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Friday, May 4, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number Three)

   In Paris, there are many differences between the Right Bank and the Left Bank of the Seine.  But there is one thing that is exactly the same: the Bouquinistes.  Since the 16th century, used-book sellers have plied their trade in this city, and the accepted practice for doing so became the bookstalls along the Seine.  Since 1859, there has been concessions granted by the city of Paris to booksellers in these fixed stalls.  Much like the now displaced vegetable and meat sellers with their booths at Les Halles, these traders have their own boxes along a three kilometer stretch of the river, on both sides.  Here you will find old leather bound editions of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Dumas, and Voltaire.  In the very same stall you might find paperbacks of Max Brand, Agatha Christie, and Isaac Asimov--all translated into French of course.  Some of the editions have been recently published, and are there for the tourists to buy cheaply.  Others are editions from the Seventies, Sixties, Fifties, and even earlier decades.  Many old editions of Parisian newspapers and magazines can also be found, including French editions of Life, Playboy, Match, and Vogue.
   I have read that the waiting list to get a book stall is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 years.  The operators of these stalls have a pretty loose schedule.  On some days they are open all day and late into the night.  But there are many days they do not open their box.  It seems to be a simple matter of personal preference.  I would have thought that the bad weather kept them closed but I observed just the opposite.  On a rainy day, as I came hurrying out of the Latin Quarter looking for a place to shelter from a sudden downpour, I found a line of bouquinistes that were open, and ducked under one of their overhanging doors.  The books are usually individually wrapped in plastic, and the booksellers seemed unconcerned about the rain.  They might move a display in out of the direct rain, but that was the extent of their efforts.  It was during this chance to shelter from the rain that I found a French science fiction book from the Sixties that I thought might make a nice gift for one of my sons.  It had great retro art on the cover and looked perfectly cheesy.  I grabbed it, along with a French edition of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal for Jennifer, and tossed in two new French X-Men comic books for the kids.
   Not all of the offerings are charming older books.  Many common souvenirs are offered, along with the standard posters, postcards, and replica retro metal signs.  I did notice the occasionally odd, and often disturbing authentic older--shall we say French?--publications that would not normally be found on a sidewalk bookseller's cart in the more puritan United States.
   Sadly, my luggage limits were such that I passed up many great books I'd found: a French edition of Marcel Ayme's collection of short stories that included The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls, many more retro sci-fi books, as well as a good number of Zola, Dumas, and Verne works that would have been great to pick up in their original forms.  While I don't read French, I'm not above buying a book I can't read.  I'm that kind of bookworm.  Besides, these looked so alluring, that I believe I might have taken the time to learn to read French if I could have brought a dozen of them back with me.
   Here is a cover shot from the sci-fi book I found.  It is simply awesome.  It is still wrapped in the plastic and you can see the price written with a marker pen in the corner (Six Euros!).  The book is from 1966, and is part of a collection entitled "Anticipation".  My son carefully unwrapped it and read a few pages of the first chapter.  His years in French class were sufficient for him to read it.  He then wrapped it back up, eager to preserve its condition.  Oddly enough, on the back of it, is an advertisement for a romance novel.  Not something you would have seen on the back of an Andre Norton pulp novel from the same time period.  We tend to keep our genres segregated on this side of the ocean.

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