Love bookstores? Get a load of these novels set in scenic bookshops


For a book lover, the only thing better than a great book is a great book that’s about books. Photo: AP

There is a place in every decent-sized city where all the world’s problems could be solved, if we would pay attention.

I’m talking about bookstores (or, maybe even better, libraries). Their treasures of knowledge may be why, all of a sudden, there are so many books set in stores.

For a book lover, the only thing better than a great book is a great book that’s about books. And, whether it’s Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (set in a store modelled on her own Birchbark Books), Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Storied Life Of A.J. Fikry or Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore, they all incorporate the idea that books are magical objects that contain the wisdom of the ages, secrets to getting along with others and a heck of a lot of fun.

(Oh, and, carnage, too. Trying to remember the title of “Bright Ideas,” I searched for “murder” and “bookstore” and found more than a dozen murder mysteries set in bookstores.)

We’ve probably had bookstore books as long as publishing has existed, but the current flurry, including at least a dozen last year, probably has something to do with the enduring popularity of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop (2015), which has been translated into 28 languages, and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop in 1978 (which became a gorgeous movie in 2017, starring Emily Mortimer as the proprietor).

Both bestsellers highlight one popular feature of bookshop books. Well, two: It sounds quainter to refer to it as a “bookshop” than a “store.” And it’s wise to set it in a picturesque locale (Paris, coastal England), so local culture can factor in.

That’s also the case with Fikry, set near Cape Cod, and Penumbra, in San Francisco. And it’s true of the new Midnight At The Christmas Bookshop, set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Welcome To The Hyunam-Dong Bookshop, in Seoul, South Korea.

An enticing setting is practically the whole reason for this year’s Days At The Morisaki Bookshop, which could have bibliophiles racing to schedule trips to Tokyo.

Satoshi Yagisawa’s overseas blockbuster (translated by Eric Ozawa) takes place in the real-life Jimbocho Book Town, a neighbourhood composed almost entirely of bookstores (more than a hundred of ‘em). It’s like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, except with Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami volumes instead of magic wands.

Morisaki is a wispy little novel about the relationship of an aimless young woman and her uncle, who rescues her by offering her a job in his Tokyo store. It was a smash in Japan and a bestseller around the world, so lots of people have enjoyed the cozy tale but, for my taste, not enough of the book actually took place in the bookshop and the story, which offers the possibility of romance for a couple of characters, wasn’t hugely satisfying.

Many writers enjoy pairing romantic action with the romance of books. Little Paris Bookshop, set on a barge that floats the rivers of France, is owned by a man who spends the whole novel grieving for a long-ago love while also making like a Dewey Decimal System therapist, who matches customers with the books to ease their woes.

Midnight At The Christmas Bookshop is a full-on romance, with a backdrop of Scotland as it cycles through about a year, including the annual theatre fringe festival and a snowy holiday season.

It’s easy to imagine Midnight as a Hallmark movie, with wisecracking Carmen trying to revive a nearly bankrupt bookstore while coping with its eccentric owner, her rambunctious extended family and a lover who headed to South America the minute they felt a spark.

One problem with the book? I didn’t believe in the central romance – like, at all. It’s powered by really dumb contrivances such as a ruined telephone, a scheming romantic rival and a conveniently timed house fire.

What saves Midnight is writer Jenny Colgan, who has a wicked sense of humor and a great feel for bookshops (Midnight is her fourth with the word in the title and, no fool she, she also wrote novels set in chocolate shops and bakeries).

If you do some searching for bookshop books, there’s something for almost everyone, with heavy doses of romance and mystery.

I may have found my ideal bookshop book when I read Hyunam-Dong, by Hwang Bo-reum (translated by Shanna Tan). It soft-pedals the romance, although it’s left as a possibility that store owner Yeongju will pursue something with an author she hires for a reading – after she makes a success of the store she opened after she burned out in the business world.

Like pretty much all bookshop books, Hyunam-Dong includes a bonus: book recommendations, many of them Korean (Paris Bookshop even ends with an appendix that lists a couple of pages’ worth of the titles noted in the book). But what sets Hyunam-Dong apart is how much it reveals about getting a store up and running.

“Books are not meant to remain in your mind, but in your heart,” an author tells Yeongju.

“At a crossroad in life, a forgotten sentence or a story from years ago can come back to offer an invisible hand and guide you to a decision.”

Named for its suburban Seoul neighbourhood, Hyunam-Dong contains lively discussions of Yeongju’s efforts to organise book clubs, set up readings (complete with her discussion-spurring questions) and schlep together a coffeeshop to lure potential readers.

As part of her possible courtship of the writer featured at the reading, there’s even an entire chapter about editing (I promise it’s more interesting than that sounds). We know the couple are falling for each other because we notice, before they do, that they have similar views on what makes a good sentence.

There are no huge revelations for Yeongju, who is a little ambivalent about both her store and her life, but she learns a lot about bookstores along with us.

By the end of Hyunam-Dong, she has encountered enough surprises to figure out that bookshops – and love – rarely go by the book. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service

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