The Old Bookkeeper

Posted in France by Priya Ramachandran.

The Old Bookkeeper

Haunts of bygone poets and authors still bustle with life, jazz clubs invite you in for free, medieval churches host Chopin concerts every evening, ancient love stories hang in the air of every rue and boulevard, owner of an antiquarian bookstore calls himself Don Quixote, colleges with no exams exist for the love of education... they don't call Paris ‘romantic’ for nothing! Sigh!


Tucked away in a romantic corner of rue de la Bûcherie in Paris, Left Bank is a tiny, antique book store and reading library. A yellow board announces proudly ­­­­– Shakespeare and Company, Antiquarian Books. Look closer and a plaque with Shakespeare's portrait solemnly greets you with an inspiring "Thou art alive still, while thy book doth live. And we have wits to read, and praise to give."

The Bard Spoke
The Bard Spoke

It was a bright sunny October noon when we decided to go on a walking tour of Paris' Left Bank. A few steps along the archaic Quartier Latin and we were suddenly in a time warp, transported to a simpler, more beautiful time. It's an old, old district with much charm, character and hidden stories on every street.

We stop at this independent book store, the oldest English one in Paris. If in 1919, the likes of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemmingway and James Joyce sat amidst these yellowing books to talk and write about life and revolution in the nineteenth century, today, young, bright writers meet there to discuss current maladies like modern love and other such indoor sports.

Tumbleweeds. That's what they call these young writers, in a way only Parisians can romanticize anything. A perfect word to describe these present-day nomads, who tumble around in worlds of their own making. An enchanting universe of words, where they will be vagabonds forever. They roll in and out of Shakespeare and Company, living on the generous bedding offered for free for months together sometimes, while they write. All in exchange of a few hours of work everyday and a promise to read a book a day. Two days, I read somewhere, only if it's Tolstoy's War and Peace.

One day, I hope to be that tumbleweed.

What touched me most about the bookstore was a quaint chalk-on-blackboard newsletter scribbled by George Whitman, who has been running this place since 1951. It's one of the most beautiful things I've read, bringing a smile on my face and tears to my eyes, at the same time.

The words, the simple honesty of them, reaffirmed my love for magic. Magic, not in the grandiose, miraculous sense. But the magic of ideas, words, everyday life. The old-world magic that is hard to find in a cynicism-ridden today. It's the magic hidden in the little things that matter. Like spotting The God of Small Things.

These are those words.

Paris Wall Newspaper
Paris Wall Newspaper

Some people call me the Don Quixote of The Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us are angels in Paradise. And instead of being a bonafide bookseller I am more like a frustrated novelist. Store has rooms like chapters in a novel. And the fact is Tolstoy and Doestoyevski are more real to me than my next door neighbors, and even stranger is the fact that even before I was born Doestoyevski wrote the story of my life in a book called ‘The Idiot' and ever since reading it I have been searching for the heroine, a girl called Nastasia Filipovna. One hundred years ago my bookstore was a wine shop hidden from the Seine by an annex of the Hotel de Dieu hospital which has since been demolished & replaced by a garden. And further back in the year 1600, our whole building was a monastery called La Maison du Mustier. In medieval times each monastery had a frere lamper whose duty was to light the lamps at nightfall. I have been doing this for fifty years, now it's my daughter's turn.


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