Amherst Magazine

When the Rug Doctor Lost His Shadow

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Lindsay Stern ’13 was visiting Amherst during her junior year of high school when she stopped in Northampton with her parents and noticed a storefront awning for “The Rug Doctor.”

“The next morning,” she says, “I wrote a few paragraphs on a rug doctor who loses his shadow.”
That rug doctor is now the main character in Stern’s debut novella, Town of Shadows, published by Scrambler Books last month.

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Stern is already at work on her second novel.

After writing the initial paragraphs, “I left the story alone,” says Stern, who is from New York City. She picked it back up the summer before her sophomore year at Amherst, when an editorial internship fell through and “I was left with three months of empty afternoons.” Back at Amherst, she took a Special Topics class on poetry with Writer-in-Residence Daniel Hall, adapting many poems she wrote for the course into book chapters.

“I sent the book out to a few small houses one night on a whim,” she says. “I didn’t expect to hear back, because I didn’t have an agent or many connections.” She was surprised when not one but two small presses expressed interest. She chose Scrambler because it “offered the better contract” and would publish the book more quickly.

The book is a dystopian novel set in a town with a tyrannical mayor who banishes vowels and declares mathematics the national dialect. Stern took inspiration from books such as Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, in which the protagonist disappears.

Which brings us back to the rug doctor who loses his shadow: “The book,” Stern says, “is about how he uses language as a way to withstand” the town’s absurdity. “In the end, though, erasure becomes a theme of his work.”

Stern was also inspired by her own writing: As a younger teenager, she compulsively recorded the day-to-day events of her life. In the book, she says, “I wanted to test the idea of language as a bulwark against transience and to see if my characters could find a sense of meaning in impermanence rather than permanence.”

Stern is already at work on her second book. “It’s about an astronomer,” she says, “who discovers the night sky is speaking in Braille.” The book will be her senior thesis in English. She’s writing a philosophy thesis as well, and after graduation, she hopes to make a career as a writer.  

Since her initial visit in high school, she’s returned to Northampton many times, but she’s never seen “The Rug Doctor” awning again. She can find no record that it ever existed.

Photo by Rob Mattson