THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP
THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP
The Haunted Bookshop
If you are ever in Brooklyn that borough of superb sunsets
and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby-carriages it
is to be hoped you may chance upon a quiet by-street where there
is a very remarkable bookshop.
This bookshop which does business under the unusual name
"Parnassus at Home" is housed in one of the comfortable old
brown-stone dwellings which have been the joy of several generations
of plumbers and cockroaches. The owner of the business has been
at pains to remodel the house to make it a more suitable shrine
for his trade which deals entirely in second-hand volumes.
There is no second-hand bookshop in the world more worthy of respect.
It was about six o'clock of a cold November evening with gusts
of rain splattering upon the pavement when a young man proceeded
uncertainly along Gissing Street stopping now and then to look at
shop windows as though doubtful of his way. At the warm and shining
face of a French rotisserie he halted to compare the number enamelled
on the transom with a memorandum in his hand. Then he pushed
on for a few minutes at last reaching the address he sought.
Over the entrance his eye was caught by the sign:
PARNASSUS AT HOME
R. AND H. MIFFLIN
THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED
He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling
of the muses lowered his overcoat collar and looked about.
It was very different from such bookstores as he had been accustomed
to patronize. Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one:
the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above a gallery
ran round the wall which carried books to the ceiling.
The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper
and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco. In front
of him he found a large placard in a frame:
THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
Of all great literature in hosts;
We sell no fakes or trashes.
Lovers of books are welcome here
No clerks will babble in your ear
Please smoke--but don't drop ashes!
Browse as long as you like.
Prices of all books plainly marked.
If you want to ask questions you'll find the proprietor
where the tobacco smoke is thickest.
We pay cash for books.
We have what you want though you may not know you want it.
Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.
Let us prescribe for you.
By R. & H. MIFFLIN
The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity a kind of drowsy dusk
stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from
green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of
tobacco smoke which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades.
Passing down a narrow aisle between the alcoves the visitor
noticed that some of the compartments were wholly in darkness;
in others where lamps were glowing he could see a table and chairs.
In one corner under a sign lettered ESSAYS an elderly gentleman
was reading with a face of fanatical ecstasy illumined by the sharp
glare of electricity; but there was no wreath of smoke about him so
the newcomer concluded he was not the proprietor.
As the young man approached the back of the shop the general effect
became more and more fantastic. On some skylight far overhead
he could hear the rain drumming; but otherwise the place was
completely silent peopled only (so it seemed) by the gurgitating
whorls of smoke and the bright profile of the essay reader.
It seemed like a secret fane some shrine of curious rites
and the young man's throat was tightened by a stricture which was
half agitation and half tobacco. Towering above him into the gloom
were shelves and shelves of books darkling toward the roof.
He saw a table with a cylinder of brown paper and twine
evidently where purchases might be wrapped; but there was no sign
of an attendant.
"This place may indeed be haunted" he thought "perhaps by
the delighted soul of Sir Walter Raleigh patron of the weed
but seemingly not by the proprietors."
His eyes searching the blue and vaporous vistas of the shop were caught
by a circle of brightness that shone with a curious egg-like lustre.
It was round and white gleaming in the sheen of a hanging light
a bright island in a surf of tobacco smoke. He came more close
and found it was a bald head.
This head (he then saw) surmounted a small sharp-eyed man
who sat tilted back in a swivel chair in a corner which seemed
the nerve centre of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed
desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts
with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters.
An antiquated typewriter looking something like a harpsichord
was half-buried in sheets of manuscript. The little bald-headed man
was smoking a corn-cob pipe and reading a cook-book.
"I beg your pardon" said the caller pleasantly; "is this
Mr. Roger Mifflin the proprietor of "Parnassus at Home" looked up
and the visitor saw that he had keen blue eyes a short red beard
and a convincing air of competent originality.
"It is" said Mr. Mifflin. "Anything I can do for you?"
"My name is Aubrey Gilbert" said the young man. "I am representing
the Grey-Matter Advertising Agency. I want to discuss with you
the advisability of your letting us handle your advertising account
prepare snappy copy for you and place it in large circulation mediums.
Now the war's over you ought to prepare some constructive campaign
for bigger business."
The bookseller's face beamed. He put down his cook-book
blew an expanding gust of smoke and looked up brightly.
"My dear chap" he said "I don't do any advertising."
"Impossible!" cried the other aghast as at some gratuitous indecency.
"Not in the sense you mean. Such advertising as benefits me
most is done for me by the snappiest copywriters in the business."
"I suppose you refer to Whitewash and Gilt?" said Mr. Gilbert wistfully.
"Not at all. The people who are doing my advertising are Stevenson
Browning Conrad and Company."
"Dear me" said the Grey-Matter solicitor. "I don't know that agency
at all. Still I doubt if their copy has more pep than ours."
