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A great bookshop in fiction and fact

7 February, 2008

The setting for Sheridan Hay’s novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Fourth Estate, 2006) is a quirky bookshop. Her descriptions of the place and its staff remind me of the traditional bookshops, which unfortunately are fast vanishing. Unlike the mega chain bookstores, the traditional shops are often small in size but huge in variety, offering a cornucopia of choices. An additional pleasure is talking to the staff, who love books and whose knowledge goes beyond the current best-seller list.

Given that Hay’s fictional bookshop is in New York City, I wonder if she based it on the famous Strand Books in the same city.

The novel

The Secret of Lost Things is a coming-of-age story. Rosemary Savage, an 18-year-old innocent from Tasmania, Australia, goes unwillingly and alone to New York City after her mother dies. The first part of the book concerns the wrench she feels in being transplanted to a major city halfway around the world. But NYC slowly becomes home as she makes friends, gets her first flat, and also lands her first job, in a large bookshop. The Arcade has an odd collection of employees. There’s Pearl, an aspiring male opera singer waiting for gender-reassignment surgery. And Oscar, who is much less interested in people than in fabrics and collecting notes about everything. Arthur, an elderly gentleman who loves buying and selling the books he presides over in the rare book section. And Walter, whose albinism sets him apart from the others and both repulses and attracts Rosemary.

The second part of the novels turns into a mystery, the quest for a supposed lost manuscript by Herman Melville. As the Arcade becomes a hotbed of rivalries and betrayals, Rosemary must make some difficult choices about allegiance, love and freedom.

The real-life Arcade?
Was Hay’s fictional bookshop modelled on the huge and wonderfully overwhelming Strand Book Store? It opened in 1927. Now it has over 2.5 million books, which you can buy in person or online. It even sells books by the linear foot!

I visited it for the first time several years ago. For a bibliophile, it’s heaven. It reminded me that although online book shopping is fine when you want a particular book at a good price, what you lose is the opportunity to riffle through a book, reading a passage here and there, to see if you want to buy it. And what about the serendipity of browsing shelves and finding something you d0n’t even know you crave until you clap eyes on it?

Strand’s rare book section is amazing. To get there, I went up in a tiny lift, which brought me to a smallish room with high ceilings, its walls filled with valuable manuscripts and old books in glass-fronted bookcases. I could have stayed there forever, but it was clear that this was a place for business, i.e., the big sales to collectors that Hays talks about in her novel.

Back in the shop’s main section, I decided to search for an academic title about the Iroquois Theatre fire (Chicago, 1903). Fifteen minutes later and I was in the checkout queue, holding the very book that in Australia I had longed to examine. Although I could have ordered it via the Internet, it was a special pleasure to find it on a shelf in a real shop, seemingly waiting just for me.

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