Babies can get abandoned everywhere, in hospitals, at the church, in temples, on the train and in bus stops or in stores. But rarely do we hear of a baby being left in a bookstore. This happens to baby Maya when she is two years old in a bookstore in Alice Springs in New England, to be reached by a ferry from the main town of Hyannis. The baby comes with a note pinned to her pink ski jacket, “this is Maya 25-month-old, very smart and exceptionally verbal for her age. I want her to be a reader and grown up among books and people who care for these kind of things. I love her very much but cannot care for her. Your’s, Maya’s mother”.
The bookshop is Island Books, Alice’s only bookstore and the finder is A.J. Fikry, the bookshop owner, who returns from his morning jog to find the abandoned baby in the poorly stocked children’s section. Gabrielle Zevin in her book, The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry or The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry gives us a compelling portrait of an eccentric bookseller, Indian by origin, his first name is Ajay, who will only stock books he can sell and gives a trying time to all enterprising representatives who call on him.
This is the fate of Amelia Loman a hopeful representative of Knightley Press who inherits the account from her predecessor who has died. Her call gets off to a disastrous start when her sleeve knocks down a stack of books further irritating Fikry who has already rejected her latest book set in Mumbai. Loman disappointed, leaves her catalogue and galley proofs of The Late Bloomer, the memoirs of an 80-year-old man who marries at the age of 78.
Fikry is 38, a widower having lost his wife in a car accident two years ago. His wife’s death has left Fikry remorseful, disappointed and frustrated. His wife was an equal partner in the bookshop, organising all the author events. In fact, she had met with the accident while driving an author home. Now, Fikry’s only solace is music, wine (lots of it) and frozen vindaloo (warmed in the microwave) for dinner. He has only one great asset, a cherished, first edition copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Tamerlane. Written by Poe when he was only 18, only 50 copies had been printed. Fikry had bought his copy in an estate sale and knew that the last copy auctioned by Christie’s had gone for $400,000.
Fikry kept his copy of Tamerlane in a climate-controlled glass case. One night, more drunk than usual, Fikry chucks his vindaloo on the wall and passes out holding the Tamerlane lovingly in his hands. This was his nest egg, to provide for the years when he would have to sell his bookshop. Fikry passes out and wakes up the next morning to find the Tamerlane gone. Fikry reports the loss to the police chief, Lambiase but has little hope of recovery. Fikry starts the practice of a morning jog to clear his mind and body and leaves the front door unlocked hoping for an anonymous recovery of Tamerlane. He does not recover the lost Tamerlane but finds the abandoned baby Maya instead.
Zevin now details the amazing relationship between Fikry and Maya. It’s almost as if Fikry wants to hold on to Maya to compensate for his losses, his wife and his Tamerlane. The police recover the body of a young woman and tests reveal that she is Maya’s mother. Fikry, against conventional wisdom, applies for the custody of Maya. Zevin uses the bond that develops between Fikry and Maya to come to the aid of the failing bookshop. Every morning, Maya dutifully takes up her favourite position in the illustrated children section. The shop now fills with women customers determined to give advice to Fikry on how to bring up Maya. Their kids wander over to Maya’s section in the shop only to find a book thrust into their hands. Their mothers buy the book proud of their child’s selection. Soon, Fikry starts stocking up the children section and business starts booming. Fikry’s sister-in-law Ismay too comes to the shop to help out with Maya.
The police chief Lambiase, courting Ismay spends more time in the bookshop and begins to read. He is now so hooked that he introduces other members of the force to the pleasures of reading and starts a book club and a discussion group. From the initial Jeffrey Deaver and James Patterson, the club graduates to Walter Mosley and Kate Atkinson. Nourished by the presence of books and a loving father, Maya flourishes. In high school, she is asked to write an essay on being adopted. Maya begins by stating that at an early stage she understood that kids of a certain age always get abandoned in stores. “Some in shoe stores, some in toy stores and some in sandwich stores. Your whole life got determined by what store you got abandoned in. I was fortunate to get abandoned in a bookstore”. Discussing the essay with Fikry, Maya learns that she always approached the book by first smelling it. She would strip the book of its jacket cover and wrap the jacket around the head. To her, the book smelled of soap, grass, sea and the kitchen table. She would often try and coax a story out of the jacket. Maya’s essay is a success and she is shortlisted for the top prize.
Fikry’s bond with Maya deepens. At a loss when she contracts chickenpox, Fikry decides to read some proofs. The clerk mistakenly brings him proofs from the “to be recycled” pile and not the “to be read” pile. Fikry reads the proofs of A Late Bloomer, is suitably impressed and gives the much-harassed Amelia Loman a call. Fikry is now a much better person due to the presence of Maya in his life and also the bookshop is doing well. A romantic relationship develops between Amelia and Fikry and they get married. The lost copy of Tamerlane too is returned to him under bizarre circumstances. It turns out that Ismay had taken it to give it to Maya’s mother in the hope she would sell it and give Maya a good upbringing. It turned out that Ismay’s late husband had an affair with Maya’s mother and this was Ismay’s way of atonement. But Maya’s mother could not sell the Tamerlane as it had already been reported stolen. But when Fikry examines the recovered Tamerlane, he finds that Maya had taken a fancy to Tamerlane and festooned the cover with her artwork, thus diminishing its value.
At the end, Fikry is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer “glioblastoma multiforme”. The Tamerlane is auctioned off by Christie’s and fetches $72,000 just enough to cover his treatment. But Fikry does not live long and in his will leaves Island Books to Amelia. Amelia feels she should stay in the mainland with Maya and sells the bookshop to Lambiase and Ismay thus reaffirming that there will always be a book business and a town like Alice “ain’t a place without a bookstore”.
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books