The Mystery in ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’

New and old technologies collide in Robin Sloan's new novel.

A newly unemployed website designer walks into a 24-hour used bookstore in San Francisco, drawn as much by the books as the quaint “Help Wanted” sign on the door. After a soul-searching examination by the proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, Clay Jannon becomes the bookstore’s newest late-night clerk and, eventually, an apprentice to Mr. Penumbra himself. The proprietor gives Clay three strict rules: Never be late or leave your shift early; take detailed notes of all customer interactions; and, whatever you do, do not read the curious-looking leather-bound books on the top shelves. I think you can see where this is going.

Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is a haunt for patrons who are squirrely, secretive, and searching for those elusive top-shelf books. Naturally, our hero Clay reads the books — at first mostly out of boredom, but then as a matter of hugely important research once he realizes that everything about the bookstore is not quite kosher. And when Mr. Penumbra mysteriously vanishes, Clay calls up his trusty companions — fearless young Google wizard Kat and warrior/patron Neel, creator of the perfect 3D boob-rendering software — to set off on a quest. The trio must find Mr. Penumbra and solve the mystery of the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an adventure that will take them from dark underground reading rooms in New York to Google’s sunny Mountain View campus, gathering friends and incurring foes along the path to discover — well, I can’t tell you. You really need to read the novel for yourself, or find out in person when author Robin Sloan reads at Rakestraw Books (550 Hartz Ave., Danville) on Monday, November 26.

The idea for the book came from a friend’s tweet: “Just misread a sign that says 24-hour bookshop — my disappointment is beyond words!” Sloan, who’s worked at Twitter and Current TV, combined that idea with his middle-school fascination with Dragonlance, a book series based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game: “They decided they needed a series of books to introduce people to that world, and it turned out the books were much more successful than the game,” he said. “Obviously there’s a story waiting in a 24-hour bookstore,” Sloan said. “I love wandering though bookstores, browsing, looking for a colorful spine that catches my eye.”

Even though the story is about searching for clues in old books in a world where technology is shunned and the very idea of eBooks is tantamount to original sin, Sloan isn’t pitting Luddites against techies. “They’re not actually different sides or worlds,” he said. While doing research on the history of printing and bookmaking, “I got the strange sense I was reading about Silicon Valley today: the way they argued and copied each others’ printing techniques — it sounded like conversations tech people have today,” he said. “It never stopped being technology, never stopped evolving. I came around to realizing technology was not some strange new visitor to the world.” That’s a particularly timely realization in our current tech-boom climate.

Sloan will read with Robert Graysmith, author of Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer — And of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco, and Lewis Buzbee, author of Bridge of Time. 7 p.m., free. 925-837-7337 or


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