Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novelby Robin Sloan
A Winner of the Alex Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore./i>/i>/i>/i>
A Winner of the Alex Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anythinginstead, they "check out" large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele's behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore's secrets extend far beyond its walls. Rendered with irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.
“Robin Sloan has written this novel with rhythmic precision, and Ari Fliakos endows each of the characters with his or her own color and flavor. He makes believers of us all as Clay and his friends forge ahead on this fanciful journey – part mystery, part quest. We listen with delight and hope we can glimpse the future.” AudioFile Magazine
“Ari Flaikos's narration convincingly captures the enthusiasm of the youthful narrator as well as the older Mr. Penumbra…Recommended for those seeking a light mystery that celebrates the digital age.” Library Journal
“Ari Flaikos nails the young, tech-savvy, cynical Clay. However, Fliakos really shines when rendering the book's supporting cast. His take on Mr. Penumbra is so different from his portrayal of Clay that listeners might think a different actor performed it. Such is the case with nearly every character in this audio edition, all of whom Fliakos provides with distinct inflections, tones, and rhythms.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Ari Fliakos does a fine job with MR. PENUMBRA. The novel is rife with obscure terminology drawing from a diverse wealth of linguistic sources, yet Fliakos makes few if any slips. His youthfully exuberant Clay and his tremulously throaty Mr. Penumbra fit the characters perfectly, as do the voices he selects for most of the other characters.” SFF Audio
“It is most appropriate for a novel whose denouement involves an audiobook to appear in that form…Ari Fliakos takes on a range of voices to portray the seekers engages in penetrating the mysteries of an ancient volume… [An] engaging, newfangled quest.” The Washington Post
“Delightful.” Graham Joyce, The Washington Post
“An irresistible page-turning novel.” Newsweek
“One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you're likely to have this year . . . extremely charismatic . . . deeply funny . . . there's so much largehearted magic in this book . . . Sloan is remarkably gifted and has an obviously deep affection for both literature and technology.” Michael Schaub, NPR Books
“A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet . . . [Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy . . . Sloan's ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra's puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.” Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] winning literary adventure . . . Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age.” Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“Fantastic . . . I loved diving into the world that Sloan created, both the high-tech fantasyland of Google and the ancient analog society. It's packed full of geeky allusions and wonderful characters, and is a celebration of books, whether they're made of dead trees or digits.” Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, GeekDad
“Robin Sloan cleverly combines the antiquated world of bibliophilia with the pulsating age of digital technology, finding curiosity and joy in both. He makes bits and bytes appear beautiful . . . The rebels' journey to crack the code--grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways--will excite anyone's inner child. But this is no fantasy yarn. Mr. Sloan tethers his story to a weird reality, striking a comical balance between eccentric and normal . . . The pages swell with Mr. Sloan's nerdy affection and youthful enthusiasm for both tangible books and new media. Clay's chatty narration maintains the pace and Mr. Sloan injects dry wit and comedic timing suited to his geeky everyman . . . A clever and whimsical tale with a big heart.” The Economist
“Man, is this book fun--especially for any book nerd who isn't in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! The feel!) but wouldn't give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark.” Emily Temple, Flavorpill
“What makes Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan's great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.” Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday
“Beguiling . . . The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent . . . Sly and infectious.” Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Sloan isn't just exploring new ideas, but laying the groundwork for a new genre of literature. While the influence of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson is present, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is something all its own: a technocratic adventure where every riddle and puzzle is solved with very real gadgets, a humanizing reflection on technology that evokes the tone of a fairy tale, a brisk and brainy story imbued with such confidence that it will leave you with nothing but excitement about the things to come.” Kevin Nguyen, Grantland
“In a time when actual books are filling up tag-sale dollar boxes, along with VHS tapes and old beepers, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore reminds us that there is an intimate, adventurous joy in the palpable papery things called novels, and in the warm little secret societies we used to call ‘bookstores.' Robin Sloan's novel is delightfully funny, provocative, deft, and even thrilling. And for reasons more than just nostalgia, I could not stop turning these actual pages.” John Hodgman
“The love child of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson's Reamde, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a hugely enjoyable story of friendship, living, and the lure of the mysterious. It's a good-hearted, optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new. It's a book that gets it. Plus, you know: cryptographic cults, vertical bookshops, hot geeks, theft, and the pursuit of immortality. I loved it. And yes, I too would freeze my head.” Nick Harkaway
“Robin Sloan is a skilled architect, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an ingeniously designed space, full of mysteries and codes. A clever, entertaining story that also manages to be a thought-provoking meditation on progress, information and technology. Full of intelligence and humor.” Charles Yu
“Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a real tour de force, a beautiful fable that is given legs by the author's bravado use of the real (Google is in there, for instance, the actual campus) to sell us on a shadow world of the unreal and the speculative. Robin Sloan comes across as so bighearted, so in love with the world--the ancient world, the contemporary world--so in love with love, in love with friendship, in love with the idea that our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty, that the reader is swept along by his enthusiasm. It's a lot of fun--but it's also a powerful reading experience with a wonderful undeniability.” George Saunders, in Blip Magazine
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Read an Excerpt
LOST IN THE SHADOWS of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there—the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.
