“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is a curious place indeed! It’s two bookstores in one. There are a few shelves in the front of the store with books for sale. Then, on the back wall, there are tall narrow shelves with connecting ladders; soaring skyward.
The books, with unheard of titles, stand covered in dust and are not for sale. Instead, members in a strange club come in any hour of the day or night. They return one book, present their membership card and request another title. What’s in these volumes? Certainly not words the common observer would understand, nor are they written in a foreign or ancient language.
The economy was booming when Clay Jannon earned his degree in graphic design. Like most other people in their 20s, he saw only blue skies ahead. He quickly landed a job at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel in San Francisco, where he set about designing a company logo, website and advertisements. And then came the great recession. In less than a year, he joined the ranks of thousands of other talented unemployed people. Searching the web, sending out resumes, contacting friends – all had the same result. Nada! Frustrated and running out of cash, he decided to take a walk. That’s when he noticed the “Help Wanted” sign in the window of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.”
Since the store is located in a rundown section of the city, Jannon thinks the sign must be a euphemism. Perhaps it’s actually an “adults-only” shop? Driven by the need for cash, he decides to investigate. It is indeed a bookstore, but certainly nothing like a Barnes & Noble. His vivid description sets the tone for the mystery. “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest; a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.” Out of the shadows comes a tall, thin and very wrinkled old man, with piercing blue eyes. “What do you seek in these shelves?” he asks. Of course, this is Mr. Penumbra.
Penumbra only has a few questions for Jannon. “Tell me … about a book you love. And, can you climb a ladder?” Jannon answered, “The Dragon-Song Chronicles.” Readers will discover the third book in the chronicles plays a major role in the rest of the story. While Jannon isn’t thrilled about climbing ladders, he desperately needs a job.
Author Robert Sloan writes in the first person, and is as mysterious as the bookstore he created. All he wishes readers to know about him is that he “grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet.” However, his book reveals much more. Sloan is a member of the “twitter age,” but his prose is magical, and he has a great respect for “OK,” his abbreviation for “Old Knowledge,” which is everything known before the invention of the Internet.
Jannon begins working the third shift at the bookstore immediately after agreeing to a few rules. 1) He must never be late for work or expect to leave early. 2) He must never browse or read the shelved volumes, the ones lent to book club members. 3) He must record every customer’s appearance, mood and personal mannerisms in a large logbook kept below the counter.
He quickly renames the strange books, “The Waybacklist,” because all the club members are old; such as Maurice Tyndall, whose membership card identifies him as 6WNJHY. Tyndall arrives in a disheveled, anxious state, asking for “Kingslake” as if his life depends on it. Jannon enters the title into an old Mac computer and sees that it’s located on “aisle 3, shelf 13, only about 10 feet up.”
It’s hard for Jannon to stifle his curiosity about the odd books, as his shift drags on into the wee hours of the morning. However, he’s concerned there could be cameras watching his every move. One evening, his roommate, Mat Mittelbrand, who makes props for movies, stops by. He’s dying to find what’s inside these books and quickly scrambles up a ladder to discover the books contain a secret code. From there, the plot thickens. Now, Jannon and his girlfriend, Kate, who works for Google, decide to decipher the code.
Through Kate, Sloan gives readers an insider’s view of the benefits Google employees enjoy, including gourmet meals, haircuts, naps and play areas. This part of the story isn’t fictional. I know because I googled it.
As the story progresses, Penumbra disappears and it’s revealed there are a number of bookstores in major cities around the world containing the same coded books. The window of each store has a logo picturing hands extended over the top of an open book.
All the characters in this novel are either young, in their 20s; or old, as in over 55. Yes, this book is about a generational/technological struggle. None of the book club members ever use a Smartphone or iPad, while Jannon and his friends can hardly comprehend life without electronic gadgets. But read on and you’ll discover Sloan is wise for his age. He certainly understands the benefits the digital age has created. Yet, he also realizes that sometimes we must all unplug and study what is right in front of us, in order to discover the secrets this world holds.
“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is so superbly written that you could even say it glows! Buy it for the book lovers on your holiday list. Get a copy for yourself, too, so you can discuss it with your family and friends. Who knows? You may even want to tweet about it.