A collection of short sf/f/horror stories about bookstores. There is already a glut of tales about magical bookstores with wise old booksellers who always know exactly what book to give each customer, and this collection has a bunch of those sorts of trite tales. But it also has a few interesting and weird takes on the subject.
"From the Cradle," Gene Wolfe: Michael is obsessed with an old and priceless book kept in his bookshop, which contains a new allegorical tale precisely tailored to him every time he opens it to a new page. I didn't liked the allegories, and I didn't much like Michael.
"A Book, By its Cover," PD Cacek: an old bookseller saves Jews in Germany in 1938 by turning them into books
"The Hemingway Kittens" by AR Morlan: Two adorable kittens with hand-like paws start living in a bookstore. The bookseller begins to suspect that they're reading the books at night. I really hated this because it's far too long for such a simple idea, and because there is no possible way on earth that a geneticist would decide to leave gene modded animals of this kind with a random bookstore. If you want to teach kittens to read, teach them in a monitored, controlled environment! It's not like the geneticist needed to hide his work, either--after the kittens teach themselves to read at the bookstore, he takes them back to the lab and writes papers about them. I bet the papers are pretty crappy, though, given that he's missing data on several months' development of his only two test subjects! So bothersome.
"Lost Books" by John Miller: A fantasy author (who wrote just one book) suffered terrible tragedy, roams the US, and then starts working at a used book store. There, he falls in love once more, but also begins to suspect that the store's proprietor is more than what he seems. This story bothered me, both because every damn character tells the main character how much they luuuuuved his one book (a random example from small talk between two people who don't know each other: "'The prose is cool and evocative, the characters are great. And the story!'" Sounds totally natural and realistic!) and because the idea of atoning for letting the Library of Alexandria burn by opening up a bookstore completely misses the fact that there's a very large difference between a library and a bookstore. Providing books for a fee is not the same as providing books for free, and it's stupid to pretend that they're equally helpful to people.
"One Copy Only" by Ramsay Campbell: A judge finds a used bookstore in which unwritten stories can be read. She finds a great book by an author who writes grimdark fantasy doorstoppers nowadays, but the author denies ever writing it. The dialog felt unnatural. And for all the narrator's supposed problem with cycnical characters and gloomy endings, she's really unpleasant about other people: describing one man as having "a senile pony-tail", decries her supposed fave author because he has a weak chin and isn't as tall as his characters, etc. The author who writes the grimdark fantasy doorstoppers also drives a brand new Jaguar, which I find rather unlikely.
"Pixel Pixies" by Charles de Lint: A hobgoblin tries to save a bookstore from an infestation of pixies. Cute, though no substance to it.
"Blind Stampbed" by Lisa Morton: A bookseller finds out that his favorite customer has died and is now haunting the bookstore. A nice mix of creepy and sweet.
"Shakespeare & Co." by Jack Williamson: In the far future, the written word has been nearly stamped out. A boy's pawnbroker grandfather secretly supplies books to his family--and to the rebellion. I was pleased to find a sf story in here, but the revolution is summed up very rapidly and vaguely, which left me unsatisfied.
"Ballard's Books" by Gerard Houarner: Haunted by a conversation he overhears about a magical bookstore as a child, a man spends his entire life searching for it. When at last he finds it, he is kicked out almost immediately for trying to write inside his own biography
. The main character is a selfish dimwit, and I had no patience with him. I liked finding a magical bookstore that, for once, was not good or evil.
"Books" by David Bischoff: An upleasant software developer kills some time in a bookstore that is clearly magical to the reader. He doesn't intend to read any of the books, but he does plan on selling the mint condition first editions he finds there. Turns out, he's dead and this is his afterlife. What the hell kind of afterlife is a bookstore? Why not a library, since all the patrons just sit around reading anyway and can never leave?
"Escapes" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: A young woman starts working in a magical bookstore. Its magic is her only protection against the creepy abusive boyfriend she's trying to leave. Good. I particularly liked that the other employees didn't immediately trust or like the main character--it made the story feel more natural, and the main character even more sympathetic.
"'I am looking for a book...'" by Patrick Weekes: Gorhok the Inmitigable searches for the book of power he needs to complete his dark and unholy ritual. But the magical bookstore has been bought out by a large chain store (with a coffee shop and all) and none of the employees know what Gorhok is talking about. Hilarious, and easily my favorite of the collection.
"The Glutton" by Melanie Tem: The other stand-out of the collection. Phoebe feeds on the stories of others, becoming their muse even as she sucks their essence dry.
"In the Bookshadow" by Marianne de Pierres. An employee at a bookstore begins to be haunted by terrible phantasms. Eventually, she realizes that these dreadful images are attached to "soulless" books written just to make a buck. She makes one last attempt to stop a customer from buying these books, then joins the ranks of the homeless, insane, or otherwise strange people who wander into bookshops and act as "self appointed Guardians of the soul."
I wish this had been written a little more clearly.
"Non-Returnable" by Rick Hautala: Manda has trouble getting rid of a book on psychic black holes, and each time she tries to return the book, she loses something else: a rug, a cat...a life.
"The Cheese Stands Alone" by Harlan Ellison. Cort is a disaffected dentist who finds himself in a strange town. All the shops are closed and dark except one: a bookstore in which every person stares fixedly at a single page in a book, never turning the page. I really liked the conceit here, in which people are trapped by their burning curiosity, but then the main character starts ranting in such a classic Ellison style that it broke the spell for me.