Once upon a time there was a little boy named Roland, who loved books more than candy. Even more than toys. But Roland had a big problem because Roland spoke mostly French, and Roland lived in Boston, where the only French books Roland could find were at the French Library on Marlborough Street. But Roland had already read every book in the French Library five times. And he was looking for something new to read.
Luckily for Roland, his mother was taking him to Paris that summer. “I’ll take you to the biggest bookstore in the world” his mother promised him, “Where you can buy all the books you can carry.” Now although Roland’s mother meant well, her offer wasn’t as generous as it sounded since Roland could really only carry about fifteen books. And trailing suitcases full of books through airports isn’t particularly enjoyable. But still, Roland felt very fortunate to have a mother who understood and encouraged his love of books. And fifteen books seemed like a treasure indeed.
An elusive treasure, however. Because when summer finally came, and Roland finally entered the biggest bookstore in the world, he was immediately hit with two emotions. The first was joy. As he walked through the front doors three stories high, made of wood as thick as tree trunks, with cast-iron handles shaped like scrolls, Roland discovered a circular room lined with crooked bookcases as high as the ceilings, crammed full of books of all shapes and colors and sizes, containing every story ever written. Every picture book ever illustrated. Every country and continent and planet and solar system explored. Every animal. Every train. Every ballerina. All captured and cataloged and shelved. All in French. And all waiting for Roland.
Roland walked into the center of the room where a spiral staircase stood, reaching skyward. He looked up, and saw seven more stories of seventy-thousand stories. The ceiling was so far away, the tiny chandelier twinkled like stars. And Roland’s joy turned to despair. How would he ever decide which books to buy? It would take him years and years to choose. It wasn’t like he could simply come back to France any time he wanted and buy more. What if he chose the wrong books? The responsibility was too great. Roland sighed.
Mistaking his sigh of frustration for a sigh of contentment, Roland’s mother kissed him on the head. “Let’s meet back here in one hour,” she said.
“One hour?” Roland cried in despair.
“Is that too long?” his mother asked. “Would you prefer 45 minutes?”
“More like 45 days,” Roland said. “This store is seven stories high. I’ll never be able to chose fifteen books in an hour.”
But his mother merely laughed, and ruffled his hair. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out, Roland. You always do,” she said, disappearing through an arched doorway to buy as many books as she could carry (which was quite a bit more than fifteen, seeing as how she was bigger than Roland and her books were mostly paperback.)
Now, to better understand how Roland was feeling, imagine what you love most in the world. Maybe it’s your bicycle. Or merry-go-rounds. Or kittens. Or ice cream. Now imagine not eating any ice cream for a really long time. Months. Years even. Then imagine entering an ice cream parlor with crystal chandeliers and mirrored walls, and round café tables surrounded by white chairs with peppermint-striped seats. Along one wall is a glass case filled with more than a thousand flavors. And you can only eat one scoop. How would you know what flavor to choose? It would be impossible.
And that’s exactly what Roland whispered under his breath, in French, while shaking his head in dismay. “C’est pas possible.”
But as soon as the words left his mouth, Roland felt a great gust of wind that almost knocked him over. Brushing his hair out of his face, he looked up to see an old man, with white hair sprouting in every direction and a nose almost as long as his chin. He was wearing an enormous raggedy tweed coat and funny metal goggles that made his eyes look like baseballs that could blink.
“You called?” he asked in a warbly voice.
“I did?” Roland scrunched his nose, confused.
“You said my name.”
“I said it was impossible,” Roland explained.
“Then it is possible.”
“That you said my name. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Monsieur Gustave Albert Claude Jean-Marie Eustace de Papossible,” he said, holding out a long thin hand with long thin fingers and knobbly knuckles. “How may I be of service?”
Roland shook his hand politely. “My name is Roland, “he said. “And I thank you very much for your offer. But I don’t think anyone can help.”
“Anything’s possible,” mused M. Papossible stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“No it’s not,” Roland sighed.
“Which is why I’m your man for the job. What’s the job?”
“I’m supposed to find fifteen books in an hour, so my mom can buy them for me.”
Now it was M. Papossible’s turn to look confused. “And you call this a problem?”
“Because I don’t know what books to buy! I don’t even know where to look! Back home, I have to read whatever’s available. But here everything is available. What if I make a bad choice? I can’t come back! What if the perfect book is on the fifth floor and I only make it to the fourth? What if I’m supposed to be an archeologist when I grow up, but I never know that because the book on mummies was hidden in the far back corner on the third floor, and I skipped over it because it seemed too dark and scary? What then?”
“I think you’re overthinking your problem.”
“I don’t think I can make an uninformed decision,” Roland, said, echoing something he had heard his mom say to the salesman who knocked on her door, trying to get her to switch electric companies without comparing kilowatt-hour rates.
“Could you make an informed one?” M. Papossible asked softly, readjusting his goggles and leaning in, as though about to reveal a secret.
“If I had two weeks, maybe,” Roland said, his gaze following the curve of the spiral staircase to the ceiling seven stories high. “Two months more like.”
“How about two minutes?” M. Papasible asked, a twinkle in his enormous eyes. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled louder than Roland had ever heard anyone whistle before. Like a cowboy rounding up cattle. Or horses. Or dogs. Or a giant metal chair, which slid down the circular bannister, clattering and clicking like a roller coaster. “Actually, the trip only takes thirty-six seconds. It’s the strap and helmet adjustment that takes time.”
“I have to wear a helmet?” Roland wondered, looking at the chair in awe. It resembled a square throne made of metal, with metal arm and footrests, leather straps dangling on either side. The seat was attached to a pair of metal rings that clasped the handrail like claws. Hinged to the back of the chair was a helmet, shaped like a knight’s, only with pair of metal goggles in place of the facemask.
