Having worked at the famous Politics and Prose bookshop in Washington, DC, author Susan Coll is not unfamiliar with the oft-trying life of a bookseller. Bookish People, Coll’s sixth novel, follows Sophie Bernstein, a recent widow and the owner of a small bookshop in the nation’s capital. To further exacerbate her stress, she is dealing with staffing issues and can’t seem to get her vacuum cleaner to work. Although the novel is fairly lighthearted, there is the hint of a darker tone, given that it takes place in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Only a short distance from DC, the rally feels very close for Sophie, a Jewish woman with inherited trauma.
The threat of anti-Jewish violence is also connected to Sophie’s more personal grief. At the time of her husband’s fatal heart attack, he had been speaking about Otto, Anne Frank’s father, which led her to reread The Diary of Anne Frank. Now, in the wake of his passing, she is planning to hole up in the little nook at the back of the bookshop and go “into hiding” herself. Her son has a more direct approach: “Instead of reading about a family that went into hiding, Mom, you should read a book about picking up a baseball bat and crushing these racist, ignorant a‑holes.” But with her husband-cum-confidante gone, Sophie focuses all her intentions inward. That Sophie might be better served by getting out of her head and into the “real world” is a notion built into the structure of the novel, each chapter culminating with the bookshop’s end-of-day report.
Although Sophie is portrayed as sympathetic, she can be an unreliable, and at times unlikable, protagonist. The novel starts with her denying the rumor that she threw a book at the employee of a publishing house, and we later see her sending her employees requests at all hours of the night. One of these employees is twenty-three-year-old Clemi, a budding novelist and our secondary point of view character. While Clemi is more relatable, she makes her own odd decisions, such as when she buys a pet tortoise for her crush. Fittingly, these “bookish people” seem more comfortable with animals and objects than with other humans. In fact, one of Sophie’s primary relationships is with the shop’s broken vacuum — the aptly named Querk III — and this tumultuous “romance,” as she somewhat ironically terms it, is contrasted with the peaceful liaison she has with her Roomba. At the end of the novel, Sophie fights so hard with Querk III that she ends up almost literally shooting herself in the foot. It is a bizarre but perhaps fitting conclusion to the novel. For Sophie, it is certainly a “wake-up call” that brings her back to life.