"I don't think you get me. I mean that my advertising is done
by the books I sell. If I sell a man a book by Stevenson or Conrad
a book that delights or terrifies him that man and that book become
my living advertisements."
"But that word-of-mouth advertising is exploded" said Gilbert.
"You can't get Distribution that way. You've got to keep your
trademark before the public."
"By the bones of Tauchnitz!" cried Mifflin. "Look here you wouldn't go
to a doctor a medical specialist and tell him he ought to advertise
in papers and magazines? A doctor is advertised by the bodies he cures.
My business is advertised by the minds I stimulate. And let me
tell you that the book business is different from other trades.
People don't know they want books. I can see just by looking at you that
your mind is ill for lack of books but you are blissfully unaware of it!
People don't go to a bookseller until some serious mental accident
or disease makes them aware of their danger. Then they come here.
For me to advertise would be about as useful as telling people
who feel perfectly well that they ought to go to the doctor.
Do you know why people are reading more books now than ever before?
Because the terrific catastrophe of the war has made them realize
that their minds are ill. The world was suffering from all sorts
of mental fevers and aches and disorders and never knew it.
Now our mental pangs are only too manifest. We are all reading
hungrily hastily trying to find out--after the trouble is over--what was
the matter with our minds."
The little bookseller was standing up now and his visitor watched
him with mingled amusement and alarm.
"You know" said Mifflin "I am interested that you should
have thought it worth while to come in here. It reinforces
my conviction of the amazing future ahead of the book business.
But I tell you that future lies not merely in systematizing
it as a trade. It lies in dignifying it as a profession.
It is small use to jeer at the public for craving shoddy books
quack books untrue books. Physician cure thyself! Let the bookseller
learn to know and revere good books he will teach the customer.
The hunger for good books is more general and more insistent
than you would dream. But it is still in a way subconscious.
People need books but they don't know they need them.
Generally they are not aware that the books they need are
"Why wouldn't advertising be the way to let them know?"
asked the young man rather acutely.
"My dear chap I understand the value of advertising. But in my own
case it would be futile. I am not a dealer in merchandise but a
specialist in adjusting the book to the human need. Between ourselves
there is no such thing abstractly as a 'good' book. A book is 'good'
only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error.
A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you.
My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop
in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms. Some people
have let their reading faculties decay so that all I can do is hold
a post mortem on them. But most are still open to treatment.
There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just
the book his soul needed and he never knew it. No advertisement on
earth is as potent as a grateful customer.
"I will tell you another reason why I don't advertise"
he continued. "In these days when everyone keeps his trademark
before the public as you call it not to advertise is the most
original and startling thing one can do to attract attention.
It was the fact that I do NOT advertise that drew you here.
And everyone who comes here thinks he has discovered the place himself.
He goes and tells his friends about the book asylum run by a
crank and a lunatic and they come here in turn to see what it
"I should like to come here again myself and browse about"
said the advertising agent. "I should like to have you prescribe
"The first thing needed is to acquire a sense of pity. The world
has been printing books for 450 years and yet gunpowder still has
a wider circulation. Never mind! Printer's ink is the greater explosive:
it will win. Yes I have a few of the good books here.
There are only about 30000 really important books in the world.
I suppose about 5000 of them were written in the English language
and 5000 more have been translated."
"You are open in the evenings?"
"Until ten o'clock. A great many of my best customers are those
who are at work all day and can only visit bookshops at night.
The real book-lovers you know are generally among the humbler classes.
A man who is impassioned with books has little time or patience to grow
rich by concocting schemes for cozening his fellows."
The little bookseller's bald pate shone in the light of the bulb
hanging over the wrapping table. His eyes were bright and earnest
his short red beard bristled like wire. He wore a ragged brown
Norfolk jacket from which two buttons were missing.
A bit of a fanatic himself thought the customer but a very
entertaining one. "Well sir" he said "I am ever so grateful to you.
I'll come again. Good-night." And he started down the aisle
for the door.
As he neared the front of the shop Mr. Mifflin switched on a cluster
of lights that hung high up and the young man found himself beside
a large bulletin board covered with clippings announcements circulars
and little notices written on cards in a small neat script.
The following caught his eye:
If your mind needs phosphorus try "Trivia" by Logan Pearsall Smith.
If your mind needs a whiff of strong air blue and cleansing
from hilltops and primrose valleys try "The Story of My Heart"
by Richard Jefferies.
If your mind needs a tonic of iron and wine and a thorough
rough-and-tumbling try Samuel Butler's "Notebooks" or "The
Man Who Was Thursday" by Chesterton.
If you need "all manner of Irish" and a relapse into
irresponsible freakishness try "The Demi-Gods" by James Stephens.
It is a better book than one deserves or expects.
It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then
like an hour-glass to let the particles run the other way.
