There’s a bookstore in Little Aleppo with no name: it’s just The Bookstore, but that’s not its name, so it’s just the bookstore. It’s been there for a while. Across the street in the House of Inappropriate Trousers, Creepy Ernie says it was here when he took over his shop from the former owner, About-To Be-Murdered-For-His-Shop Dwayne. (There’s a sale this week: 10% off everything in the store, 20% if you’re willing to let Ernie whack you in the nipples with a snorkel.) Sheila, who owns Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon for Rock Stars and Their Ilk right down the street, swears that the bookstore used to be around the corner on Good Jones Street.
All the men drinking at dawn in the Morning Tavern had their own theories about the bookstore; all the women had two, because women have to work twice as hard. It was best not to ask about the place: you’d be there forever; everyone in the joint were self-taught polymaths in between ideas, or poetic stevedores, or playwrights who liked stabbing people. Inquiring about the bookstore at C.C.H. Pounder’s Head Coverings for Those who can Leave their Foolishness at the Door will get you admonished. For foolishness.
The windows were large, big bays on either side of the door, but piles of books and shelving and some haphazard curtains blocked out most of the sun, and the door was set back a few feet, scuffed and black with nine glass panes on the top half, and a brass knob with an actual latch like a proper door. There was a little bell that went tinkadink when you came in, and the front of the shop was an open space with two tables overflowing with books in no particular order on the right, and a desk on a small stage to the left.
One assumed it was a desk. There was a lamp poking out from the stacks of hardcovers, softcovers, pads, bills, newspapers, folders, and half-eaten sandwiches; occasionally, a phone could be heard ringing from under the mound of papers. Plus, there was a man in a suit sitting at it with his feet up, and that is a very strong clue that the piece of furniture in question is a desk.
“Why the desk was invented, you see,” Mr. Venable would explain occasionally to customers. “The chair was already in use, but when men in suits sat in them, they had nowhere to prop their feet up. These men also required a flat surface for coffee, and hidey-holes for weapons and pornography. Voila: the desk.”
Mr. Venable owned one black suit, or perhaps many black suits that were the same black suit. He did for certain only own one black tie, and he kept that in the bottom drawer of his desk and put it on for funerals, but otherwise he left the collar of his dark red shirt open. One day, a customer asked why he wore a suit every day
“It’s a business,” Mr. Venable said.
The customer agreed, but mentioned that most business-owners were dressing more casual these days.
“Fuck ’em,” Mr. Venable said.
The shop continued past the tables and Mr. Venable’s platform: two tall double-sided shelves that made three aisles, and the outer walls were row after row of books, too. Beyond the aisles, there was a dogleg to the left and more books, and there was an alcove off that, and up the ladder on your right was the attic, which had more books and several people had never returned from.
The problem with owning a semi-fictional bookstore, Mr. Venable had come to understand, was that–in any universe with even the slightest amount of magic in it–it was a terrible idea to put too many books in the same location. They tried to open a public library in Cahokia, off Route 77, and the place was infinite within days. Mr. Venable knew logically that the books were not humping, and he had never caught any of them in the act, but he was sure that he could hear them at it when it was quiet. It sounded like paper being wadded up, rhythmically.
And it was just books: no coffee, records, toys, magazines, calendars, espresso makers, tote bags, or hand puppets. Just endless miles of books, ten feet in a row of them at a time, and with others stacked on top of them. The place was a browser’s paradise, mostly because Mr. Venable has his own idiosyncratic categorization system.
There was no Fiction, or YA, or Travel. Instead there was Author’s Name Is Murray; and Books About Death (Directly); and Books About Death (Indirectly); and Clearly Made-Up Non-Fiction; and Poetry By Tall Women. There was Cranky White Guy Travelogues, and Mr. Venable put that right next to Overly Long Sci-Fi; within a few days, he was happily reading Paul Theroux bitching about the hyper-railroads on Felicidae IV, Throneworld to the Felis Empire.
Once you found what you were looking for, though, you could really find what you were looking for: Mr. Venable’s sub-sectioning was precise. After you’d found the Horror section, then you could look through the Vampire sub-section, which was broken into Sexy Vampires, Scary Vampires, Tough Urban Vampires, Christian Vampires, and Irish Vampires. (Which is split into further sub-strata: Irish Vampires Who Are Not Bono and Irish Vampires Who Are Bono.)
You could walk around for hours looking for something specific; most people who tried gave up and bought the book they really came in for. Precarious Lee shopped there regularly and had never even attempted to find something particular. He looked for the shop cat, who also did not have a name, and bought the book it was sitting on. What’s the use of going to a magic bookstore if you’re not going to get all hoodoo about it, Precarious figured.
Mr. Venable did not care for cats, or about them; the cat seemed to feel the same way about him. They never squabbled. A bookstore needs an owner, and a bookstore needs a cat, just like a nighborhood–Little Aleppo, in this case–needs a bookstore.