I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines—and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.
But let me back up.
* * *
My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.
I’d sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help-wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I’d get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes. Too long, actually, so I’d add it to my reading list. Then I’d follow another link to a book review. I’d add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the book—third in a series about vampire police. Then, help-wanted ads forgotten, I’d retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly, and read all day. I had a lot of free time.
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.
The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.
There was lots to do. First, one of the ex-Googlers asked me to take a crack at redesigning the company’s logo. It had been big bouncy rainbow letters inside a pale brown circle; it looked pretty MS Paint. I redesigned if using a newish typeface with sharp black serifs that I thought sort of evoked the boxes and daggers of Hebrew letters. It gave NewBagel some gravitas and it won me an award from San Francisco’s AIGA chapter. Then, when I mentioned to the other ex-Googler that I knew how to code (sort of), she put me in charge of the website. So I redesigned that, too, and then managed a small marketing budget keyed to search terms like “bagel” and “breakfast” and “topology.” I was also the voice of @NewBagel on Twitter and attracted a few hundred followers with a mix of breakfast trivia and digital coupons.
None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a task that burdened my soul and earned me zero AIGA awards. The marketing budget dwindled, then disappeared. There was less and less to do. I wasn’t learning anything and I wasn’t moving anywhere.
Finally, the ex-Googlers threw in the towel and moved to Costa Rica. The ovens went cold and the website went dark. There was no money for severance, but I got to keep my company-issued MacBook and the Twitter account.
So then, after less than a year of employment, I was jobless. It turned out it was more than just the food chains that had contracted. People were living in motels and tent cities. The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.
That was a depressing scenario when I considered the competition. I had friends who were designers like me, but they had already designed world-famous websites or advanced touch-screen interfaces, not just the logo for an upstart bagel shop. I had friends who worked at Apple. My best friend, Neel, ran his own company. Another year at NewBagel and I would have been in good shape, but I hadn’t lasted long enough to build my portfolio, or even get particularly good at anything. I had an art-school thesis on Swiss typography (1957–1983) and I had a three-page website.
But I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.
It was paper that saved me. It turned out that I could stay focused on job hunting if I got myself away from the internet, so I would print out a ream of help-wanted ads, drop my phone in a drawer, and go for a walk. I’d crumple up the ads that required too much experience and deposit them in dented green trash cans along the way, and so by the time I’d exhausted myself and hopped on a bus back home, I’d have two or three promising prospectuses folded in my back pocket, ready for follow-up.
This routine did lead me to a job, though not in the way I’d expected.
San Francisco is a good place for walks if your legs are strong. The city is a tiny square punctuated by steep hills and bounded on three sides by water, and as a result, there are surprise vistas everywhere. You’ll be walking along, minding your own business with a fistful of printouts, and suddenly the ground will fall away and you’ll see straight down to the bay, with the buildings lit up orange and pink along the way. San Francisco’s architectural style didn’t really make inroads anywhere else in the country, and even when you live here and you’re used to it, it lends the vistas a strangeness: all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree. And looming behind it all, if you’re facing the right direction, you’ll see the rusty ghost of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I had followed one strange vista down a line of steep stairstepped sidewalks, then walked along the water, taking the very long way home. I had followed the line of old piers—carefully skirting the raucous chowder of Fisherman’s Wharf—and watched seafood restaurants fade into nautical engineering firms and then social media startups. Finally, when my stomach rumbled, signaling its readiness for lunch, I had turned back in toward the city.
Whenever I walked the streets of San Francisco, I’d watch for HELP WANTED signs in windows—which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use Craigslist.
Sure enough, the 24-hour bookstore did not have the look of a legitimate employer:
Now: I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. My help-wanted hike had taken me far from home; the place next door was called Booty’s and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.
I pushed the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.
So I stuck to the front half of the store, where bright midday light pressed in and presumably kept the wolves at bay. The wall around and above the door was glass, thick square panes set into a grid of black iron, and arched across them, in tall golden letters, it said (in reverse):
Below that, set in the hollow of the arch, there was a symbol—two hands, perfectly flat, rising out of an open book.
