on their spines. “Our logbooks,” he said, running his finger down the line, “going back nearly a century.” He hauled up the rightmost tome and laid it on the desk with a heavy whump. “You will help to keep them now.” The logbook’s cover bore the word NARRATIO, deeply embossed, and a symbol—the symbol from the front windows. Two hands, open like a book.

  “Open it,” Penumbra said.

  Inside, the pages were wide and gray, filled with dark handwriting. There were sketches, too: thumbnail portraits of bearded men, tight geometric doodles. Penumbra gave the pages a heave and found the place about halfway through, marked with an ivory bookmark, where the writing ran out. “You will note names, times, and titles,” he said, tapping the page, “but also, as I said, manner and appearance. We keep a record for every member, and for every customer who might yet become a member, in order to track their work.” He paused, then added, “Some of them are working very hard indeed.”

  “What are they doing?”

  “My boy!” he said, eyebrows raised. As if nothing could be more obvious: “They are reading.”

  So, on the pages of the book labeled NARRATIO, numbered ix, I do my best to keep a clear, accurate record of what transpires during my shift, with only an occasional literary flourish. I guess you could say rule number two isn’t quite absolute. There’s one weird book I’m allowed to touch in Penumbra’s. It’s the one I’m writing.

  When I see Penumbra in the morning, if there’s been a customer, he will ask me about it. I’ll read a bit out of the logbook, and he will nod at my record-keeping. But then he will probe even deeper: “A respectable rendering of Mr. Tyndall,” he’ll say. “But tell me, do you remember, were the buttons on his coat made of mother-of-pearl? Or were they horn? Some kind of metal? Copper?”

  Yes, okay: it does seem strange that Penumbra keeps this dossier. I can’t imagine a purpose for it, not even a nefarious one. But when people are past a certain age, you sort of stop asking them why they do things. It feels dangerous. What if you say, So, Mr. Penumbra, why do you want to know about Mr. Tyndall’s coat buttons? and he pauses, and scratches his chin, and there’s an uncomfortable silence—and we both realize he can’t remember?

  Or what if he fires me on the spot?

  Penumbra keeps his own counsel, and the message is clear: do your job, and don’t ask questions. My friend Aaron just got laid off last week and now he’s going to move back in with his parents in Sacramento. In this economic environment, I prefer not to test Penumbra’s boundaries. I need this chair.

  Mr. Tyndall’s coat buttons were jade.


  To RUN MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-Hour Bookstore around the clock, one owner and two clerks divide the circle of the sun into thirds, and I get the darkest slice. Penumbra himself takes the mornings—I guess you’d call it prime time, except that this store doesn’t really have one of those. I mean, a single customer is a major event, and a single customer is as likely to show up at midnight as at half-past noon.

  So I pass the bookstore baton to Penumbra, but I receive it from Oliver Grone, the quiet soul who carries it through the evening.

  Oliver is tall and solid, with thick limbs and huge feet. He has curly, coppery hair and ears that stick out perpendicular to his head. In another life, he might have played football or rowed crew or kept low-class gentlemen out of the club next door. In this life, Oliver is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying archaeology. Oliver is training to be a museum curator.

  He’s quiet—too quiet for his size. He speaks in short, simple sentences and always seems to be thinking about something else, something long ago and/or far away. Oliver daydreams about Ionian columns.

  His knowledge runs deep. One night I quizzed him using a book called The Stuff of Legend, snagged from the bottom of Penumbra’s tiny HISTORY section. I covered the headings with my hand and showed him the photos alone:

  “Minoan bull totem, 1700 B.C.,” he called out. Correct.

  “Basse Yutz flagon, 450 B.C. Maybe 500.” Yes.

  “Roof tile, A.D. 600. Gotta be Korean.” Also yes.

  At the end of the quiz, Oliver was ten for ten. I’m convinced his brain simply works on a different time scale. I can barely remember what I ate for lunch yesterday; Oliver, on the other hand, is casually aware of what was happening in 1000 B.C. and what it all looked like.

  This makes me jealous. Right now, Oliver Grone and I are peers: we have exactly the same job and sit in exactly the same chair. But soon, very soon, he will advance by one very significant degree and accelerate away from me. He will find a place in the real world, because he’s good at something—something other than climbing ladders in a lonely bookstore.

