Critical Mass

Jonathan Lethem’s Fantasy Bookshop

By Jane Ciabattari

Q. NBCC award winner Jonathan Lethem, whose new novel, Chronic City, is set in Manhattan, has set a small used bookstore in Maine, called Red Gap, with coffee and couches and an idiosyncratic selection of books.  I asked him to describe how it came about. 

A. I’m not very good at talking about it. I’m shy about it. It’s a place,almost like a clubhouse that came together, a group of friends and I had been fantasizing about it.  They are brilliant shopkeepers; they run an antique shop. They have that talent.

It might seem like a kind of provocation against the world of Kindles and so forth but t’s more for me a piece of continuity. I worked at seven or eight used bookstores in my teens and twenties and into my thirties. It’s the only work I did getting to be a full time writer. In a funny way, I kept on buying as if I was stocking a store. I had storage space completely out of control.

In my mind I still was an antiquarian bookseller. This was just a chance to reconnect with that feeling, that experience. It’s where my urge to be a writer comes from, cherishing these objects, wanting go play in them, make them, be on those shelves myself. It’s connected to my writing life that I love the object and want to transmit them.

Most used bookstores are labors of love. This is a place for me to feel that again.

Q. Do you feel that way about libraries, as well?

A. I have a two-year-old now. I was a library kid before I stumbled into my first used bookstore. Having a kid has brought me back into contact with libraries. My library growing up in Brooklyn was at Pacific and Fourth. I learned about science fiction on their spinnner rack.