Bookstores may be a dying breed in the modern landscape of America, but nestled along Old King’s Highway in the coastal town of Yarmouth Port, Mass., is a historic antiquarian bookseller that remains a holdout, prevailing against online retailers and big box outlets for nearly seven decades! Standing three stories with a peaked roofline and clapboard siding, Parnassus Book Service has become a local landmark, so utterly charming and filled with New England appeal that it even caught the eye of director Hans Canosa, who cast it in a leading role in his recent film “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.”
The 2022 dramedy, currently streaming on Hulu, chronicles a 15-year period in the life of eponymous curmudgeonly bookseller Fikry (Kunal Nayyar) as he grapples with profound grief following his wife’s unexpected passing, adopts a toddler left behind in his shop and romances Providence-based Knightley Press sales rep Amelia Loman (Lucy Hale). A bittersweet tear-jerker through and through, Canosa says he “set out to make a film that would make people laugh and cry and go to their favorite bookstore to find a book.”
Based upon Gabrielle Zevin’s bestselling 2014 novel of the same name, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is set in the entirely idyllic world of Alice Island, a fictional township purported to be “a ferry ride from Hyannis” in Cape Cod. To create the picturesque coastal backdrop, cast and crew descended upon several different maritime villages along the beloved Massachusetts peninsula, shooting over 200 scenes across a brief 21 days beginning in late November 2021, thoroughly bringing Zevin’s literary vision to life in the process. As the author expressed to the Times, “Cape Cod, with its many bookstores, interestingly named roads, and distinctive coastal landscapes, is perfectly cast in the role of Alice Island. I can’t imagine a better setting.”
Indeed, while the film proves somewhat disjointed and rambling overall, the setting renders it worth a watch, allowing audiences to bask in the soft glow of the Cape Cod sunshine throughout the one-hour and 45-minute run time.
A few spots captured by the “Fikry” cameras include Hyannis Public Library, which poses as the Alice Island police station, where A.J. meets and eventually befriends local detective Nick Lambiase (David Arquette). Fikry grabs drinks with his brother-in-law, bestselling author Daniel Parrish (Scott Foley) – and calls him an idiot – at British Beer Company in Hyannis. Standing in for Pequod’s, the “Moby Dick”-themed eatery where Fikry takes Amelia for lunch and a Queequeg cocktail, and (spoiler alert!) later marries her is the Lighthouse Inn’s Waterfront Restaurant in West Dennis. And, at the center of the story, is Parnassus Book Service, transformed into Island Books, the inviting shop run by Fikry, for the shoot.
In real life, the boutique was founded by lifelong book scout Ben Muse and his wife, Ruth, who originally ran a mail-order academic book business and reprinting company out of New York. Upon relocating to the Cape in 1956, the couple opened Parnassus Book Service at a small storefront in Hyannis before ultimately taking over the shop’s current home, a historic 1840 building that formerly housed a general store at 220 Route 6A, four years later. The business’ unusual moniker is a nod to Ben’s ancestors, who hailed from Mount Parnassus in Greece.
While Ruth passed away in 2006 and Ben followed in 2012, the store still remains in the family today, run by the couple’s daughter, Sarah Romano, and son, William Muse.
Beloved and thoroughly well-patronized, the boutique is known for its massive collection of tomes covering all manner of topics, including but not limited to Russian history, ancient coins, Americana and the sea. Overflowing with publications, a 2017 Boston Globe article noted, “Books fill every square inch of shelves from floor to the 20-foot-high tin ceiling (ladders are placed thoughtfully about). There are more books in neat piles on the floor and still more books overflowing cartons next to the piles. The range of titles is mind-boggling, from bestsellers to antiquarian and rare volumes. You can also find sheet music, posters, book bags and glass cup plates.”
The shop’s somewhat rambling and haphazard schematic, in which most sections are uniquely not organized according to title, was mindfully cultivated by Ben to encourage browsing and wandering. Romano told the Cape Cod Times, ‘It’s what you find on the way to what you’re looking for.”
Parnassus’ stock isn’t just relegated to the store’s interior. Almost the entire eastern side of the building comprises a massive outdoor bookstand featuring hundreds upon hundreds of used paperbacks accessible 24/7 and sold via the honor system, with patrons asked to slip cash for desired selections under the front door during off hours. Originally devised as a means of housing overflow volumes, the unusual point of sale has become the shop’s trademark.
It is that homespun, friendly atmosphere that has made Parnassus Book Service a mainstay of the Yarmouth Port landscape for 67 years, with customers deeming the store “one of my favorite places on the planet” and proclaiming “A piece of my literary heart will always live at Parnassus!” on the site’s Facebook page.
Edward Gorey was also a huge fan of the shop. Wicked Local writes that the celebrated author, artist and costume designer “would sit for hours on the floor of Muse’s store surrounded by books” and that he even based one of his literary characters upon the knowledgeable proprietor.
Considering its longevity and local fame, it is no surprise that “Fikry” filmmakers found their way to Parnassus. And in a humorous case of art imitating life, much like the place’s ornery onscreen owner, Muse was reported to have been a bit curmudgeonly, with his obituary noting he “was once labeled in a travel guide as one of three ‘grumpy old men of Yarmouth Port.'”
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” makes extensive use of the fabled shop, with countless scenes taking place in front of the store and amongst the well-stocked stacks. For the shoot, production designer Lili Teplan partially revamped the exterior, swapping the regular blue trim for a muted purple, a change that Canosa deemed essential in order to match the bookstore as described in the source novel. Picturesque lavender-hued hydrangea blooms were also positioned flanking the front door and the unsightly telephone pole on the sidewalk out front removed digitally, giving the place even more of a cinematic feel.
The director and his team scouted several bookstores along the Cape during the pre-production process and even considered utilizing a studio-built set before landing upon Parnassus. He told Reel Talker, “I felt like, in this case, location was the only way to go because this had to feel like a real place and I wanted a bookstore that was a mix of new and used books because this is a story that has a kind of deeply nostalgic pull . . . [and] to get that feeling of a place that’s lived-in and books that have been read and touched, I think was essential.”
Between prep time, the shoot itself and strike dates, the crew took over the bookstore for a total of three weeks. The shop proved so inviting throughout that, as Canosa disclosed to Reel Talker, he would often find crew members tucked into discreet corners, their noses buried deep within a book, during breaks in filming.
While Parnassus’ cozy interior also appears extensively onscreen, scenes involving Fikry’s home, purported to be situated on the bookstore’s top level, were not captured onsite but at an actual private residence nearby. In reality, the establishment’s top two floors contain even more stacks, shelves and volumes for patrons’ shopping pleasure.
Showcasing the boutique in a thoroughly romantic light, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is nothing if not a love letter to bookstores. Canosa hopes the film encourages “people to buy these books, to buy physical books, hold books in their hand, til the end of time if they can.” Thanks to places like Parnassus, that tradition is likely to be carried on for generations to come.