For book lovers, book stores are a little piece of heaven to be enjoyed with childlike wonder. In “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan, the namesake store seems like it would be just that sort of establishment—but it turns out to be in a category all its own. It is a little hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco and is much more than it seems, as down-and-out web designer and recent hire Clay Jannon figures out when he comes to the technology-free store for his first of many night shifts. Despite the “indie-millennial” appeal, there are only a few customers, and they never seem to buy anything. They check out absurdly obscure books, containing only grids of numbers, from the impractically tall shelves in the back of the store.
From the start, both Clay and the reader can tell there is something hinky about the store and its owner. As Clay begins to investigate, he realizes that the elaborate, long-standing arrangement of these odd customers with the enigmatic owner, Mr. Penumbra, is all a part of a secret society. Following a long path of too many too-convenient coincidences, Clay and his ragtag band of high-tech friends find themselves on the trail of what might possibly be the most peculiar transcontinental book club ever.
With witty dialogue and hilarious stream-of-consciousness writing, the book is incredibly endearing and fun to read. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which keeps the novel lighthearted while also confronting the very real and serious issue of an increasingly technological society. The metaphor is a bit over-the-top at times, having a web designer work in a store that does not even have a computer; however, the book being otherwise such a wonderful read, this feels inconsequential. There is comical snobbery on each side of the argument. Also important to note—yet easy to miss—are the characters who blend both new and old. For example, Clay’s friend Mat is an uber-successful special effect recorder who uses wood boards and broken light bulbs to get the job done.
The exaggerated and convoluted way in which Sloan expresses his ideas only enhances the novel. He pulls off this style in such a way that it does not become a distraction, but instead becomes another thing to love about the quirky, dusty bookstore. Sloan is able to make the bookstore become a real place in the reader’s mind—a place that bibliophiles such as myself can only dream of.
With an ending and epilogue that ties everything off with a nice bow, the ultimate conclusion is that our modern amenities and the written word—or anything old fashioned—do not have to be at odds. They can complement and enhance each other.
Tech enthusiasts, bibliophiles and anyone in-between can find something to love in this bighearted novel from Robin Sloan, as it is about all the many different ways, new and old, that people communicate with each other.