‘Parnassus on Wheels’ and ‘The Haunted Bookshop’ by Christopher Morley
The old Rizzoli bookshop on West 57th Street was one of those New York spaces that are so grand, so beautiful, and so established that you never even think to fear for its survival. Some things, you think, will endure even in a constantly-changing city like New York.
In the summer of 2013, the Rizzoli bookshop seemed as stable and beautiful as ever. Its interior was like walking into the library in ‘Beauty & the Beast’ — books stretched from carpeted floor to opulently-decorated ceiling. The shelves were made of wood that looked impossibly dark and old and they were matched by huge library tables that didn’t look like they could ever be moved by mere mortals. Grand chandeliers hung from the ceiling between floors, giving the whole store a warm, safe, nook-like feeling even on the brightest summer day.
I wandered in on that particular sunny day with a visiting art historian friend who I was showing around New York. Truthfully, after living in the city for almost 6 years, I had never been inside the famed Rizzoli bookstore on 57th Street. I had just heard that it was beautiful and artistic and that one really ought to see it.
Now I agreed wholeheartedly. My pupils actually dilated in delight when we walked in and saw the glory of Rizzoli’s interior. The respectful hush of the place felt very far away from the heat and bustle of midtown just outside the doors and my friend and I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the shop, neglectful of all other plans.
At the end of our visit, I selected a copy of Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop to take home with me. Rizzoli was, strictly speaking, an art book store, but upstairs they had some selections of fiction, children’s literature, and travel books, including a section dedicated to Melville House Books’ “The Art of the Novella” series. These little books, each a different bright color, were as pretty as the bookstore itself and I decided that buying a beautiful little book about books was the most appropriate thing I could do in such an incredible place.
The Haunted Bookshop is actually a sequel to Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, which I hadn’t read, but it seemed to stand alone well and I left Rizzoli feeling very pleased with my little splurge. I had discovered a new beautiful New York space, one which I could visit again and again, and I had a new beautiful book to enjoy.
Three summers later, I was showing a different friend around a different city — this time, Buffalo, New York — but with a similar, bookish agenda. We found ourselves at my favorite used bookstore in Buffalo, Westside Stories on Grant Street. It’s the opposite of Rizzoli in many ways: small and cramped with a feeling of dust everywhere and shelves made out of raw lumber. The few tables that are squeezed into the shop are so covered in books that you can’t even tell what they look like, let alone if they match the shelves. There is no grandness about West Side Stories. There isn’t even really beauty. There is just a very clear love of books.
At Westside Stories that particular sunny day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather funky copy of Parnassus on Wheels, Morley’s first novella about bookseller Roger Mifflin. It was published by the Common Reader/Akadine Press in the late 1990s although it looked almost self-published in its lack of finery. I liked it anyway and I brought it home along with the usual eclectic assortment that comes with any trip to a good used book store.
Both Parnassus and The Haunted Bookshop have somewhat beside-the-point plots. Really, Morley is just here to extol the virtues of books and reading. He has a strong case of bibliophilia — as do his characters — and its always a fun little ride to follow them along their bookish paths. This focus on books and reading also makes them the perfect little purchase to commemorate a visit to a truly good bookstore.
A few months after I visited Rizzoli for first time, I moved away and never made it back. The very next year, the shop would lose its lease, close*, and the very building itself was demolished to make way for a luxury hotel. This series of events is hardly uncommon in New York, but I still can’t quite believe it happened to that place. That bookstore. That beauty.
Rizzoli on 57th Street was a jewel box, a book store for special occasions and finding beautiful things, but Westside Stories is the pair of worn-in Birkenstocks you slip on every day because you love and use them. It seems appropriate that I have Morley’s two bookish books — one beautiful and one a little worn — to keep a part of each shop with me as I go along.
* I am happy to report that the Rizzoli Bookstore reopened downtown on Broadway in 2015, where it can still be found and perused by lovers of interior beauty and good books.