In recent years, I’ve found myself browsing the large chain bookshops more often than not. I’ve found myself scrolling down the list of today’s bestsellers on the internet. I even read my first Swedish novel on an iPad. I suppose convenience has played a part in my search, tousled by the busy life of today. Yet, somehow the charm, the wonderment of the search seemed to have escaped me just a little, until a lovely reminder this past week in Paris.
I had my list of English bookshops in hand and a grand purpose behind it – to promote my debut novel. The first shop was all boarded up, closed to the outside world – for good it seemed. It was the second shop, with a man stacking reams of books, lugging them from crates on the sidewalk and into the shop that intrigued me. I approached with uncertainty, muscling up the courage to introduce myself. He replied as he crouched down to lift more books, with not a single glance my way. I couldn’t have felt more intrusive. He insisted that I speak my mind while he finished up. In and out of the threshold he stepped as I meagerly said my piece.
Once all books were nestled in the corner, he sat down behind the counter, piled high with secondhand books from Dickens to Jamie Oliver. I glanced down the narrow aisle flanked by aged books that seemed to tower through the ceiling above. My eyes traveled back to the shop owner when I quickly learned that I had his full attention. So full that he perused my list. Then with the care of a mentor, he congratulated me on getting published then one by one proceeded to give advice on each shop in the vicinity. He knew them well having owned his little corner of the market for umpteen years. Not an easy task to keep an English bookshop’s heart pumping in the centre of Paris, especially one called San Francisco Book Company.
It was his final comment to me that made me laugh, though it was weighed down by the reality of all artists; grueling, tedious work we love with often little to no recognition. “It’s a tough business. Thank God you’re not a painter. Writers feel sorry for the painters. And the painters feel sorry for the poets. I’m a poet and I run a secondhand book shop.”
I took his advice and re-arranged my list. Before I knew it, I found myself stepping into a shop that oozed the charm of his, with an added “je ne sais quoi”. Who am I kidding? I know exactly “what” that “quoi” was; the creaky floors, the attempted bustle of people squeezing past each other to reach for that one special book, but the towering shelves with ladders forced the bustle to calm down. I could almost hear the rushing hearts from the tourist frenzy across the bridge at Notre Dame, suddenly slow when the tinkle of the bell sounded on the shop’s door. As I walked along the aisle, people buried in this book and that, I rounded a corner that held crevices where book lovers could get lost. Though the hall was a tight squeeze, it felt friendly as it led to a narrow staircase wrapped in stone walls.
Unlike its browsing customers and those coming up for air every so often, I was on a mission – to promote Gillian Pugsley. Although I had to fight my way through a shop that could have easily swallowed me for good, in the end, I was able to say my piece. Now, Mademoiselle Pugsley needs to work her magic even in a country that’s not her own. Shakespeare and Company, as English as it is in the heart of the Latin Quarter as well as the other shops I visited, will be that much richer if they dance a little jig with Gilly. Fingers crossed.