The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

NEWS ALERT: Indie bookshops are closing left and right at alarmingly rapid rates everywhere; in both big cities like Chicago and English villages like Hardborough, the latter the quaint setting for Penelope Fitzgerald's, Man Booker shortlisted, second novel, The Bookshop; they're being shut down, the bookshops, as if they were sweatshops run by misers, seemingly every time you scan the morning headlines of Shelf Awareness.

Old news, bookstore closures? It wasn't old news in 1978, when Penelope Fitzgerald published The Bookshop, perhaps adding prescience to the poignancy already in glowing abundance in these bittersweet, but ravenously delectable pages about a courageous, recent widow's dream to do something (and to be somebody) different: Independent for the first time in her life: A bookseller. Brave woman.

Florence Green (a pity her last name is so descriptively apt concerning her business acumen), itching for adventure and a means of making her own way in the world for the first time since her husband's death, takes a huge, optimistic gamble, and opens her bookshop in a long-vacated, leaking, draughty and dilapidated, antiquated structure befitting its name - "The Old House" - in an English village with an ominous name of its own: Hardborough. Indeed it's hard starting up any business anywhere, but a bookshop in an establishment as rickety and sodden as the Old House? Can you imagine? Isn't dampness and draught anathema to pulp? Water-stained books are not fast sellers.

And isn't location everything too for a bookshop? Florence Green has chosen a site in an everybody-knows-everybody hamlet that has one unpaved road in, and just that same frequently flooded and muddied (when the high-tide rolls in) road out. Might be easy to open a bait-and-tackle shop at such a site, but a bookshop?

And did I mention that the Old House is haunted by what the locals term a "rapper"? An entity that, no, does not wear a baseball cap sideways nor work double turntables simultaneously, but whom makes a lot of racket nonetheless. And knocks over books and sticker displays. The ghostly nuisance of such a benign poltergeist!

Despite the odds stacked against Florence; and despite Violet Gamart and her uppity political power dead-set against the bookshop, for awhile, with the aid of an eleven year old girl, Christine Gipping, as well as a part-time bookkeeper, and the most honorable auspices and support of the veritable heart and soul of Hardborough itself, the wealthy landowner, Mr. Brundish, Florence Green is able to make a good go with her bookshop, and for a year, she's relatively, surprisingly, successful. Even her lending library is a smash.

But not everyone is so thrilled with her success. Surrounding businesses are jealous. Violet Gamart, (the Ice-Queen of Hardborough) isn't happy, either, her fairy-tale visions of the Old House becoming an "Arts Centre" for the town dashed by this naive entrepreneur, Florence Green, and her preposterous bookshop.

Florence Green would've been wiser not to give Christine Gipping, her eleven-year-old, impulsive part-timer, so much authority in the lending library, turns out, especially on the occasion of Violet Gamart's very first visit to the store. Precocious Christine, strictly abiding by the checkout lending rules, "intervenes" rather rudely (but within her rights!) as Violet Gamart attempts to procure for herself a volume out of turn. There's a waiting list, Lady, abide by it! A swift ruler-thwack to Violet's knuckles and...The Old House Bookshop, unfortunately, inevitably, is doomed. Sorry to not warn of spoilers, but the book (a novella really) lets you know soon, anyway, that there won't be a happy ending.

Penelope Fitzgerald's style is concise and fast paced, but full like a hearty homecooked meal leaves you full. The book is small, but richer and more satisfying than any meager, hoity-toity hor d'oeuvre; diminuitive, sure, but like a diamond: perfect in equilateral literary geometric dimensions that only enhance its shiniest story sparkle. The Bookshop, in 123 pages, sparkles like that perfect diamond, more rare jewel than slim, rarely read book nowadays...and then some.