Bernard Black, owner of the bookshop known as Black Books, enjoys drinking heavily and shouting at people, especially his sole employee, Manny Bianco. Bernard is a gloomy Irish misanthrope who avoids the world outside of his shop as much as possible. He drinks, smokes, and reads to excess. His only friend is Fran Katzenjammer, who owns the high-end tchotchke shop next door and enjoys wine and cigarettes nearly as much as Bernard himself. The pair commiserate over their hatred of others, torment Manny, and try to one-up each other in a twisted form of sibling rivalry.

In an attempt to write a children's book, Bernard instead produced a one thousand and thirty page novel in one night about an academic who survived the Stalinist purges and is now having flashbacks to that time; his daughter, whose long and bitter marriage is collapsing around her; and a journalist who investigates the academic but falls wildly in love with the daughter, eventually giving up his career to become a lensgrinder in Omsk.

There was a stage in life when Bernard was my hero, coincidentally a time when I also drank and smoked too much. I identified with his rumpled clothes and cynical outlook, hoping someday to be at least as well-read and funny as he was, while ignoring the high likelihood of cirrhosis that would come from such a lifestyle. I still am fond of the old bastard. He taught me to cut the crap and focus on what is important—namely, books.