Roger Carlson, the proprietor of Bookman’s Alley, died recently. Roger and his bookshop were great favorites of mine and I included them in The Time Traveler's Wife. This is an unpublished story I wrote a few years ago when the shop closed and Roger retired. I felt very shy when I gave it to him but he was as gracious as always about being press-ganged into my fictions. It is a chapter in my book-in-progress called The Library which begins with the story "The Night Bookmobile."
Mr. Openshaw stood in the alley outside the newly defunct book shop. It was just after midnight and New Year’s Eve was now the new year. I could hear fireworks and gun shots in the distance. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground and I stuck out my tongue to catch a stray snowflake as I walked down the alley. Mr. Openshaw was silhouetted by the light of the book shop window. He turned to me and beckoned.
We looked through the window at the man who sat at the front desk. Roger Carlson was a fine looking old gentleman, still tall and rangy with an enviable full head of white hair and clear blue eyes. Tonight he sat leaning on his elbows, chin propped in his hands, staring blankly into the depths of his shop.
I looked at Mr. Openshaw; he nodded. I rapped on the window. Roger started and squinted at us; I bent and put my face close to the glass. Surprised, he said, “Alexandra!” and as he tried to stand up I saw that one of his legs was in a cast. He fumbled with a pair of crutches and then managed to stagger to the door and let us in.
“I don’t believe it,” he said once he had resettled himself behind the desk and Mr. Openshaw and I were ensconced in comfortable chairs. Roger beamed at me and shook his head. “Why, I heard you had died!”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s kind of why I’m here tonight.” I wasn’t sure what to say; I’d never done this before. “This is Robert Openshaw. He’s my colleague at The Library.”
Roger nodded. “You work with Alexandra at the Sulzer?”
“No,” said Mr. Openshaw. “We both work for The Library now. We’re in the Acquisitions Department.”
I handed Roger my card. It read:
Alexandra Openshaw, Librarian
Roger said, “You’re married? Congratulations!”
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Just tied the knot yesterday, in fact,” said Mr. Openshaw. “We’re honeymooning.”
Roger glanced at the card again. “You work for an eternal library?”
“We’re dead,” Mr. Openshaw said. “We’ve got all the time in the world. And all the books ever written. It’s quite a complete collection.”
“You’re dead? Oh dear.” Roger smiled at me sorrowfully. “So... you’ve come for me?”
“No,” I said. “We’ve come for your book shop.”
“Today was the last day?” asked Mr. Openshaw.
“Yes,” Roger said. “It’s kaput. After thirty-one years.”
“It was my favorite,” I told him. “The best book shop ever.”
I gestured at the interior of the shop, which was ordinarily pretty orderly and quite inviting. Tonight it looked as though it had been burgled: books were heaped in piles on the floor, willy-nilly; there were empty shelves, the comfy chairs were full of old magazines and cardboard boxes were stacked in ominous piles, ready to be filled with all the unsold and unwanted books. The shop was called Bookman’s Alley. It was thirty-one years old, and tonight it had died.
It was the book shop of my youth. I had brought boyfriends here, had spent hours dreaming and wandering through these labyrinthine aisles of bookshelves. Bookman’s Alley sold used and rare books; they never had a web site, never sold a single volume on Amazon or Abebooks; the shop had been left behind by an electronic world.
“We’ve come to collect the soul of your book shop. For The Library. If that’s okay with you,” I said. “It would be part of the collection forever.”
Roger thought about this. “Could I visit it?”
“Not yet,” Mr. Openshaw said. “Eventually, yes, you can spend as much time there as you want. Once it’s part of the Library’s collection it will be open 24/7, for infinity.”
“I’d like that,” Roger said.
Mr. Openshaw had brought a bottle of champagne and three glasses; he uncorked the champagne and narrowly missed punching himself in the jaw. We toasted Bookman’s Alley and the new year. Then I asked Roger if he was ready and he nodded.
Mr. Openshaw took a tiny purple velvet box out of his pocket. It was the kind of thing an engagement ring might come in; he opened it as though he were about to propose. The ring that had been in the box sparkled on my finger.
“Will it fit in there?” asked Roger. “It’s so small. I would have thought a bookshop’s soul would take up more space.”
Mr. Openshaw smiled. “It really has no mass at all, it’s pure energy. Sometimes when people talk about digital books I think they are talking about the books’ souls. But of course it isn’t quite the same thing. We’re not here to digitize your book shop.”
Roger looked relieved. “Go ahead, then.”
Mr. Openshaw stood and held out his hands to the bookshop. An invisible silent transformation began: the space inside the box suddenly became intensely desirable, peaceful, beloved; it was as though all knowledge, all longing for home, all rest and beauty, all art, music, botany, history, math, science and sex had converged on the little velvet box. Mr. Openshaw closed his hands and we looked around at the bookshop. It was desolate. The books were only paper and board, common books that no one loved. It no longer smelled of leather and dust. Even my memories of Bookman’s Alley seemed to have moved into the box; the bookshop itself was now a slightly unfamiliar room full of books and empty shelves.
Roger held out his hand and Mr. Openshaw put the box into it. “Ah!” Roger said, and he sat holding the box for some time, eyes closed, head bowed. He looked up. “What about me? Will you take me, too?”
“Not yet,” said Mr. Openshaw. “But eventually, yes, if that’s what you want.”
“Promise me,” Roger said.
“We promise,” I said. “We’ll watch out for you.”
Mr. Openshaw took the box from Roger. “Are you leaving now?” Roger said.
I caught Mr. Openshaw’s eye. “We can stay all night,” I said to Roger. “Have some more champagne. And tell us stories.”
“Tell us about Bookman’s Alley from the very beginning.” We all settled in, and began to hold a wake for Bookman’s Alley as the snow piled up against the door and sporadic fireworks punctuated the night. The soul of the bookshop was safe in Mr. Openshaw’s pocket, ready and waiting for any reader who might like to browse there on some remote afternoon in eternity.