The Bookseller

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Start your story with the whistle of a kettle.... view prompt


Fantasy Speculative Fiction


The kettle whistled on the metal stovetop, its once-white color now a faded, mottled cream. It was unusual to have a stove in a bookshop. But there it was all the same, standing proudly—albeit a bit tired—in the corner of the front room farthest from the door. The bookshop was located in what once was an old Victorian house—for the bookshop, at first nestled in what had been the kitchen, soon overtook the rest of the house. The living room was now lined with shelves of tattered, previously loved classics; the bedrooms were themed, each encompassing a genre of their own, from mysteries and thrillers to romances, nonfiction works, cookbooks, and travel memoirs; even the bathroom was brimming with books, mostly short story collections (the better to read in temporary sittings). Books lined window sills, the insides of cupboards, and lived in little stacks along each step of the staircase going up to the second floor.

And it was just how the ghost liked it.

For yes, the ghost was the bookseller, and the bookseller was the ghost. The people in the small town which surrounded the bookshop had long ago stopped looking for evidence of a flesh-and-blood bookseller there. A metal box with a slit in the top sat on a table next to the stove, a paper sign taped to the top that read “Pay here—Cash only.” And despite not believing that a tangible bookseller resided there, no townsperson had ever neglected to pay the price tag on their bookish find. No one wanted to be indebted to the ghostly bookseller—though he would never think of haunting someone, not in the traditional sense of the verb.

The ghost was indeed intangible—hovering, invisible. But he did like his daily cup(s) of tea. His translucency didn’t prevent him from being able to move the kettle off the burner and pour out a generous measure of tea into the chipped mug he had been using for decades. His morning tea continued to be a highlight of his days. Though he had enjoyed it thousands of times, that first sip of milky hot goodness never failed to make him sigh with contentment.

It was autumn, then, that crisp, vibrant New England autumn that seemed the eternal starlit of spooky settings. It was the ghost’s favorite season by far, but not because of the spooky association. No, instead he loved autumn for its perfect in-betweenness: cool but not as freezing as winter, bold but not as blinding as summer, sweet but not as saccharine as spring. It was in autumn that the ghost and his business thrived, as local bibliophiles flocked to his shelves to select their next bookish fodder. He didn’t really need the money, apart from acquiring more books (and more tea). But nothing made him hum as thrillingly as when his shop brimmed with fellow book lovers.

This particular morning was especially cool. Steam danced its way up and out of his tea, filling the air with the sent of vanilla and chai. He heard the familiar sound of footsteps making their way up to the front door, the sound of what he presumed to be the first shopper of the day. He had, of course, opened at 8 o’clock as per usual. Excited to see what this shopper picked out—for that was the best part of his job, a little innocent literary snooping—he sailed up to his favorite spot among the ceiling beams to wait.

The bells hanging from the doorknob chimed as a woman entered, yet she wasn’t anyone the ghost recognized from the surrounding town. In fact, she wasn’t at all like his usual customers. She was dressed smartly in a matching tweed pantsuit and carried a slim leather briefcase. Her heels clicked on the creaking floorboards. She seemed to be about thirty years old, if he had to guess.

Immediately, he was curious. What was this woman doing in his shop? Surely she would pick out just another boring book about business or finance or—heaven forbid—office life. He’d gotten fairly good at predicting which books people would gravitate towards over the years.

But instead of beginning to slowly meander around the shop’s teetering book stacks and leaning shelves, she did what no one had ever done before: she turned her gaze upwards and looked directly at him.

He froze. He knew, logically, that she wasn’t looking at him. She couldn’t be. No one could see him, not in the way that he could see her. He was invisible, after all. And he was adept at hiding his cup of tea, still warm, concealed within the folds of his being. Heck, he hadn’t ever even seen his own reflection before. Mirrors didn’t catch it.

Yet there could be no mistake: this woman seemed to be looking directly at him, not through him or around him or about him. He shivered, clutching his tea even tighter. Her gaze was friendly, her green eyes kinder than he’d anticipated. But still, her attention unnerved him.

“Hello?” she called out, still looking upwards. Her voice was strong, more confident than commanding. “Mr., um, er, Ghost?”

Every minuscule part of him froze. Ghost? No one had dared confront him in his decades of running his bookshop, never mind directly call him a ghost. He was bewildered for a moment, offended, even—but then he admonished himself. For that is what he was, after all. A ghost.

“I was told you’d be here,” she continued, not hearing a reply. “Patsy Greene down the street, at the hair salon? She said you were always here, especially in the mornings.”

Ah, Patsy. A frequent shopper. Mysteries, memoirs, and the occasional romance. Still, the ghost said nothing. He waited.

“Anyways,” the woman went on. “My name is Melody. Melody Wright. I work as an attorney in the next town over, and I wanted to talk to you about this house. There seems to be a bit of a property dispute going on, and I want to help.”

Then it hit him—how could he have forgotten! Melody Wright, the green eyed girl with the frizzy brown hair who used to visit his shop with her grandmother each Sunday morning when she was a child. Fantasy novels, the more whimsical and wistful the better. That had been about nineteen, twenty years ago now. Time enough for Melody to have grown up and gone to law school, start a career in the next town over.

