There use to be a bookstore in San Francisco’s Tenderloin called A Dirty, Poorly Lit Place for Books. Sandwiched between adult bookstores and the sort of liquor stores that kept all the goods behind bars, the store was packed to the gills with the bottom rung of second hand books. Whatever you found there, you found through luck or determination or both. The shelves held labels that promised a kind of order they often failed to deliver. Those brave enough or lost enough to enter the neighborhood faced dust and darkness that kept the faint of heart and the allergic away. If A Dirty, Poorly Lit Place for Books held any treasures among the refuse that made up the bulk of its stock, I never found any of it. And I looked.
The title character of Sam Savage’s novel Firmin is born in the basement of just this sort of bookstore, in this case Pembroke Books of Scollay Square, Boston circa 1960. Firmin is the youngest of 13. Abandoned by his family at an early age, he soon discovers books can be read as well as eaten. Firmin is a rat who longs to become human. He spends his days observing the bookstore owner’s interactions with the customers and his nights watching old movies in the theater next door, until midnight when the theatre switches to more adult fare.
A rat’s life is short. Firmin spends his short life devoted to reading, to watching movies, and to observing human interaction. He lives long enough to see the bookstore emptied in preparation for the building’s demolition. His is the life many book lovers sometimes claim they long for. Rejected by rat society due to his small size and his human-like behavior, he is alone with his books and his movies, free to read and to watch all day long. Every day.
His story almost becomes a cautionary tale.
In the end, I found myself moved by Firmin. Not saddened exactly, but touched, haunted. Those of us who love nothing more than spending an afternoon digging through the piles of books in a store like A Dirty, Poorly Lit Place for Books pay a price for our obsession.
Firmin’s is a story I’ll remember for some time.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010. The last line is embarrassing to me today. Before re-reading this review I could remember Firmin as a book about a mouse who liked books. After reading it, I recall that it was a fairly sad tale about a rat. I remember much more about it now, but I had forgotten it completely before today.