I find the bookshop on 47th and Willow, sandwiched between a pawn shop with a broken lamp in the window and a jewelry store selling fake pearls. The windows are shuttered, and a black cat is lying on the doorstep. She arches against my hand when I reach down and pet her, and when I step over her and go inside, I half expect her to follow me.
She doesn’t, even when I hold the door for her. I guess she likes it outside better.
A silver bell rings when I come inside, but there’s no one at the counter. A dusty book is lying open beside the register, and there’s a kitten asleep in a basket under one of the tables, but no people. No customers, no employees.
But there are books. The walls are lined with shelves that reach right up to the cracked ceiling, and the books that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked neatly in the corners, or arranged in rows on the creaky reading desks in the center of the room. I browse through, finding a few titles I know and some I’ve been looking for. I can’t find any price tags, but since some of the books are pretty battered, I figure they’re mostly second-hand, and the owner has a standard price that she—or he—keeps by the cash register.
The kitten is following me. I clump down a few steps into another room, this a little more messy, a little more scattered than the last. Big, sprawling plants are growing in pots in the corners, and the books are double-lining the shelves. Some of them have real leather covers, their pages so old that they crack when I open them. The writing is nearly illegible, faded by dust and years, and I’m tempted to buy a few to keep in my library, maybe on display. I’ve always liked old books.
Another cat is sleeping on the books, a big orange tabby. He yawns as I pass by, and I scratch him on the ears and under the chin. The kitten is rubbing against my ankles, purring as loud as if he hasn’t had any kind of attention for years. I pick him up, letting him rub his face against my cheek and chin as I venture into the next room.
It’s bigger than the last. I didn’t think the shop was so big. From the street, it looks like a one-room corner store, with maybe an upstairs room for extra stock. But I can’t find any stairs, and the rooms keep getting bigger as I go along. Several ferns and a few leafy vines are growing on the tables, and one of the shelves has Venus Flytraps growing next to the books. They’re bigger than I thought they would be, although I’ve never really grown any. Maybe they feed on book moths, or something.
The books are all leather now. I pull one off the shelves, and it’s so heavy that I have to set it down on a table before I can open it.
I can’t read the writing inside. It’s hand-lettered and smeared, and definitely not written in English. I put it back on the shelf, feeling a little funny, and go back through the door to the room with the orange tabby.
At least, that’s what I meant to do. The door was the same, or looked the same, but the orange tabby is gone, and this room has a bare wall with hand-drawn maps pinned to it and an old writing desk, with quill pens and an ink bottle with dust on it in the corner. The kitten is gone, and the books are chained to the shelves, like they were in the Middle Ages. I pull one off and open it up, and the pages are lined by painted illustrations that make my stomach turn.
I go back through the door I just left, thinking I’ll find the kitten and the right door, and go home without buying anything, at least today.
But the Venus Flytraps aren’t there, and the room isn’t the one I left. Three or four more doors, and I begin to realize that I’m very, very lost.
Either that, or this bookshop is playing games with me. A few hours, and the way it toys with me starts to feel very alive. As if it’s confusing me on purpose. The kitten appears a few more times, but I always lose it again.
It’s weeks before I give up. The bookshop seems intent on keeping me alive, whatever else it has in mind, like one of its cats. I find plates of stale cookies and lemonade set out for me, or sometimes a sandwich and a cup of milk. At night we have tea in the room with the squashy armchairs and the fireplace, and the kitten finds me.
It’s not so bad, once the panic wears off. Who knows? Maybe the last owner got eaten by the Venus Flytraps or made it outside, and the shop got lonely without them. I don’t think it likes to be alone, and someone has to take care of the books and give the cats the attention they need.
So why not me?