“This town,” Melody explained, now walking around the front room of the shop but still addressing him, he knew. “A clerk in the town hall was recently checking up on records, and realized that no one actually has this shop listed as a residence, or as a business. Apparently it’s just been slipping through the cracks with all the turnover in that office. Well, now they’re trying to get rights to it, and own it so they can sell it for a quick profit. I heard about it from Joe at the market when I was buying some apples the other day.”

Joe at the market. He knew Joe well—not the most frequent customer, but when Joe happened to peruse the shop’s shelves he always walked away with another presidential biography. Classic Joe.

But the news about the property dispute startled the ghost. For years he had relied upon the goodwill of the townspeople, knowing that they valued his bookshop and wanted it to continue existing. He’d thought that if someone wanted to run him out of town, they would have done so by now. Apparently he had been too optimistic.

Suddenly Melody’s gaze turned upwards again, this time shining with a piercing cleverness, a fiery tenacity. “But when I heard the news, I started doing some research. It turns out the previous owner of this house, Gloria Steele, left it to her son in her will. His name is Matthew Steele, and he’s apparently working as a teacher a few towns over.”

Gloria’s name was familiar to the ghost—it had been on several of the furnishings and items left in the house when he’d found it abandoned all those years ago. But he hadn’t known that Gloria had a son, much less a will.

“I remember coming to this bookshop all the time when I was a kid,” Melody said, softer now. “My grandma used to take me. I loved it. I always found books I’d never heard of here. I don’t want it to go away. In fact,” her eyes sparkled now, “I’d like to own it. For you.”

The ghost nearly dropped his tea, now lukewarm. Someone else owning this house? He’d been living on his own for the longest time. He enjoyed the company of his shoppers from a distance, yes, but he relished those early mornings and late nights when the shop was closed and it was just him and his books. What would it be like to share that space with someone else?

“I have some money saved up,” Melody went on, “and if Mathew would be willing, I’d like to buy it from him. I could live here—I only work in the next town over, so there would hardly be any commute. And I could take the smallest bedroom you have, and you could still run your shop as you please, and I could help you with stock and supplies if you’d like, and—oh, well, I’ve been rambling.”

She paused, looking down at her feet in their slightly scuffed heels. She sighed and looked up at him again.

“I want to help keep this bookshop yours, and keep it going. But I only want to do it if that’s what you want, too. There isn’t much time before the town goes forward with their plans. I’ll come back here tomorrow morning. If you could leave me some sort of sign to show me how you feel, I’d appreciate it. And if the answer’s no, then I’ll be out of your hair, no questions asked.”

She smiled up at him, and he still swore she could see him distinctly among the beams.

“Just think about it, okay? Thanks for listening.”

She smiled lightly, and with that that she turned and left the shop, leaving the bells chiming on the doorknob and a crisp breeze rustling through the front room behind her.

The ghost let out a sigh of relief as he floated down from the beams and placed his cup of now-cold tea on the counter. He sat on a nearby stack of books—Victorian literature, secondhand—and replayed the encounter in his mind. What was he to do? He desperately wanted to remain in his bookshop, surrounded by pages and cups of tea and the warmth of the stove. But having someone else live in the bookshop with him—a roommate, as it were—was something he never thought he’d have to face in this phase of his existence.

As fate would have it, he had no customers that day, giving him plenty of time to mull over his decision. He loved his privacy and solitude, reveled in it. But how bad would living with someone—especially a fellow bookworm like Melody—really be? They could exchange book recommendations by leaving books out for each other. He could make her tea, and vice versa. And it would be nice to have an extra hand with acquiring new inventory, and tea bags…

He tossed and turned on the idea all night, unable to enter that dreamlike state that usually offered him a few hours of reprieve (ghosts like him couldn’t sleep, per se, but they were fond of dreams). As dawn broke over the red-orange autumn treetops, he knew what he would do.

At eight o’clock that morning, the familiar chime of the bells rang out over the front room of the shop. Melody entered slowly, almost cautiously. She looked around the room, at the old kitchen appliances and cupboards and counters that were crowded with books in every cranny. Everything seemed as it had been the day before. Disappointed, she turned as if to leave, when suddenly:


Steam whistled out of the kettle on the stovetop.

“Geez!” Melody exclaimed, having jumped at the sound. Curious, she moved closer to the stove, only to see a tea cup and tea bag on a nearby counter. Next to the tea was an old paperback copy of what used to be her favorite fantasy novel when she was younger. Her grandma had never let her purchase a copy back then—Melody was eight, and the dragons and goblins were deemed far too scary for her. Instead, Melody had snuck in a few pages here and there during their trips to the bookshop, always tucked away in a far corner where she could hear her grandma’s footsteps creaking before she entered the room.

Melody smiled as she took the kettle off the burner. “Thanks, ghost.”

From his spot among the beams, the ghost sipped his tea and, for the first time in a long time, felt his inner being glow with excitement. He was, and would remain, the bookseller.

August 24, 2022 18:12

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S. E. Mary
18:51 Aug 30, 2022

I found the piece so interesting, I was captivated from the very beginning. I am still laughing to myself about 'Screeeeeeeeeee!' It is comical in a way yet exactly the best way to describe the sound. I love it! Good job!


Lane Bloom
18:56 Aug 30, 2022

Haha thank you so much!! I literally listened to the sound of a kettle and then was like "how on earth am I going to write this out"--glad it conveyed it okay!


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