Thursday, July 24, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley

 The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

A review by Rich Horton

The Haunted Bookshop is a 1919 novel by Christopher Morley, apparently a big bestseller at the time. It has retained considerable popularity, at least to the extent that I had heard of it, so when I saw it for a song at a used book sale I bought a copy. And of course buying a copy of The Haunted Bookshop used seems very appropriate: it's about a used book store. The edition I found is a later reprint, from 1955.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was a journalist, poet, and novelist, quite well known in his day. He was one of the founders of The Baker Street Irregulars. I noted in my post on John Reed Scott that one of my daughter's college visits was to Scott's alma mater, Gettysburg College; so I should note here that my daughter also visited another Pennsylvania college, Haverford, which is where Morley went to school. (Indeed, he was the valedictorian.) (I liked Haverford a lot, though again it was way too expensive for us to send Melissa there.) (Three parens in a row: I thought to mention as well that one of my favorite novelists, Nicholson Baker, is also a Haverford graduate.) Besides The Haunted Bookshop, which came early in Morley's career, he is probably best known for Kitty Foyle, which came much later (in 1939), and which became a film with Ginger Rogers in the title role. (And with two very well-regarded screenwriters: Dalton Trumbo and The Philadelphia Story's Donald Ogden Stewart, both of whom were later blacklisted.)

It is very much a post World War I novel, a direct reaction to the war. Which in a way is odd because it's also a feather light comedy. It's also the sequel to an earlier novel, Parnassus on Wheels, which apparently concerned Roger Mifflin's traveling bookstore. Indeed, much of this new novel (and I would guess much of the earlier one) appeared in The Bookman, a magazine devoted to bookselling concerns. The Haunted Bookshop is Mifflin's nickname for his non-traveling bookstore in Brooklyn.

Roger Mifflin is a pleasant and rambling middle aged man, devoted to the trade of selling used books. He is very idealistic about this, and about reading in general. Indeed, he's rather a snob about reading, not going in much for popular fiction, unless it happens to be popular fiction he likes. Which would be OK except for the way he disapproves of other people reading stuff he doesn't like.

The action of this story starts when a young advertising man, Aubrey Gilbert, stumbles into Mifflin's store, hoping to convince him to open an account. Of course Mifflin will have none of that, but he does invite the young man to dinner. Shortly thereafter Mifflin takes on an assistant, a very pretty and very rich young woman named Titania Chapman, the daughter of the owner of the Daintybits company, which by coincidence is the biggest account for Gilbert's firm.

You can see where THAT's going! Of course Gilbert has occasion to visit Mifflin's shop again, and is smitten by Titania's charms. At the same time, a book keeps going missing and turning up at Mifflin's shop: Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell. Gilbert soon realizes something fishy is going on, and indeed gets a bop on the head for his pains. He begins to spy on Mifflin's shop, partly to protect Titania, partly because he thinks Mifflin is in on a sinister plot. And it turns out there is a sinister plot, involving disaffected Germans, but of course Mifflin is completely innocent.

Besides this somewhat silly plot, much of the book is taken up with Mifflin's perorations about books and bookselling, but also about war, and the futility of the just-completed war. Mifflin is basically a pacifist, and the book itself argues for Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations idea with some passion. (The German plot in the book turns out to involve Wilson.)

All in all the feather light and silly aspect of the book prevails. It's a fairly enjoyable read, but it doesn't strike me as truly memorable. On the other hand, it's still being read getting on to a hundred years since its publication, which is certainly something pretty impressive.


  1. I just bought a first edition of this at the marvelous Caliban Bookshop in Pittsburgh. Fine condition, good dustcover. They had it in their Halloween window for $32. I was torn between it and a first edition of Lynd Ward's proto graphic novel GOD'S MAN, but that was $100, so I went with the Morley.

  2. I have read the Haunted Bookshop many times. It's enjoyable. I am impressed with all the references to other books I have never heard of. It's a fun read.

  3. I have tried to like this book but I can't. It's long-winded and meanders to no clear purpose. The plot is silly, and the protagonist Mifflin's windy, bibliophile soliloquies grow tiresome halfway through—so I'm putting my (second-hand) copy back on my bookshelf. Which is odd, because I usually like second-hand books, and second-hand bookstores...