Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: August 20, 2013
Anyone who frequents a (no doubt) small, independent bookstore (and I hope that means everyone who may read this review) knows that there is so much more to it than the books on the shelves. These bookstores are also about atmosphere (sometimes eclectic, sometimes whimsical, sometimes downright dusty), relationships (between customer and sales staff, reader to reader, and human being to the written word), and often about an element of surprise, or at least a sense of having a unique personality.
The same could be said for Deborah Meyler’s lovely debut novel, The Bookstore. A lot of the action in the book takes place at The Owl, a hole-in-the-wall secondhand bookstore located in the heart of New York City:
Perhaps because it seems so insignificant, The Owl manages to remain a ramshackle old bookshop. Staples and Gap, blinded by their own brightness, barely notice its existence, nor, it seems, does any other behemoth on the hunt for suitable premises. But it glitters away there, a dark jewel in a shining street. It is easily overlooked, but it is deep-rooted in the city, and I like to think it shares something of older and greater endeavors. One age might pass over what another prized, and the next age might then revere it. Museums and libraries are in place, of course, to keep past treasures safe through the neglect, but the museums and libraries have a flotilla of insignificant vessels that are just as vital. Secondhand bookshops are some of the tugs that can bring the bounty safely to harbor. The Owl is small, and it is definitely shabby, but it is tinged with lofty purpose.
But this book is really about relationships, especially those that should be but are not easy, or the ones that should be hard but aren’t, and those that don’t necessarily resolve themselves in a neat and pat way.
Esme Garland is 23 years old, a bright, lovely young woman from England. She has moved to Manhattan on a scholarship in art history from Columbia, and her future seems full of promise. She has a surprisingly wonderful school-enlisted apartment, a working thesis for her dissertation, and a confidence in herself that brings an excitement to every new thing she encounters.
One of those new things is Mitchell van Leuven, 10 years her senior, who is from an affluent and high strung New England family. He teaches economics at the New School, and his star is on the rise; Esme is amazed that he professes to be enchanted by her. (“He is like a sun; people react to him as if they are being warmed by the first spring sunshine. It is exhilarating to be with him, to be a satellite to that radiance.”) They haven’t been dating long, but Esme is comfortable with professing to being in love with him, and he, in return, makes all the right indications that he feels the same, despite his somewhat roguish past.
So Esme spends her days attending lectures, visiting museums and art galleries, meeting Mitchell for coffee or drinks or lunch or sex, and learning the multi-faceted layers of New York. Not just the swanky restaurants or the university hangouts, but the everyday aspects of her neighborhood, such as the Korean market below her apartment, the best (if not the most popular) place to get bagels, her neighbor across the hallway (Stella, a hip, young, practical photographer who is getting her masters in film theory at Columbia), and the shabby, crowded secondhand bookstore called The Owl.
Then, unexpectedly, Esme discovers that she is pregnant. And before she has the chance to tell Mitchell that he is going to be a father, he shares that he doesn’t feel their relationship will work out. Accordiing to him, she’s nice, but there’s no lust between them (a surprise to Esme!), and that in fact, he has not been exclusive with her the whole time they have been together.
Suddenly Esme’s well ordered life is gone, and she faces decisions that are far more staggering than anything she has ever had to deal with before. Should she keep the baby? Should she tell Mitchell he is the father, and what would that mean to his role in her life? Will she be able to continue her studies and still raise a child? How will she be able to cope with everything if she is alone?
Lest you fear that this is becoming a somewhat trite and familiar quasi-romance story, let me assure you, it is not. Under Deborah Meyler’s deft handling, Esme is fully nuanced and genuine; deeply conflicted when debating her decisions yet rock solid once those decisions have been made, but still full of questioning, doubt and fear even as she moves forward. In other words, this feels like real life.
Once the decision has been made to keep the baby (and the way that Esme comes to that decision is beautifully told), then she faces new obstacles, not the least of which is how to pay for all the extras that a child will need: furniture, a stroller, clothes, diapers, food… none of which she is capable of handing on her student stipend. Additionally, she is on a student visa, which means her only jobs must come from the university – and there are no openings, at least not in time for her to get ready for a child. So what is an enterprising young woman to do? Simple: she finds a way.
In a moment of pure serendipity (“signs and wonder”), there is a Help Wanted sign in the window of The Owl that wasn’t there the last time Esme walked by. It seems too perfect, like it was meant to be. She is known as a regular at The Owl, she’s had many conversations with George, the owner, and others, like taciturn night manager, Luke, and Mary, who’s in charge on Sundays. But now, she takes the next step.
I tell him I have no experience whatsoever of working in a shop. I tell him that although I am in the country legally, as a student, it would be illegal for me to work, and also that if he hired me, he would be breaking the law, too. “And,” I say, “I’m pregnant.”
“You sound like our perfect employee,” says George.
She always had friends, but now Esme has a family. The people who work at The Owl – George and Luke, kindly Bruce, and the homeless guys, DeeMo, Tee and Dennis who help out where they can – accept her as one of their own. She learns about the other regulars: the man who has a fixation on all things Nabokov, the street guy who is always on the verge of leaving to make it big in Vegas, the fellow who wears a green bath towel on his head like a turban and the elderly gentleman who comes in to buy dictionaries so he can send them back to his home town in Romania. The bookstore not only gives her just enough necessary cash to keep her afloat, but it also gives her an anchor when her life is battered about by winds of change, including Mitchell’s reappearance and influence. From these people, from this place, and from the changes that come to them all, she learns so much about herself and about life. All these things are beautifully done; they are simply, believably and unforgettably rendered.
And unlike the shelves at The Owl, not even a tad bit dusty.