The Haunted Bookshop

Source: Christopher Morley, extract from Chapter 8 of The Haunted Bookshop (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1919), pp. 153-161

Text: A few doors from the bookshop was a small lunchroom named after the great city of Milwaukee, one of those pleasant refectories where the diner buys his food at the counter and eats it sitting in a flat-armed chair. Aubrey got a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee, beef stew, and bran muffins, and took them to an empty seat by the window. He ate with one eye on the street. From his place in the corner he could command the strip of pavement in front of Mifflin’s shop. Halfway through the stew he saw Roger come out onto the pavement and begin to remove the books from the boxes.

After finishing his supper he lit one of his “mild but they satisfy” cigarettes and sat in the comfortable warmth of a near-by radiator. A large black cat lay sprawled on the next chair. Up at the service counter there was a pleasant clank of stout crockery as occasional customers came in and ordered their victuals. Aubrey began to feel a relaxation swim through his veins. Gissing Street was very bright and orderly in its Saturday evening bustle. Certainly it was grotesque to imagine melodrama hanging about a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. The revolver felt absurdly lumpy and uncomfortable in his hip pocket. What a different aspect a little hot supper gives to affairs! The most resolute idealist or assassin had better write his poems or plan his atrocities before the evening meal. After the narcosis of that repast the spirit falls into a softer mood, eager only to be amused. Even Milton would hardly have had the inhuman fortitude to sit down to the manuscript of Paradise Lost right after supper. Aubrey began to wonder if his unpleasant suspicions had not been overdrawn. He thought how delightful it would be to stop in at the bookshop and ask Titania to go to the movies with him.

Curious magic of thought! The idea was still sparkling in his mind when he saw Titania and Mrs. Mifflin emerge from the bookshop and pass briskly in front of the lunchroom. They were talking and laughing merrily. Titania’s face, shining with young vitality, seemed to him more “attention-compelling” than any ten-point Caslon type-arrangement he had ever seen. He admired the layout of her face from the standpoint of his cherished technique. “Just enough ‘white space,'” he thought, “to set off her eyes as the ‘centre of interest.’ Her features aren’t this modern bold-face stuff, set solid,” he said to himself, thinking typographically. “They’re rather French old-style italic, slightly leaded. Set on 22-point body, I guess. Old man Chapman’s a pretty good typefounder, you have to hand it to him.”

He smiled at this conceit, seized hat and coat, and dashed out of the lunchroom.

Mrs. Mifflin and Titania had halted a few yards up the street, and were looking at some pert little bonnets in a window. Aubrey hurried across the street, ran up to the next corner, recrossed, and walked down the eastern pavement. In this way he would meet them as though he were coming from the subway. He felt rather more excited than King Albert re-entering Brussels. He saw them coming, chattering together in the delightful fashion of women out on a spree. Helen seemed much younger in the company of her companion. “A lining of pussy-willow taffeta and an embroidered slip-on,” she was saying.

Aubrey steered onto them with an admirable gesture of surprise.

“Well, I never!” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Here’s Mr. Gilbert. Were you coming to see Roger?” she added, rather enjoying the young man’s predicament.

Titania shook hands cordially. Aubrey, searching the old-style italics with the desperate intensity of a proof-reader, saw no evidence of chagrin at seeing him again so soon.

“Why,” he said rather lamely, “I was coming to see you all. I–I wondered how you were getting along.”

Mrs. Mifflin had pity on him. “We’ve left Mr. Mifflin to look after the shop,” she said. “He’s busy with some of his old crony customers. Why don’t you come with us to the movies?”

“Yes, do,” said Titania. “It’s Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, you know how adorable they are!”

No one needs to be told how quickly Aubrey assented. Pleasure coincided with duty in that the outer wing of the party placed him next to Titania.

“Well, how do you like bookselling?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s the greatest fun!” she cried. “But it’ll take me ever and ever so long to learn about all the books. People ask such questions! A woman came in this afternoon looking for a copy of Blasé Tales. How was I to know she wanted The Blazed Trail?”

“You’ll get used to that,” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Just a minute, people, I want to stop in at the drug store.”

They went into Weintraub’s pharmacy. Entranced as he was by the proximity of Miss Chapman, Aubrey noticed that the druggist eyed him rather queerly. And being of a noticing habit, he also observed that when Weintraub had occasion to write out a label for a box of powdered alum Mrs. Mifflin was buying, he did so with a pale violet ink.

At the glass sentry-box in front of the theatre Aubrey insisted on buying the tickets.

“We came out right after supper,” said Titania as they entered, “so as to get in before the crowd.”