“The chair is supposed to be one size fits all, but I find if the seat isn’t calibrated correctly, the helmet leans slightly to the left, and you risk skipping the 4052 titles shelved in the south-east corners.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“On what?” Roland gulped nervously.
“On how badly you want your books,” M. Papossible said, chuckling, as he strapped himself into the chair and snapped the helmet’s goggles over his existing goggles, magnifying his already magnified eyes. “I’ll see you at the top,” he grinned, his giant eyelashes blinking. He pressed the blue button on the control panel with his thumb and the chair spiraled upwards in a blur of color and sound, abandoning Roland at the bottom of the now vacant staircase.
By the time Roland reached the seventh floor, he was out of breath and slightly sweaty. From the top of the staircase, Roland looked down at the sea of books below him. He had never seen more books in his life. Not even in the Boston Public Library, which was the oldest library in the country. He couldn’t imagine how a chair, even a magical metal one with goggles could help him.
“How does the chair work?” Roland asked M. Papossible, once he caught his breath.
“The actual mechanics are too complicated to explain, but essentially you sit here.” M. Papossible slapped the metal seat, which echoed like a gong throughout the store. “You strap in your arms here.” Slap. Gong. “And your feet here.” Slap. Gong. “Then you pop the helmet down,” which he flipped forward with a loud thunk. “And press the yellow button.”
“But you pressed the blue one.”
“Aha! You’re observant! Very good!” M. Papossible said. “But you’re wrong. Blue is for climbing. And title recapitulation happens only upon descent.”
“As you slide down the circular staircase, the name of every book in the store will enter through your pupils and travel along the optic nerve to your brain.”
“But that’s impossible.”
M. Papossible thumped his fist to his chest proudly. “I know.”
“I can’t read that fast!”
“It’s not reading. It’s recapitulating.”
“Does it hurt?” Roland asked, looking at the chair with trepidation, and more than a little misgiving.
“Not if you wear the goggles correctly.”
“What happens if you wear the goggles incorrectly?”
“I don’t want to say. But I assure you it’s not pretty.”
“Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” Roland said.
“Maybe you’ve wasted five minutes already,” M. Papossible replied, narrowing his extra-large eyes and arching his eyebrows like Roland’s schoolteacher did whenever she caught Roland reading books when he was supposed to be solving math problems. Only she didn’t wear magnifying goggles when she did so.
“Can you please show me how it works?” Roland asked, afraid M. Papossible might be angry with him. His schoolteacher was always angry with him.
“Of course I can,” he said, jumping into the chair with the agility and enthusiasm of a much younger man. He strapped his arms and legs in, snapped the helmet into place and hit the yellow button. With a loud screeching that sounded like a giant eagle, or maybe even a dragon, the chair blasted off, blurring in a streak of wavy light. And before Roland could open his mouth to ask another question, M. Papossible returned in a similar explosion of noise and light.
He flung the helmet back and jumped down from the chair. “Now it’s your turn.”
Timidly, Roland approached the chair, which was cold and smooth to the touch. He sat on the seat, which bounced slightly under his weight, and made his stomach flutter. M. Papossible buckled the straps on his arms and feet. When he lowered the helmet onto Roland’s head, and positioned the goggles over Roland’s eyes, the room erupted into a burst of color so immediate and beautiful Roland cried out.
M. Papossible reached out and pressed the yellow button. The chair whisked Roland down the spiral staircase, like a runaway elevator or a rollercoaster. But Rolad was too busy recapitulating to cry out a second time. As he spiraled down the banister, millions of letters scrolled through his brain at the speed of light, in every color of the rainbow. And while his eyes couldn’t understand a single word, Roland’s brain automatically sorted them into titles. By the time he reached the bottom step, Roland knew the name of every book in the store. And it had taken only 34 seconds.
Shaking his head, which buzzed like a hundred bees, Roland pressed the blue button and climbed skyward so quickly it felt like he had left his stomach on the first step. “I know what books I want,” he declared happily to M. Papossible, who bent over to unbuckle his foot straps. “I even know where to find them!”
M. Papossible clicked open a pocket watch, which he wore attached to a long, golden chain tucked into his pant’s pocket. “You’ve got a half hour before your mother returns,” he said, snapping it shut right before Roland grasped him in a huge bear hug.
“Thank you, M. Papossible,” Roland whispered with emotion, wrapping his arms around the bookseller, his eyes clenched tightly with the force of his ginormous squeeze. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Surprised, and maybe even a little moved by the sincerity of Roland’s hug, M. Papossible coughed to clear his throat. “You haven’t done it yet. You better hurry.”
“I will,” Roland promised, then skipped off to find his books, humming.
Thirty minutes later, Roland’s mother returned to find him sitting next to M. Papossible, at an old wooden table with a green lamp, a stack of books at his side. “Did you have much luck?” she asked, smiling at M. Papossible, who winked, and nodded.
“I found twelve books,” Roland exclaimed proudly, lovingly patting the impressive stack at his side. “At first I thought I could carry fifteen, but the book about Ancient Egypt is a lot thicker than I thought.”
“Ancient Egypt,” his mother said thoughtfully. “That’s Archeology. Third floor, right?” She looked at M. Papossible, who nodded a second time.
Roland’s eyes opened wide. “But how did you know?” he asked, incredulously.
“A recapitulation never leaves you,” his mother replied, caressing Roland’s cheek with her free hand. In her other hand was a shopping basket full of paperbacks. “You remember it forever.”
Roland stared at his mother, mouth agape, speechless. M. Papossible tapped the side of his nose three times, which he often did while thinking. “If I remember correctly, and I always do,” he said, “You spent most of your time on the fifth floor. Detective stories, if I’m not mistaken, and I never am.”