A Novel about a Bookstore: Robert Hellenga’s “Love, Death & Rare Books”

“We’re fine,” I say on the landline. (I’m keeping it real.) Of course things are not fine. They are far from fine. At least we have enough books.  Should we start a bookstore in our living room?

What I miss is browsing in bookstores. Sounds trivial, doesn’t it?   I miss the dusty stacks where you discover South American novels you’ve never heard of, and  bright displays of new books with crisp pages.

A few bookstores are open again.  I stood in a socially-distanced line and noticed a copy of Robert Hellenga’s new novel, Love, Death, & Rare Books.  I had not read any reviews of this, but I bought it.

And it is everything I need in a novel right now: it is a book about books! I am racing through this fictitious history of a family-owned antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, Chas. Johnson & Sons, from 1970 to 2011.

Gabe, the narrator, grows up at the store, and eventually works side-by-side with his father and grandfather. As you can imagine, he inhales books, beginning with The Hardy Boys, and The Catcher in the Rye, and moving on to Ovid, Homer, Wordsworth, Walter Mosley, and Salman Rushdie (the store is bombed when they display The Satanic Verses in the window). As Gabe gets older, he is drawn to Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. And he is a melancholy guy himself, reserved, introspective, and rejected by the woman he loves.

We see how the business changes over the years, and I am fascinated by the details about the valuation of rare books, the bookseller’s deep knowledge of a book’s provenance, a trip to assess 100,00 books in a library at a bankrupt Jesuit college, book sales at Christie’s, and antiquarian book fairs.

Although Gabe is immersed in bookselling, his personal life is somewhat messy.  In his twenties he falls in love with Lydia, an independent, beautiful young woman writing a thesis on Keats (she works in the bookstore and recites “The Eve of St. Agnes” at the dinner table). Alas, she is too focused on romantic poetry to marry him: she goes to graduate school at Yale to learn to deconstruct Keats.  When she returns pregnant by her married English professor, Gabe remains her friend, and is with her in the delivery room. She still refuses to marry him.  He does not compare to the professor.

Why, why doesn’t she marry Gabe, we moan.  Truth to tell: I found Lydia irritating. She is so strong-minded and personable (though caustic) that she has more romantic choices than Gabe does. “I’m not a nun,” she says at one point.

I haven’t finished this well-written book yet, but if you want to read about the book business,  Hellenga’s enthusiastic description provides a good balance to actual bookstore owner Shaun Bythell’s more caustic view in Diary of a Bookseller.