What's in a name? Plenty, apparently, if it happens to be Penelope.
When I ran my bookstore, Brooks Books, a few years back in Tivoli, NY, I had a special section designed specifically for authors named Penelope. It was not necessarily one of the more popular spots. Few people even knew it existed. Most customers came in asking for certain authors by their last names. "You got any King?" I would hear ad nauseum. As if the only purpose of a bookstore was to provide readers with yet another outlet for another novel by that prolific prince of darkness. I could always tell those customers were only stopping in to get out of the rain or to find a place to park their kids for a few minutes while they went to the ATM, or bought a beer at the deli. They never purchased any books. And not because I didn't have any Stephen King. I had loads of Stephen King. But I didn't have a first edition of Carrie which is all these type of people long for. It's the white trash equivalent of finding a copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe at a yard sale.
Then there were the clients who asked for the latest tome by David Sedaris. I have to admit I'd never heard of David Sedaris when I opened my shop. But after just a week, I knew every book the man had ever written. I had to explain to these prospective buyers that I ran an antiquarian bookshop and people did not part with their David Sedarises, no matter how much they were worth. They were simply too invaluable. Try the Beinecke Library at Yale, I'd say. I'm sure they have the collected works of David Sedaris, all signed, in "mint" condition, unread.
Same with Joyce Carol Oates. I can't tell you how many times people would lumber in and demand a copy of her latest output. I can't tell you because in the five years I actually ran a shop, not one person ever asked for a book by Joyce Carol Oates. And she wrote so many of them that one would have to open a separate wing just to house them all. And one would have to be open 24/7 to keep up with the publishing schedule.
Then there were the Sybille Bedford types. "Got anything other than Jigsaw?" they'd ask, with a puzzled expression, stepping gingerly out of the rain (it rained a lot even back then). "No," I'd say. "Not yet. I had A Compass Error last week, but it seems to be misplaced. Someone must have pilfered it." They'd wander over to the garden section and peruse an old Gertrude Jekyll book. I could always tell if they were serious connoisseurs of landscape literature if they pronounced her last name right. It rhymes with "fecal".
Occasionally someone would come in and mumble under his breath, as if entering an adult emporium, "Got any Updike?" I'd then show him to an entire wall of books that no one had even thumbed through. He'd shake his head, mutter to himself, look right and left, then say that he'd tried to read The Centaur, but just couldn't get into it. He'd usually leave with a copy of the local Chronogram, which was left in a pile for free by the door. Every now and then, I'd sell Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, but only if it still had a dust jacket and wasn't soiled.
On rare occasions, a customer would sail in -- usually a female pushing a baby carriage (very often without a baby in it) -- and inquire: "Do you have....the latest...Prose?" I knew who they meant -- Francine Prose, of course. She taught at Bard nearby and had quite a following. I kept her in a special section marked "Prose and Kahns" -- The latter being works by Alfred Kahn. But inevitably these Prosians would already have the book I had in stock and would curse loudly as they jammed the stroller in the French doors on their way out.
The one book I was guaranteed to sell every week was The Da Vinci Code. People would snarl and say they had heard it was crap, but they'd buy it anyway. Just so they had something in their hands to prove to their spouses or housemates that they hadn't wasted the entire day browsing through junk shops and used book stores.
The immediate effect is to inspire one to go out and do that very thing as soon as possible. Which I ended up doing. And wouldn't you know it? My experience owning a bookshop was almost identical to hers. The resistance from locals. The gossip swirling. The logistical nightmares and disasters (have you ever tried to get the smell of skunk out of a leather bound volume?) The lack of sales. The ingrates. She hit the nail right on the head. If only I'd taken her admonition seriously -- or never read the book at all -- I'd be a rich man today.
