Inside the little shop on the corner, space and time have folded themselves back to reveal a thousand rooms on fifty different floors. The shop is more than a thousand years old. Harald Helgason, the first owner, still lives in a distant corner of the ground floor, where he sells furs and silver jewellery and trades with Viking raiders. The future confuses him, so he rarely ventures onto the upper floors where his descendants live. He has five sons and daughters, and they run the shop on the floor above his. Two of his grandchildren sell furs and cloth on the floor above that. His other twelve grandchildren live outside in the ninth century.
Half a dozen floors up and as many generations later, the shop sells pottery in all shapes and sizes. Scrolls and books begin to appear sporadically from the tenth floor and become common from the twenty-seventh. Somewhere in the maze of rooms on the twenty-ninth floor is a small printing press. Further up there are spices and sugar, silk and porcelain, tea and coffee. And on every floor there are rooms and rooms full of odds and ends in huge piles that are forever threatening to topple over.
The floors are connected by grand marble staircases and rope ladders and everything in between. But not everyone can travel from floor to floor. You need a hefty dose of luck, which is only handed out to a select few descendants of Harald Helgason.
Imagine for a moment that you are one of the lucky few. Picture yourself standing outside the shop. There’s traffic on the street behind you. The exhaust fumes make you cough. An elderly lady is walking one of those dogs that looks like a hairball on tiny legs and a teenager on a skateboard nearly knocks you over. It’s a normal day in the twenty-first century. You look through the grimy windows of the shop. There’s a sign that lists the opening hours, but the ink has faded away to a ghostly shadow. Oh go on, try the door!
It opens, and a bell tinkles above you as you step inside. The sound is swallowed up by the shadows that lurk in the corners of the room, by the motes of dust that hang in the still air. The shop smells of old books and wood shavings, cinnamon and candle wax, rain on a hot summer’s day and the sky before the first snow of the year. Step forward. Wander through the aisles. Peer at the faded clothes and cushions, the cabinets crammed with shark’s teeth and antlers, crumbling with age. Examine the jewel-bright vases and plates that are displayed on little tables. Dare to touch the sword clasped in the metal fingers of the suit of armour. Read the titles of the books that fill shelf after shelf. Run your finger along their spines. But be careful not to startle them. Books like these could leap off the shelf and swallow you whole.
This here, at street level in the twenty-first century, is the top floor. But that doesn’t mean the forty-nine other floors are underground. The shop doesn’t work like that. Here, space is time and time is space. In the twenty-first century, the shop is run by a young couple. They’ll help you find that perfect gift for your grandmother or just let you wander or on your own, depending on your preference. You might meet their three children, who spend their days exploring the lower floors. Would you like to join them?
Three floors down, the kids stop to say hello to their great-great grandparents. Their floor smells of freshly baked bread and hot chocolate. It’s always busy. Customers come from all over town to buy cakes and biscuits. The women wear hats decorated with feathers and flowers. The men look stylish in bowler hats. Few of them venture beyond the first room. Why go further, when this is where the baked goods are? Grab a pastry, and let’s continue down.
There’s a slide from the forty-first to the thirty-seventh floor, so you can travel down an entire century in a matter of seconds. The kids love it, obviously, but that doesn’t mean they skip the floors between. The thirty-eight floor in particular is a favourite of theirs. Here, you will meet Miss Elisabeth Maria Nordberg. She’s cleverer than the rest of the shop owners put together but in her time women are not allowed to go to university. That has never stopped her. She taught herself mathematics and physics, and maintains correspondence with scientists throughout Europe. She signs her letters “Mr. White”, and wonders how many of the men who write to her about calculus and magnetism are secretly women. When the shop is not busy, she works on her steam engine. She doesn’t want to know whether the floors above her hold a more efficient version, and the children know not to tell her. But she would very much like to hear about your aunt who is a professor of astrophysics.
A few floors further down, you’ll meet Thomas Dobson. He sailed around the world as a young man and has an endless supply of stories about sea monsters and islands that disappear in the mist. While he talks, he’ll whittle dragons and ships out of driftwood. The kids have dozens of them on a shelf in their bedroom. If you look out of the window you’ll see a seventeenth century street. The cobblestones are barely visible through a thick layer of mud. You are probably curious about the seventeenth century, about its people, its architecture, its stories and jokes. But whatever you do, don’t step outside! If you do, you won’t have been born. It’s safer to stay inside the shop, where space and time are jumbled up and entangled and it doesn’t matter when you are as long as you are right here. Come on, it’s time to move on. But don’t forget the wooden dragon Thomas made you!
Down, down, down… Wander through the reformation. There’s an entire floor that is littered with the debris of the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century. Broken statues and torn tapestries lie in heaps on the floor. In stark contrast to this destruction, the shelves above hold bowls and vases of the finest Chinese porcelain. Continue down through the renaissance and admire the art and literature that is strewn about the shelves here. Descend into the middle of the fourteenth century. The Black Death stalks the streets outside, but it can’t come in. The shop knows that the wonders of modern medicine - antibiotics, intensive care units, doctors who wash their hands - are just a few floors above.
The children are laughing as they run down a long winding staircase. It’s made of stone and the steps are narrow. At the bottom is the early twelfth century, and here a small man named Henric sells cloth and pottery, as well as tools and other supplies for the craftsmen who are building the cathedral. One of the rooms contains earthenware jars full of copper filings. These are used to create the bright colours of stained glass. Henric goes out sometimes to watch the artists work. He can talk for hours about the techniques and materials used to build the cathedral, and he knows it will still be standing nearly a thousand years from now.
The kids grab your hand and drag you further down. The eleventh century. The tenth century. Notice how the floor is covered with rushes and the windows have no glass in them. The shutters are open so you can hear and smell the street outside. One more staircase, and then you are face to face with Harald Helgason who opened the shop. The kids explain who you are. Just a customer, but one who can visit other floors, how cool is that? Harald smiles at you. His grey eyes twinkle with amusement. They are the exact same colour as yours.
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An amazingly creative idea. I liked Elizabeth Nordberg and her suspicion that her correspondents who signed as men were also women. A great way to represent her century. I suspect some wonderful adventures could be had in this shop by almost anyone.
Thank you! Elisabeth is inspired by Sophie Germain, a French mathematician who used the pseudonym Monsieur Le Blanc.
I think this is your best story yet. I really wish I could visit a shop like that. Thank you so much for writing this story. Like your main character, I'm wandering down through your stories (from present to past), finding the ones that I enjoy reading right now and saving the rest for later. I'm only sorry that I didn't discover your stories sooner.