So who was Mr. Penumbra?
“Hello, there,” a quiet voice called from the stacks. A figure emerged—a man, tall and skinny like one of the ladders, draped in a light gray button-down and a blue cardigan. He tottered as he walked, running a long hand along the shelves for support. When he came out of the shadows, I saw that his sweater matched his eyes, which were also blue, riding low in nests of wrinkles. He was very old.
He nodded at me and gave a weak wave. “What do you seek in these shelves?”
That was a good line, and for some reason, it made me feel comfortable. I asked, “Am I speaking to Mr. Penumbra?”
“I am Penumbra”—he nodded—“and I am the custodian of this place.”
I didn’t quite realize I was going to say it until I did: “I’m looking for a job.”
Penumbra blinked once, then nodded and tottered over to the desk set beside the front door. It was a massive block of dark-whorled wood, a solid fortress on the forest’s edge. You could probably defend it for days in the event of a siege from the shelves.
“Employment.” Penumbra nodded again. He slid up onto the chair behind the desk and regarded me across its bulk. “Have you ever worked at a bookstore before?”
“Well,” I said, “when I was in school I waited tables at a seafood restaurant, and the owner sold his own cookbook.” It was called The Secret Cod and it detailed thirty-one different ways to— You get it. “That probably doesn’t count.”
“No, it does not, but no matter,” Penumbra said. “Prior experience in the book trade is of little use to you here.”
Wait—maybe this place really was all erotica. I glanced down and around, but glimpsed no bodices, ripped or otherwise. In fact, just next to me there was a stack of dusty Dashiell Hammetts on a low table. That was a good sign.
“Tell me,” Penumbra said, “about a book you love.”
I knew my answer immediately. No competition. I told him, “Mr. Penumbra, it’s not one book, but a series. It’s not the best writing and it’s probably too long and the ending is terrible, but I’ve read it three times, and I met my best friend because we were both obsessed with it back in sixth grade.” I took a breath. “I love The Dragon-Song Chronicles.”
Penumbra cocked an eyebrow, then smiled. “That is good, very good,” he said, and his smile grew, showing jostling white teeth. Then he squinted at me, and his gaze went up and down. “But can you climb a ladder?”
* * *
And that is how I find myself on this ladder, up on the third floor, minus the floor, of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The book I’ve been sent up to retrieve is called AL-ASMARI and it’s about 150 percent of one arm-length to my left. Obviously, I need to return to the floor and scoot the ladder over. But down below, Penumbra is shouting, “Lean, my boy! Lean!”
And wow, do I ever want this job.
Copyright © 2012 by Robin Sloan
Meet the Author
Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is his first novel.
Ari Fliakos is an actor with experience in television, radio, film, theater, and voiceovers. His narration of Seth Patrick's Reviver won an Audie for paranormal fiction. He has narrated Black Site and Tier One Wild by Dalton Fury, as well as Gangster Squad, The Inquisitor, and Shotgun Lovesongs. On screen, he is best-known for his roles in Law & Order, Pills, and Company K.
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At the intersection of book & tech, type & typing, Dan Brown & Borges, a book-lover's dream novel. Get it. Read it. Love it. Now.
If you love books, the old fashioned paper ones and the new e-books, you will love this read. What do you hope to find in all of the books you read? Why do you read so much? A book not only about people that love books, but about how our friends are called upon, about our own curiosity about things we don't understand, and what we do to satisfy our curiosity. All who were involved or know someone who is/was a Dungeons and Dragons fan will see someone they know (or are). And the geeks shall inherit the earth.
It's perfect. Such a treat to read. Has everything you could want. It almost feels like it was written just for me, designed and thought out for me. Sort of a relief to know there's more of me, if you love this book, you're a friend of mine <3
A serious book which doesn't take itself too seriously. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore concerns an unusual San Francisco book store, and the eccentric cast of characters associated with it. The narrator, Clay, is a smart but down-on-his-luck relatively recent college graduate who stumbles into working at the title book store where he soon discovers a literary mystery. Naturally, he sets about trying to solve it. Clay is clever (so there are numerous funny lines), as are most of those in his orbit, but he and his friends are also kind which makes all of them likable characters for whom it is easy to care, and easy to cheer. The novel is an homage to quest novels, and a celebration of the friendship (or fellowship as it always is in a quest novel) that sustains when in the midst of such journeys. Really, really fun read!
Loved this book fantastically fun, fast moving and holds your interest! Immediately wanted to find more to read by this author to find out this is his first book, will be watching for more!
