Jean-Jacques Megel-Nuber didn’t always imagine he’d be living in his bookshop, but he knew he wanted it to move.
He’d tried to leave the premises several times since the untimely passing of his parents. Although he could get over their shared demise – an unfortunate accident involving a set of shelves suffering from the shell shock it acquired from a volume of war poetry – he could never get over the threshold and out the front door.
Eventually, his memory conspired to remind him of something his grandmama had told him a few days before her own untimely death, swallowed whole by a Swedish edition of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando: “Every book contains a soul, and souls require constant company. Without that, the outcome is inevitably a dark and shredding descent into nightmarish insanity, abject chaos and complete cosmic disorder.”
Accepting that greater powers were operating far above his pay grade – and being very young, Jean-Jacques paid himself in lollipops – the boy resigned himself to a life lived entirely inside the bookshop. But that didn’t mean he was completely happy with where he was. To be specific, Jean-Jacques wasn’t happy with where the bookshop was, geographically.
The bookshop was located on a blustery wind tunnel of a street in a bleak and wintery city. As Jean-Jacques was a feeble, ailing young fellow – nourished and sustained mostly by the glum literature and shadows on offer in the bookshop and not fun, food, sunshine and family-friendly sitcoms like most kids – he really suffered in the conditions. The constant draughts that rattled through the bookshop’s rafters chilled his bones and tormented his psyche. Without his parents or grandparents around to distract him a little, the young man began to feel unbearably cold and unbearably isolated.
One night, fearing that he’d freeze to death cold and alone, he called out to the bookshop around him to express his fears. At the end of a cathartic outburst several constant-winters in the making, he decared that the two of them – both bookshop and owner – must move elsewhere at once.
This struck the bookshop as an audacious and outrageous suggestion. Answering back, it reminded Jean-Jacques that it had been in its present position since before Jean-Jacques was born and, indeed, since before his parents and grandparents and their grandparents and all their grandparents before them had been born. Indeed - it claimed - it had been there since before the explosion of the first novels, since before the first vellum was scraped from a sacred cow and since before early humans started developing fingers in order to scratch out theistic fan fiction.
But poor Jean-Jacques refused to back down. With palpable anguish he outlined their perilous position and convinced the bookshop that his frail human body would surely perish and die if he remained where he was. The bookshop heard how, without a custodian and unoccupied, its insides would be raided by indifferent bureaucrats and entrepreneurial carpetbaggers and eventually converted into a coffee chain branch or an electric cigarette emporium.
Horrified at a prospect worse than all Kafka’s nightmares combined, the bookshop agreed to its owner’s request. There was a sticking point, however, for the bookshop expressed doubt about its ability to move, feeling it was just way too heavy. Possibly wise beyond his years or maybe simply inspired by desperation, Jean-Jacques had a solution, however, and said solution would proverbially kill two birds with one stone. (Or, to be more accurate, kill two metaphorical albatrosses with one flaming room full of depressing reading material.)
Before dawn had dawned, Jean-Jacques had burnt through all the thousands and thousands of books in an upstairs spare bedroom that his father had designated the ‘Misery Lit and Tragic Life Memoirs’ stock space. He’d over-ordered during the misery-lit boom years of the early new Millennium before such harrowing and hopeless reading was supplanted by the rise of true crime, translated autofiction and YA afrofuturism.
All those tomes served no purpose to anyone beyond functioning as a symbolic memento of his father’s flaws and a reminder that there’s a lot of pain and trauma in the world. Jean-Jacques, thus, happily torched them all. He found his body warmed and his spirits lifted and the bookshop found itself, likewise, lighter.
So light, in fact, that it could leap up and away from its foundations. Bounding beyond the edge of the bleak and wintery city, the pair gallivanted and globetrotted across the continents in an action-packed odyssey later to be chronicled in verse form by Lord Byron. (Except Byron never finished it because the early cantos got eaten by his pet bear and the poet couldn’t be bothered starting again while he was occupied with the Greek War of Independence.)
Eventually, Jean-Jacques and the bookshop decided to call time on their escapades and adventures in order to settle down. They found the perfect site somewhere in the sunny southern hemisphere and soon discovered that customers would not be hard to come by, for wherever you go you’ll find folk attracted to the smell of paperback pages, the dust of ages and odd people who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be reading. So it was that both Jean-Jacques and the bookshop found new peace, purpose and joy in life, and they lived that life happily ever after.
(Until the publishers demanded a sequel in time for the Christmas shopping season.)
By James Clayton.