“Telegraph Avenue” is his tribute to vintage vinyl, those great used-record shops that have mostly spun out of existence. Think Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” digitally remastered in rococo funk. The pages are stacked with albums from Miles Davis’s “On the Corner” to Charles Kynard’s “Wa-Tu-Wa-Zui.” (The e-book offers music and related video clips.)
The story revolves around efforts to save the Brokeland Records store in a gritty part of Oakland, Calif., a few miles from the home Chabon shares with his wife, Ayelet Waldman. As a sign of the author’s superpowers, HarperCollins is temporarily converting an Oakland bookstore into a model of Brokeland Records — all part of this novel’s astonishing $250,000 marketing campaign.
But in the fictional world of “Telegraph Avenue,” money is in short supply. Brokeland Records, “the church of vinyl,” is threatened by a megastore to be built by the fifth-richest black man in America, an all-pro quarterback named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, who flies around the country in a silver dirigible. G Bad’s shiny retail complex promises to create hundreds of jobs in a 60,000-square-foot retail mall anchored by a three-story media store specializing in African American culture with a deep selection of “vintage vinyl recordings of jazz, funk, blues, and soul.”
While the residents of this depressed neighborhood are singing “At Last,” the owners of Brokeland Records are worried that “The Thrill is Gone.” Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings know they’ll have to fight to save their little store from G Bad’s new mall. “Men like Archy and Nat,” Chabon explains, “would wage wars, found empires, lose their dignity and their fortunes for the sake of vinyl.” Their only hope is to dig up zoning complications or generate community opposition, but how exactly does one rally against jobs and new construction in a poor section of town?
Archy, a Gulf War vet, is a philandering black guy who’s about to become a father. His business partner, Nat, is a misanthropic white guy. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, are partners in their own midwife business. The husbands believe that “real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible,” but the far more daring move is Chabon’s willingness to shake up the politely segregated world of literary fiction. He not only fills his novel with black characters but also gives them prominence over the white ones.