This was a fun book to read for a book lover such as myself. Also a good light read for someone into technology. It is fun to see the two worlds at odds and then come together to solve the mystery. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
I want to live next door to this book store. Really i want to work there, read there, maybe even get locked in there every once in awhile. I mean if it weren't a 24hour book store.
Tongue in cheek humor pervades this book. The story centers around the eccentric owner of a strange and wonderful bookstore, where books are revered, and also the clerk he hires, Clay Jannon. Clay is out of work, driven into an aimless state of being by a failing economy. One day, while walking, he discovers a job opportunity as the night clerk for Ajax Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. The shop seems to exist for a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is a bookstore, albeit not one that sells many popular books, or many books at all, for that matter, and on the other hand, it caters to a group of unusual people who are studying odd books in order to discover a very well-kept, hidden secret. The bookstore is reminiscent of a library or a museum. Shelves are filled with ancient manuscripts from floor to ceiling, a ceiling only reached with the aid of a ladder. It is a temple for books. The secret, that this unusual group of people, seem to be searching for, is a missing code. They must decipher it when they find it. What is this mysterious code? It is the key to eternal life, the key to immortality. In this brief novel, the reader is led on an abstract journey to find the answer. It is often outside reality, and it is often very confusing. This creative little book combines the wisdom of the ages with the creativity of technology to search for the answer. The merry chase is sometimes convoluted and, truth be told, in several places I was completely lost, but soon, the thread is picked up again and the search goes on. In the end, for me, the message of the book was that eternal life, immortality, is the written word, it is what we leave behind as our accomplishments, as well. Time marches on for everyone and so does progress. As the book proudly proclaims: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. …all secrets worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.”
Having worked in printing and publishing when it was "hot press" and then "cold press" this book was especially interesting to me. I remember trays and trays of little letters being set by hand in our print shop. And loving computers and technology in general, the book has "feet" in both worlds/both times. While parts seemed pure fiction, I was surprised to find, after research, that many of those parts are fact. It's a fun read.
Once it's out in paperback it will make an excellent present. I would explain just exactly what I liked about the storyline and how it progressed, plus the character development, but that would be a spoiler not unlike finding out about the end of the Sixth Sense before seeing the movie.
Fun to read. Not terribly engaging at first. Nice message at the end.
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. Contemporary writing style that combines old world books and modern technology with puzzles and suspense. Hard to put down. My 13 yr old son is also really enjoying this book. Recommend you get this one!!
This was a totally fun read!
I not only want to re-read this book, I want to live it. At the very least, I want to live in Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.
Techies on a romp, pretty fun, light reading, high tech combined with ancient text.
Don't let this book fool you, its full of mystery and amd excitement that any avid book reader will appreciate. So well written and worth every minute spent lost in its pages
Many of us read this book over the holiday in 2014, and each of us has declared this to be their favorite book. There are NO spoiler alerts here. The only caveat is do not cheat by reading the last page first, as is often my habit -:)
Simply cannot figure out what I'm missing here. Very juvenile writing. Another generation thinks they discovered SF. Yawn. Story is full of deus ex machinas served up by technology. Really, this is a pretty lousy work by a barely competent writer. Consensus be damned.
After reading this I wanted to visit every little book store I could find. A must read for any bibliophile!
Book lovers will enjoy this rare winner. This is an outstanding and exceptional foray into the treasure that books truly are. MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE is enjoyable in every turn of the page. I wanted to go there, to that 24-hour bookstore, and bask in the feel and the smell of those old books. I wanted to be a part of the code-breaking quest that Clay and his pals were on. Robin Sloan reminds us that our own immortality lies in books, and that is how we live forever, maybe for most of us not as authors, but as the members of the fellowship that have been influenced by books. We always read exactly the right book at exactly the right time in our lives. Every bibliophile knows all too well that books give us a sense of security. Every book we ever read becomes a part of us, forms our identities, and influences who we are.
Very good read... and at the ending the epilogue wrapped everything up nicely, which I think should be in every book. I'm not spoiling anything, so I'm telling you right now: read this, you won't be disappointed. :)
I loved this book. It was fun, unusual, with a good mystery to solve and interesting local SF Bay Area characters. A fast fun read.
I like a good mystery as well as the next person, but does every single facet of it have to be solved with computers? Where is the creativity here? So disappointed in this book, I want to like it but it just wasn't happening for me.
The story line sounds neat. I just do not get anything they are talking about that refers to computers or technical things. I guess I am not geeky enough. Now where did I leave my pocket protector?