“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” Contemplates The Decline of the Modern Bookstore

Since the Great Recession, businesses and job markets have contracted in the United States. An economic ripple affected everyone from the richest to the poorest. While not as severe as the stock market crash of the 1930s, 2008’s Great Recession was certainly a pretty bleak time. Somehow during this time, Robin Sloan is able to craft a delightful fable in the midst of an economic downturn in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

At the start, we see Clay Jannon losing his job designing marketing materials for a boutique bagel company, and he begins looking for jobs online—in between reading articles about mutated grapes and book reviews. While an avid reader, Clay admits to never touching paper. Eventually, it’s paper that saves him. He grows increasingly desperate for work:

“At first I had insisted that I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.”

It’s Clay’s honest snark that gives the novel much of its kick and keeps the reader interested.

The notion of any kind of bookstore surviving in the 2010s is almost miraculous. A 24-hour bookstore, therefore, has a certain allure to it, the strip club next door notwithstanding. It’s like “a normal bookstore turned up on its side” with narrow aisles and very high bookshelves. Clay is interested in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it’s a job and he’s unemployed, but the store and its unassuming and enigmatic owner soon lead him into an ancient secret. Penumbra asks Clay about his favorite book, and his immediate answer seems to go over well because the old gentleman hires the former graphic designer then and there.

Clay works the night shift but, a month in, he’s confronted with a series of puzzling truths.

One: the store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But this isn’t because of an overwhelming number of customers. In fact, Clay spends many nights alone and ponders how the store can possibly turn a profit.

Two: Penumbra does no marketing whatsoever. No newspaper or Internet ads, no commercials, no websites, no social media pages, nothing. This is a cardinal sin for anyone running a business.

Three: the store is kind of split in two. There’s a “front” part of the store with normal books that one might find at Barnes & Noble. But there’s also a “back” part with books that “as far as Google knows, don’t exist.”

Four: an assortment of eccentric characters “who orbit the store like strange moons.” These people buy or borrow books from the back part of the store on a semi-regular basis. To go along with these unusual patrons, there is a logbook that tracks who checked out what and how they seemed to be feeling at the moment they received a tome. It’s these customers that lead Clay down a bibliophile’s rabbit hole.

As he seeks answers to these mysteries, Clay enlists the help of a Google star, a special effects genius, and a middle school friend (who also happens to have become incredibly rich). What results is a fantastic story about books and the way in which books bring people together—and how books can tear people apart. Whatever secret lies at the heart of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay discovers some books do not belong in the digital age.

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