I've given The Bookshop as a gift to countless friends. And I sold so many copies at the store that I was constantly scouring eBay for cheap copies to line my shelves. I'm not sure others shared my enthusiasm. Penelope Fitzgerald is something of an acquired taste. But not long after Mira Stout's comely ode appeared, another article about Penelope popped up. This time in The New Yorker, or was it New York? Arthur Lubow wrote it. Another friend of mine, Arthur did a better job of telling the basic facts of this curious author's life. But some of the bloom had come off the rose, for me, that is, because by then she was established as a major writer. The darling of the literati. Everyone knew about her and some of the fun of being in the know evaporated.
How could one person write two so disarmingly different works of art? But there's no mistaking the mark of genius. Fitzgerald's use of language is completely her own no matter what the subject being surveyed. I particularly enjoyed Offshore, an autobiographical novel about a group of misfits living on house boats on the Thames. It's gripping without any trussed-up suspense, poignant without wry manipulation, haunting without any real horror. It's simply true-to-life.
Penelope Mortimer is actually a very interesting figure. Born Penelope Fletcher, in 1919, she had a somewhat difficult childhood, attending seven schools in seven years. She married the Reuters journalist Charles Dimont when she was 19. Her first novel was published in 1947. Two years later she married a young barrister, aka John Mortimer. The Mortimers soon became the hub of the swinging London set. The Pumpkin Eater came out in 1962 and put her on the map. As Penelope Mortimer evolved, she moved more into film criticism and wrote screenplays, memoirs and a biography of the Queen Mother. She died in 1999.
It wasn't long before someone who worked in films commented on my growing Penelope shelf. She knew everyone in the business. We joked about other Penelopes. One named Cruz whom I learned was an actress. Another named Tree, a stunning model whom I recalled with relish from the 60s. This friend, who was an agent, had some good stories about her. And then there was Lady Penelope of Wangford, a stylish fashion plate, below, whose picture I found on the internet. We both agreed she was the quintessence of chic.
We wondered why there were so few famous Penelopes. It's not a common name. But it should be, considering the source, the premier Penelope, the one who started it all. The faithful wife of Odysseus. Patience personified. The lonely weaver who loomed so large in literature. Come to think of it, Margaret Atwood wrote an homage to her: The Penelopiad. And let's not forget the Natalie Wood film, Penelope, which is a cult classic, as are all movies with Natalie Wood in them. You can't help but be charmed by someone as cute as that particular Penelope.
It is almost de rigueur among Penelopes to be preternaturally versatile. Take for example Penelope Lively. I hadn't read much of her work, but she was much in demand. So I dug around and came up with a handful of her books. Not so much to my taste, but very popular with my customers. And for a bookstore owner, any author who moves off the shelves, is a favorite author.
I'm more inclined to pick up her non-fiction efforts, including A House Unlocked and Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived about her upbringing in Egypt.
Quite similar in many regards is Penelope Gilliatt, left, who wrote the brilliant 1971 screenplay for Sunday Bloody Sunday. Born in England, she attended Bennington College in the States and became the film critic of The New Yorker. I had copies of her novels, A State of Change and One By One, plus her screenplay at home (with groovy pix from the flick). It had always been one of my favorite films, back when you couldn't open a book, magazine or turn on the TV without seeing Glenda Jackson. I brought all of Gilliatt's books in and added them to my growing, and soon to be groaning, Penelope shelf.
In time, people began to notice the section. Someone quipped that it was a "panoply of Penelopes." Emboldened, I sought out more. But other than Penelope Hobhouse, who is the queen of expensive gardening books, my cup ran dry. Aside from some lesser known, newish, authors: Penelope Holt and Farmer, there aren't too many Penelopes out there penning away. An exception is Penelope Rowlands, who has just written a chic biography of the great fashion editor, Carmel Snow -- A Dash of Daring. That's one I need to add to my list.
A quick glance at IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, has led to a mysterious Penelope G. Knapp, originally from Rochester, then Chicago, who wrote a novel which became the 1919 film, The Broken Butterfly, starring Pauline Starke. It looks like a real tear-jerker.
Alas, not a single copy exists on the web. I wonder if it's any good. I'd like to add it to my collection of books containing the word "Butterfly" in their titles. But that's another post.