From a certain point of view, we’re almost at the edge of the map when we stumble out of the harsh brilliance of downtown Los Angeles and into the famous Last Bookstore. I wonder if the bookstore gets its name from potentially being the last bookstore before North America ends and the Pacific Ocean begins.
Maybe it is the slightly ominous tone of the name, or the dark room opening before us—part cavern and part cathedral, or the rush of subterranean cool that greets us scented with the musk of aging paper, ink, and binding, but there is a slight air of tomb about the place.
It’s not a tomb in a solid or permanent way, not a grave. It is like a Pharoah’s burial chamber or the pier on the Styx. This is the gilded foyer to another world.
Shelves stand, like merchants in an ancient Marakesh market, arms spread wide to display their wares. Bright colors catch the eye.
Respectable gatherings of sofas and chairs stand as if in quiet conversation. It would not be awkward to join them. They are not the pretentious sort.
Above, a gallery lined with arches offers glimpses of “the labyrinth”—a further maze of books occupying an upper level that defies understanding and architectural sense. Up there, wandering through a literal tunnel of books in the mystery section, you stumble into the political science section that you left behind not so long ago. You step through a door you are certain you did not see when you were here before.
I backtrack through the tunnel to the mystery section and realize I’ve lost my friends. A prickle of anxiety begins to needle me.
I met my companions in college when the future was clear and the horizon lines of graduation, first jobs, and eventual marriages were clear. We knew, more or less, what would happen next. We had read stories like this a hundred times.
Today, we are celebrating something like a bachelorette party for the youngest of us, who is getting married on Saturday (not that time or days seem to exist in a strictly formal way in The Last Bookstore).
I worry that the bride-to-be is not enjoying herself. The other bridesmaid and I surprised her with this destination, after all. Or perhaps my concerns are symptoms of my ambient anxiety—Is this adulthood? Am I doing it right?
I spot my companions nestled in a bench made of old suitcases.
We compare discoveries.
The other bridesmaid shows off the biography of a con artist.
“Where did you find this?” I ask.
“The true crime section.”
“There’s a true crime section?”
So, back into the stacks we plunge.
We make our way into a small room bathed in red light, the kind used for photo development. A torturous-looking chair crafted of radiators presides grimly.
We plunder the lower shelves near the door for tales of heists.
Downstairs, between Mythology and Literary Criticism, I whisper to my friend: “This is the Starless Sea.”
The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern, is shamelessly escapist, a door to a world of endless books and time to read. Plush nooks. A magic kitchen. Nights danced away at exquisite balls. Morgenstern’s world is underground, cavernous, abandoned because that is part of the fantasy—to be lost down the rabbit hole, insulated from the wild pace of life.
This is the enchantment of books: the chance to be buried for a few hours, to lose ourselves and our anxiety in the pleasant dance of predictability and novelty.
The Starless Sea is also a love story steeped in mingled determined events and surprise. The tangled romance that ensues when “Fate falls in love with Time” weaves the narrative together. It is a literally star-crossed romance, its cyclical nature combining doom and hope in a way that seems to prompt the reader to live fully in the present. Yet, the book smacks—honey-sweet and sticky—of what lies Beyond.
It resonates keenly with heaven. Or, at least, of some afterlife. And I comment as much to the other bridesmaid.
Here we are, standing in The Last Bookstore, at the edge of the map. This marriage marks the final chapter of what my little community of friends could predict a few years ago. We are in the fog now.
“But the world is strange and endings are not truly endings no matter how the stars might wish it so,” it says in The Starless Sea.
I do ask the cashier where the name of the shop comes from.
“We’re among the last brick-and-mortar bookstores,” he says.
I like this explanation less than my imagined one.
We gather our parcels and prepare to walk into the sunlight.
We find ourselves beyond the edge of the map, but the veil of fog has lifted. The wind is crisp and tart with salt. We will find another map and another after that. Someday, we will reach the true edge, the Last Beyond. There will be a true Last Wedding there, we’re told. And new stories, I think, an after words.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.