The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Two Fridays before Christmas, two minutes before close, A.J. makes the rounds of kicking out and ringing up the last customers. A man in a puffy coat is hemming and hawing over the latest Alex Cross. "Twenty-six dollars seems like a lot. You know I can get it cheaper online, right?" A.J. says that he does know as he shows the man the door. "You should really lower your prices if you want to be competitive," the man says.
"Lower my prices? Lower. My. Prices. I hadn't considered that before," A.J. says mildly.
"Are you being cheeky, young man?"
"No, I'm thankful. And at the next Island Books shareholders' meeting, I'll definitely raise this innovative suggestion of yours. I know we want to remain competitive. Between you and me, for a time in the early oughties, we'd given up on competition. I thought it was a mistake, but my board decided that competition was best left to Olympic athletes, kids in spelling bees, and cereal manufacturers. These days, I'm glad to report that we at Island Books are definitely in the competition business once again. The store's closed, by the way." A.J. points toward the exit.
As puffy coat grumbles his way out the door, an old woman creaks over the threshold. She is a regular customer, so A.J. tries not to be too annoyed that she is coming in after hours. "Ah, Mrs. Cumberbatch," he says. "Unfortunately, we're closing now."
"Mr. Fikry, don't you turn those Omar Sharif eyes of yours on me. I am outraged at you." Mrs. Cumberbatch pushes past him and slams a plump paperback on the counter. "The book you recommended to me yesterday is the worst book I have read in all my eighty-two years, and I would like my money back."
A.J. looks from the book to the old woman. "What was your problem with it?"
"Problems, Mr. Fikry. To begin, it is narrated by Death! I am an eighty-two-year-old woman and I do not find it one bit pleasurable to read a five-hundred-fifty-two-page tome narrated by Death. I think it is a remarkably insensitive choice."
A.J. apologizes but he is not sorry. Who are these people who think a book comes with a guarantee that they will like it? He processes the return. The book's spine is broken. He will not be able to resell it. "Mrs. Cumberbatch," he cannot resist saying, "it appears that you read this. I wonder how far along you got."
"Yes, I read it," she replies. "I most certainly did read it. It kept me up all night, I was so angry with it. At this stage of my life, I would rather not be kept up all night. Nor do I wish to have my tears jerked at the rate at which this novel jerked them. The next time you recommend a book to me, I hope you'll keep that in mind, Mr. Fikry."
"I will," he says. "And I do apologize, Mrs. Cumberbatch. Most of our customers have rather liked The Book Thief."
Once the store is closed, A.J. goes upstairs to change into his running clothes. He leaves through the bookstore's front entrance and, as has become his custom, does not lock the door.
A.J. had run cross-country on his high school's team and then at Princeton. He picked up the sport mainly because he had no skill for any other sport aside from the close reading of texts. He never really considered running cross-country to be much of a talent. His high school coach had romantically referred to him as a reliable middleman, meaning that A.J. could be counted on to finish in the upper middle of any pack. Now that he hasn't run for a while, he has to concede that it had been a talent. In his current condition, he can't make it more than two miles without stopping. He rarely runs more than five miles total, and his back, legs, and basically every part of him hurt. The pain turns out to be a good thing. He used to pass his runs by ruminating, and the pain distracts him from such a fruitless activity.
Excerpted from The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Zevin. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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