The city rushes outward, upward, in all directions, blurred by the rain and gloom of another midday storm. The streets teem with blinded cars, headlight beams shining in the raindrops and reflecting off the wet pavement.
You are lost, caught by surprise in the storm and turned around in the unfamiliar city. Your hair is soaked and disheveled, your clothes cling tightly to your skin in the warm summer rain.
A streetlight and a modest storefront sign catch your eye. This building is nothing like the aloof glass-and-metal structures which surround it. It is welcoming: stone-clad with wide windows, the inside piled high with books.
A thin bell sings your arrival as you open the door and shake the weather from your skin.
“Make yourself at home, dear,” someone calls from the back, hidden within the labyrinth of books.
The interior of the shop is worn, the books on the highest shelves are dusty, and the scent of yellowing paper fills the air. A woman appears from around the corner of a bookshelf, her long white hair tied in a loose braid. She glances at you from behind silver eyeglasses.
“Quite a storm to be caught in with no umbrella,” she says with a smile. “I was just making some tea, care for some?”
You nod and thank her.
“What brings you to the city?” she asks, weaving her way around the stacks of books on the floor to the back of the store.
“I’m just visiting,” you reply, and follow her through the maze.
She nods thoughtfully, watching the electric kettle come to a boil. “Chamomile or Earl Grey?”
Tea poured and sweetened to your liking, the two of you sit on stools at the checkout counter, mugs in hand.
“How long have you worked here?” you ask.
She smiles. “Longer than you’ve been alive.”
“How old is the store? I’m a bit of a history buff.”
“Older than me by far,” she says. She looks at you again, this time over the rim of her glasses, as if weighing your soul. “What’s the difference between history and myth, do you think?”
You open your mouth to answer, something erudite about fiction and fact, but the words catch in the place somewhere in the place between your heart and your throat.
“I’m not sure,” you say simply, and it’s the truth. Something about this store, this storm, casts doubts.
She laughs, her voice lilting with amusement. “The person who tells it, of course.”
You smile. “If you were to tell me about the store, would it be history or myth?”
“Ha!” she exclaims. “Now that’s a good question.”
There’s a story on the tip of her tongue, mingled with the scent of Earl Grey tea and honey. You can sense that this tale is more valuable to her than any of the books around you.
You settle in to listen, your fingers wrapped around a warm mug of tea.
The man who built the store was a natural-born storyteller. His parents said he was telling stories before he could walk, wielding words like playthings. Everywhere he went, people asked him for stories. Some he told aloud, some he scribbled on used envelopes or torn sheets of paper. The best ones he kept to himself, hopeful that one day he would have a shop from which to sell them.
As a young man, he saved and scraped by, working in mills and cleaning up around building sites. Back then, the city was growing but had no aspirations towards the sky. The buildings were short, sturdy, and simple, made to weather the summer storms.
After years of toiling, the man bought a plot near the edge of the city and set about building his store. The day before they laid the foundation, he wed a spirited woman with hair like ink. She was an epic poem and he a ballad.
Three days after the store opened for the first time, they welcomed a daughter into their little home above the shop.
Two days later, the man’s wife died in the night. His stories died with her. He closed his store and did not open it again for nearly a year. When he did reopen, he sold books written by others and never told a story again.
Years passed, and as his daughter grew it became clear that she was no ordinary child. On the cuffs of gruff men’s sleeves, she scribbled poems that brought them to tears. She crafted stories out of raindrops and fairy tales from a candle’s flame.
Soon, people came to the store not for books, but for the little girl’s words. Ask anyone and they would tell you that her poems could cure sickness, her stories could mend broken things, and a single word from her lips could add a year to a man’s life.
Meanwhile, her father watched and wasted away, a man of sorrow held together by thin strings of pride for his daughter, who looked more like her mother every day. Before she reached her seventeenth birthday, his broken and storyless heart gave out.
He left the shop to her, along with faded copies of the stories he wrote before her mother died. She clung to those pages, read them until she could recite them from memory, and no longer wondered why her father had given up storytelling.
At night, she read his words aloud to taste her grief. Each time she did, she could swear a figure appeared in the shadows beyond the candlelight, to listen and remember. Around her, the city grew grander and taller, and nearly forgot about the store and the girl, who was by then a woman.
She did not mind that fewer and fewer people came to ask for stories, and more and more people came by happenstance to buy books. But the city had not completely forgotten her, not yet.
One stormy day, a man walked into the bookstore to ask for a tale. He was kind and had a smile full of sonnets.
His story was only one word: love.
A few months later, they married just outside the bookstore, he in an ink-black suit and she in a gown made of poems written in lace. They published her father’s writings and some of their own, as well. They raised children, two boys and three girls, who stood firm as the city was reborn around them.
And when the two of them died, old and full of memory, they passed the store on to their youngest son, who loved the books like siblings and taught his child to do the same.
He passed the store on to his daughter, who could only hope to wield words half as well as her forebears.
“There you have it,” the old woman says, finishing off the last dregs of her tea. “The story of this bookshop.”
You smile into your mug. The rain has stopped and the first beams of sunlight peek in through the windows, foregoing the rest of the city in search of a tale.
“So it was your family that built this store?” you ask.
“That depends,” she replies.
Her eyes twinkle with poems. “On whether you believe the story is a history or a myth.”