One who loves the English tongue can have a lot of fun
with a Latin dictionary.
Human beings pay very little attention to what is told them unless
they know something about it already. The young man had heard of none
of these books prescribed by the practitioner of bibliotherapy.
He was about to open the door when Mifflin appeared at his side.
"Look here" he said with a quaint touch of embarrassment.
"I was very much interested by our talk. I'm all alone this evening--
my wife is away on a holiday. Won't you stay and have supper with me?
I was just looking up some new recipes when you came in."
The other was equally surprised and pleased by this unusual invitation.
"Why--that's very good of you" he said. "Are you sure I won't
"Not at all!" cried the bookseller. "I detest eating alone:
I was hoping someone would drop in. I always try to have a guest
for supper when my wife is away. I have to stay at home you see
to keep an eye on the shop. We have no servant and I do the
cooking myself. It's great fun. Now you light your pipe and make
yourself comfortable for a few minutes while I get things ready.
Suppose you come back to my den."
On a table of books at the front of the shop Mifflin laid a large
PROPRIETOR AT SUPPER
IF YOU WANT ANYTHING
RING THIS BELL
Beside the card he placed a large old-fashioned dinner bell
and then led the way to the rear of the shop.
Behind the little office in which this unusual merchant had been
studying his cook-book a narrow stairway rose on each side
running up to the gallery. Behind these stairs a short flight
of steps led to the domestic recesses. The visitor found
himself ushered into a small room on the left where a grate
of coals glowed under a dingy mantelpiece of yellowish marble.
On the mantel stood a row of blackened corn-cob pipes and a canister
of tobacco. Above was a startling canvas in emphatic oils
representing a large blue wagon drawn by a stout white animal--
evidently a horse. A background of lush scenery enhanced the forceful
technique of the limner. The walls were stuffed with books.
Two shabby comfortable chairs were drawn up to the iron fender
and a mustard-coloured terrier was lying so close to the glow that a
smell of singed hair was sensible.
"There" said the host; "this is my cabinet my chapel of ease.
Take off your coat and sit down."
"Really" began Gilbert "I'm afraid this is----"
"Nonsense! Now you sit down and commend your soul to Providence
and the kitchen stove. I'll bustle round and get supper."
Gilbert pulled out his pipe and with a sense of elation prepared
to enjoy an unusual evening. He was a young man of agreeable parts
amiable and sensitive. He knew his disadvantages in literary
conversation for he had gone to an excellent college where glee
clubs and theatricals had left him little time for reading.
But still he was a lover of good books though he knew them chiefly
by hearsay. He was twenty-five years old employed as a copywriter
by the Grey-Matter Advertising Agency.
The little room in which he found himself was plainly the
bookseller's sanctum and contained his own private library.
Gilbert browsed along the shelves curiously. The volumes were
mostly shabby and bruised; they had evidently been picked up
one by one in the humble mangers of the second-hand vendor.
They all showed marks of use and meditation.
Mr. Gilbert had the earnest mania for self-improvement which has
blighted the lives of so many young men--a passion which however
is commendable in those who feel themselves handicapped by a college
career and a jewelled fraternity emblem. It suddenly struck him
that it would be valuable to make a list of some of the titles
in Mifflin's collection as a suggestion for his own reading.
He took out a memorandum book and began jotting down the books
that intrigued him:
The Works of Francis Thompson (3 vols.)
Social History of Smoking: Apperson
The Path to Rome: Hilaire Belloc
The Book of Tea: Kakuzo
Happy Thoughts: F. C. Burnand
Dr. Johnson's Prayers and Meditations
Margaret Ogilvy: J. M. Barrie
Confessions of a Thug: Taylor
General Catalogue of the Oxford University Press
The Morning's War: C. E. Montague
The Spirit of Man: edited by Robert Bridges
The Romany Rye: Borrow
Poems: Emily Dickinson
Poems: George Herbert
The House of Cobwebs: George Gissing
So far had he got and was beginning to say to himself that in
the interests of Advertising (who is a jealous mistress) he had best
call a halt when his host entered the room his small face eager
his eyes blue points of light.
"Come Mr. Aubrey Gilbert!" he cried. "The meal is set.
You want to wash your hands? Make haste then this way:
the eggs are hot and waiting."
The dining-room into which the guest was conducted betrayed a feminine
touch not visible in the smoke-dimmed quarters of shop and cabinet.
At the windows were curtains of laughing chintz and pots of pink geranium.
The table under a drop-light in a flame-coloured silk screen
was brightly set with silver and blue china. In a cut-glass decanter
sparkled a ruddy brown wine. The edged tool of Advertising felt his
spirits undergo an unmistakable upward pressure.
"Sit down sir" said Mifflin lifting the roof of a platter.
"These are eggs Samuel Butler an invention of my own the apotheosis
of hen fruit."