It is not so easy, however, to get ahead of Brooklyn movie fans. They had to stand for several minutes in a packed lobby while a stern young man held the waiting crowd in check with a velvet rope. Aubrey sustained delightful spasms of the protective instinct in trying to shelter Titania from buffets and pushings. Unknown to her, his arm extended behind her like an iron rod to absorb the onward impulses of the eager throng. A rustling groan ran through these enthusiasts as they saw the preliminary footage of the great Tarzan flash onto the screen, and realized they were missing something. At last, however, the trio got through the barrier and found three seats well in front, at one side. From this angle the flying pictures were strangely distorted, but Aubrey did not mind.

“Isn’t it lucky I got here when I did,” whispered Titania. “Mr. Mifflin has just had a telephone call from Philadelphia asking him to go over on Monday to make an estimate on a library that’s going to be sold so I’ll be able to look after the shop for him while he’s gone.”

“Is that so?” said Aubrey. “Well, now, I’ve got to be in Brooklyn on Monday, on business. Maybe Mrs. Mifflin would let me come in and buy some books from you.”

“Customers always welcome,” said Mrs. Mifflin.

“I’ve taken a fancy to that Cromwell book,” said Aubrey. “What do you suppose Mr. Mifflin would sell it for?”

“I think that book must be valuable,” said Titania. “Somebody came in this afternoon and wanted to buy it, but Mr. Mifflin wouldn’t part with it. He says it’s one of his favourites. Gracious, what a weird film this is!”

The fantastic absurdities of Tarzan proceeded on the screen, tearing celluloid passions to tatters, but Aubrey found the strong man of the jungle coming almost too close to his own imperious instincts. Was not he, too – he thought naively – a poor Tarzan of the advertising jungle, lost among the elephants and alligators of commerce, and sighing for this dainty and unattainable vision of girlhood that had burst upon his burning gaze! He stole a perilous side-glance at her profile, and saw the racing flicker of the screen reflected in tiny spangles of light that danced in her eyes. He was even so unknowing as to imagine that she was not aware of his contemplation. And then the lights went up.

“What nonsense, wasn’t it?” said Titania. “I’m so glad it’s over! I was quite afraid one of those elephants would walk off the screen and tread on us.”

“I never can understand,” said Helen, “why they don’t film some of the really good books – think of Frank Stockton’s stuff, how delightful that would be. Can’t you imagine Mr. and Mrs. Drew playing in Rudder Grange!”

“Thank goodness!” said Titania. “Since I entered the book business, that’s the first time anybody’s mentioned a book that I’ve read. Yes – do you remember when Pomona and Jonas visit an insane asylum on their honeymoon? Do you know, you and Mr. Mifflin remind me a little of Mr. and Mrs. Drew.”

Helen and Aubrey chuckled at this innocent correlation of ideas. Then the organ began to play “O How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and the ever-delightful Mr. and Mrs. Drew appeared on the screen in one of their domestic comedies. Lovers of the movies may well date a new screen era from the day those whimsical pantomimers set their wholesome and humane talent at the service of the arc light and the lens. Aubrey felt a serene and intimate pleasure in watching them from a seat beside Titania. He knew that the breakfast table scene shadowed before them was only a makeshift section of lath propped up in some barnlike motion picture studio; yet his rocketing fancy imagined it as some arcadian suburb where he and Titania, by a jugglery of benign fate, were bungalowed together. Young men have a pioneering imagination: it is doubtful whether any young Orlando ever found himself side by side with Rosalind without dreaming himself wedded to her. If men die a thousand deaths before this mortal coil is shuffled, even so surely do youths contract a thousand marriages before they go to the City Hall for a license.

Aubrey remembered the opera glasses, which were still in his pocket, and brought them out. The trio amused themselves by watching Sidney Drew’s face through the magnifying lenses. They were disappointed in the result, however, as the pictures, when so enlarged, revealed all the cobweb of fine cracks on the film. Mr. Drew’s nose, the most amusing feature known to the movies, lost its quaintness when so augmented.

“Why,” cried Titania, “it makes his lovely nose look like the map of Florida.”

“How on earth did you happen to have these in your pocket?” asked Mrs. Mifflin, returning the glasses.

Aubrey was hard pressed for a prompt and reasonable fib, but advertising men are resourceful.

“Oh,” he said, “I sometimes carry them with me at night to study the advertising sky-signs. I’m a little short sighted. You see, it’s part of my business to study the technique of the electric signs.”

After some current event pictures the programme prepared to repeat itself, and they went out.

Comment: Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American journalist, novelist, poet and essayist of prolific output. His 1919 novel The Haunted Bookshop features Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man, who tracks down a German spy who is using a New York bookshop as a dropping-off point in preparation for plans to assassinate President Woodrow Wilson. Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew were a comedy team, popular on stage and film. Sidney Drew died in 1919, shortly after Morley wrote the chapter. My thanks to Philip Carli for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Complete text at Project Gutenberg

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