Elizabeth Rew is an ordinary high school student studying under her teacher, Professor Mauskopf. She does well enough in her class to truly impress him, especially on her paper on the Brothers Grimm for European History Class. Elizabeth's father has recently remarried, and her new stepmother's daughters are draining the family finances to put them through college, so she has had to give up her ballet classes and she always needs money. So when her teacher Mr. Mauskopf offers her the possibility for a job, she jumps at the chance.
The job is working for a special kind of library known as a Repository. Specifically, the New York Circulating Repository. It has some books, but generally, what it lends are things- tapestries, clothing, footwear, textiles and other things to people. Some use it for research, like materials and styles of clothing for plays or costumes, but other things she can't really say the reasons why someone might want to borrow one specifically- like buttons or spoons, or teapots.
After a while putting items back into the collection after they have been borrowed, Elizabeth notices that some items have very special tags, especially the ones marked "GC". After a while working to put items back in proper storage once they have been borrowed, she gets the chance to actually meet some of the borrowers and work in the special collections area. In particular, with the GC collection, which she finds out is the "Grimm Collection", named after the Brothers Grimm. While they mostly collected fairy tales and stories, apparently, they actually went beyond that and collected things as well. Things associated with the stories they collected and wrote down.
Which means the things in the Grimm collection are actual magic, and what's more, they work. And after some time of working in the repository, the pages can take out items themselves for a while. As Elizabeth works there, she becomes close to her fellow pages: Anjali, Mark and Aaron. Mark is friendly, and Elizabeth becomes very close, very good friends with Anjali, and Aaron seems a bit too suspicious for her taste, but he's also hopelessly in love with Anjali, who doesn't even seem to notice that he exists.
But while working at the repository, Elizabeth also becomes aware of a problem. Someone is "borrowing" items without permission, and then later replacing them. Elizabeth has no idea who this could be, although she knows that pages have been fired from working with the collection before because of stealing. But everyone working there now seems to be honest and aboveboard. So who could the "Borrower" be? To get around the problem of the items being missing, the items are being replaced with non-magical versions of the real magic. And each of the pages can sense magic in different ways. Elizabeth can smell magic, and she can sense when the new replacements simply don't "smell" the same.
And she's not the only one who's been noticing the items going missing. But some of them aren't being replaced. And now it's up to the pages to figure out who has been taking the items and why, and to rescue both Mark and Anjali, who have been turned into a figurine and a doll, respectively, and Elizabeth's sense of direction, which she gave up to take out an item whose magic drained away- the mermaid's comb. But can they get the items back and find the garden of seasons, or will two of Elizabeth's friends and her sense of direction be gone for good?
Well, this was quite an amazing book, based on Polly Shulman's own first job, working for the New York Public Library. Many libraries have special collections, and the NYPL is one of those, with items both rare and immensely valuable. But I liked the premise of the book, that magic was real and could be dispensed for use at a library-style institution, as well as the odd sort of items in the collection and how some were inimical and others benevolent.
The people in it are very strange as well. Dr. Rust, the head librarian, has freckles that move, and another lady never smiles. Two of the pages Elizabeth works with are royal personages, and their families have magic- much to Elizabeth's envy. And in the end, they need the help of Anjali's sister, Jaya, to find the guilty and rescue Anjali and Mark.
The book ends on a somewhat uncertain note. Some of the threads are not cleaned up, but we definitely get a feeling of closure. I was hoping we'd get a little more information on Elizabeth's dealings with her family, because she is almost living a fairytale- being the third daughter in a house where the two stepdaughters seemingly get all the favors, and even her stepmother doesn't really seem to like her. Is it any wonder that a girl like her gets drawn into real magic?
I found the story very enjoyable, and it really made me wish that I could work in just such a place- one that had real magic. But I work in a real library and that is just close enough for me. After all, who's to say that wonderful stories aren't a form of magic in and of themselves? Highly recommended.