  Every night I show up at 10:00 p.m. and find Oliver behind the front desk, always reading a book, always with a title like The Care and Feeding of Terra-Cotta or Arrowhead Atlas of Pre-Columbian America. Every night I rap my fingers on the dark wood. He looks up and says, “Hey, Clay.” Every night I take his place, and we nod farewell like soldiers—like men who uniquely understand each other’s circumstances.

  When I’m done with my shift, it’s six in the morning, which is an awkward time to be set loose in the world. Generally I go home and read or play video games. I’d say it was to unwind except that the night shift at Penumbra’s doesn’t really wind a person up. So mostly I’m just killing time until my roommates rise to meet me.

  Mathew Mittelbrand is our artist-in-residence. He’s rail-thin, pale-skinned, and keeps strange hours—even stranger than mine, because they’re less predictable. Many mornings I don’t have to wait for Mat; instead, I come home to discover that he’s been up all night toiling on his latest project.

  During the day (more or less) Mat works on special effects at Industrial Light and Magic in the Presidio, making props and sets for movies. He gets paid to design and build laser rifles and haunted castles. But—I find this very impressive—he doesn’t use computers. Mat is part of the dwindling tribe of special-effects artists who still make things with knives and glue.

  Whenever he’s not at ILM, Mat is working on some project of his own. He works with crazy intensity, feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire, just absolutely consuming them, burning them up. He sleeps lightly and briefly, often sitting up straight in a chair or lying pharaoh-like on the couch. He’s like a storybook spirit, a little djinn or something, except instead of air or water his element is imagination.

  Mat’s latest project is his biggest yet, and soon there won’t be room for me or the couch anymore. Mat’s latest project is taking over the living room.

  He calls it Matropolis, and it’s made out of boxes and cans, paper and foam. It’s a model railroad with no railroad. The underlying topography is all steep hills made from packing peanuts held in place with wire mesh. It started on one card table, but Mat has added two more, both at different levels, like tectonic plates. Spreading across the tabletop terrain there’s a city.

  It’s a scaled-down dreamscape, a bright glittering hyper-city made with scraps of the familiar. There are Gehry-esque curves made from smooth tinfoil. There are Gothic spikes and crenellations made from dry macaroni. There is an Empire State Building made from shards of green glass.

  Taped to the wall behind the card tables there are Mat’s photo references: printed-out images of museums, cathedrals, office towers, and row houses. Some are skyline shots, but more are close-ups: zoomed-in photos of surfaces and textures taken by Mat himself. Often he stands and stares at them, rubbing his chin, processing the grit and glint, breaking it down and reassembling it with his own bespoke LEGO set. Mat uses everyday materials so ingeniously that their original provenance fad
es away and you can only see them as the tiny buildings they’ve become.

  On the couch there’s a black plastic radio remote; I pick it up and click one of the knobs. A toy-sized airship dozing near the doorway buzzes to life and scoots toward Matropolis. Its master can maneuver it so it docks at the top of the Empire State Building, but I can only make it bump against the windows.

  Just up the hall from Matropolis is my bedroom. There are three rooms here for three roommates. Mine is the smallest, just a little white cube with Edwardian filigree in the ceiling. Mat’s room is the biggest by far, but it’s drafty—it’s up in the attic, at the top of a steep narrow staircase. And the third room, a perfect balance between size and comfort, belongs to our third roommate, Ashley Adams. She’s currently asleep but will not be for long. Ashley rises at precisely six forty-five every morning.

  Ashley is beautiful. Probably too beautiful—too shiny and clean-lined, like a 3-D model. Her hair is blond and straight, cropped clean at her shoulders. Her arms are toned from twice-weekly rock-climbing sessions. Her skin is perpetually sun-kissed. Ashley is an account executive at a PR agency, and in that capacity she ran PR for NewBagel, which is how we met. She liked my logo. At first I thought I had a crush on her, but then I realized she’s an android.

  I don’t mean that in a bad way! I mean, when we figure them out, androids are going to be totally great, right? Smart and strong and organized and thoughtful. Ashley is all of those things. And she’s our patron: the apartment is hers. She’s been living here for years, and our low rent reflects her long tenure.

  I for one welcome our new android overlords.

  After I’d been here for about nine months, our then-roommate Vanessa moved to Canada to get an eco-MBA, and it was me who found Mat to replace her. He was a friend of a friend from art school; I’d seen his show at a tiny white-walled gallery, all miniature neighborhoods built inside wine bottles and lightbulbs. When it came to pass that we were looking for a roommate and he was looking for an apartment, I was excited about living side by side with an artist, but I wasn’t sure Ashley would go for it.