Steven Lukas sat at the scratched old mahogany desk in his antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s Westend district and watched the water in his teapot slowly turn brown. The aromatic fragrance of bergamot and orange peel rose to his nostrils. He gave the tea infuser another minute, then took it out and placed it carefully on a saucer beside a couple of large disintegrating tomes.
As a small cloud of vapor rose from the teacup, the bookseller let his eyes wander around his small domain. He very much hoped not to be disturbed for the next few hours. Outside, the dull gray of an October afternoon reigned, plunging the little shop, which was full of nooks and crannies, into dim twilight. The bookshelves up to the ceiling cast shadows like mighty trees; in the back part of the shop, beside the door leading to the stockroom and the large archive in the cellar, stood a 1950s brass lamp, casting warm yellow light on the desk. The place smelled of tea, leather, and old paper. The only sound was the ticking of an old nineteenth-century grandfather clock that Steven had bought in better times at a Munich antiques fair.
Steven sighed with pleasure and turned to the book on top of the stack to his right. This leather-bound folio volume was his latest acquisition. Carefully, he opened the discolored brown cover and began reverently leafing through it. Before him lay one of the early editions of the Grimms’ Tales, dating from 1837. The illustrations of giants, dwarves, bold princes and soulful princesses were smudged here and there, and some of the pages had been torn, but even so, the folio volume was in very good condition. Steven guessed that it would be worth five thousand euros, if not more. He had found it at an estate sale in the upmarket Bogenhausen district of Munich, along with a few crates of other books from the attic of an old lady who had recently died, and he had pressed three hundred-euro bills into the hand of her startled nephew. A Philistine—the nephew had taken the money, not even wondering what was special about the book. Obviously paper meant something to him only when it had denominations printed on it.
Steven smiled as he spooned brown sugar into his tea. Buying that book had been a real stroke of luck. In theory, it would allow him to pay the rent on the shop for the next six months. In reality, he knew he wouldn’t be able to part with the Grimm. Old books were like a drug to Steven; the mere smell of yellowing paper made him feel weak. He loved the rustle of the pages, the firm feel of painted parchment or printed handmade paper between his fingertips. It was a sense of happiness that had accompanied him since childhood, and the feeling couldn’t be compared to anything else.
Dreamily, the bookseller leafed through the Grimm, admiring the hand-colored engravings. How many generations had held this book in their hands? How many grandfathers had read its stories to their grandchildren? Steven stirred his tea and immersed himself in a world of castles, wolves, witches, and good fairies. He had been born in the United States, in Massachusetts, where people still thought of Germany as a country of dark forests, castles, and the romantic banks of the Rhine. As a child, little Steven had liked the idea of that, but grown-up Steven had discovered that the Germans cared more about expressways and shopping malls than dark, mysterious legends. The old, fairy-tale Germany existed only in the dreams of American and Japanese tourists these days.
And in books.
The shrill sound of the doorbell stirred him from his thoughts. Annoyed, Steven looked up and then sighed. Obviously it wasn’t going to be as peaceful a weekend as he’d hoped.
“Frau Schultheiss,” he murmured, sipping his tea. “To what do I owe the honor?”
An elderly lady with a pinched expression and combed-back hair had marched into the shop as if she owned it. Now she took off the sunglasses that she wore in spite of the fall rain outside. Small, icy gray eyes flashed at the bookseller, but she at least tried to produce a smile.
“You know exactly what I’m here about, Herr Lukas. I thought we could talk about your price. My husband can come up with another two thousand euros if you—”
“Frau Schultheiss,” Steven interrupted, pointing to the walls of shelves overflowing with books, old Jugendstil journals, and framed engravings. “This place is like my home. Would you move out of your nice apartment just because someone offered you a few thousand euros?”
Frau Schultheiss looked disparagingly at the once-valuable but now-scratched cherrywood shelves. The varnish had peeled off here and there. Dust had settled on them, and they sagged in places under the weight of the books. In the corridor, a few crates stacked unsteadily on top of one another held newly acquired treasures waiting to be put on display. Steven’s unwelcome visitor, still with that iron smile, shrugged her shoulders.
“This is not an apartment but, if I may say so, a rather untidy bookshop.”
“Not just a bookshop, an antiquarian bookshop,” Steven corrected her. “If you know the difference.”
Frau Schultheiss frowned. “Very well, then, an antiquarian bookshop. But not living quarters, anyway. Or if it is, not in a state that I would care to live in.” She stopped, as if realizing that this was not the cleverest way to conduct negotiations.
“Herr Lukas,” she went on, more mildly, “when did you last sell anything? Two weeks ago? A month ago? The Westend is not a district for bookshops these days. Maybe it was once. But now people in this part of town want to buy shoes and clothes, and then drink a nice latte macchiato. The fashion boutique I’m planning, with an integrated café and lounge, would fit in here just perfectly. And I don’t understand how you, as an American . . .”
“My father was American, Frau Schultheiss,” Steven said. “I’ve told you that a thousand times. I’m as German as you or Chancellor Merkel. Anyway, what, in your opinion, should an American be doing? Selling hamburgers and donuts?”
“You misunderstand me,” Frau Schultheiss said. “I only meant . . .”
“If you’re interested in eighteenth-century engravings or literature from the Enlightenment, you’re welcome to look around,” Steven said brusquely. “Otherwise I’ll ask you to please leave.”
Frau Schultheiss compressed her lips, which were thin enough anyway, then turned without a word and went out. A last chime of the doorbell, and Steven was alone again.
The bookseller took another sip of his tea, which by now was getting unpleasantly cool. Frau Schultheiss just wouldn’t let it be! She’d already offered him eight thousand euros to give notice to his landlord, old Seitzinger, and leave the premises available for her boutique. Kurt Seitzinger used to have his joinery workshop in these rooms, but he had retired twenty years ago. At the time, just as Steven finished studying literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, he had been entranced by the shop at once; he still thought he could smell the wood, the wood shavings, and the glue. He had never regretted his decision to open his antiquarian bookshop in the Westend district. But that had been at a time when it was still a genui...