The Great American Bookstore Blowout Misadventure

Tuesday, September 29

When you’re married to a bibliophile, you have to accept the fact that your spouse LOVES bookstores of any kind. Even French language bookstores. And we’ve been to a couple already. (Mary Ann is fluent in Spanish, can get by quite well in French, and she knows more than a smattering of Italian. She’s quite good at languagues (luckly or me) But as an English speaker, she wanted to find some good books to enjoy here in Paris and maybe for the trip home in a couple weeks.

So she learned of a small number of English language stores that could be found in Paris and immediately got curious. What books did these stores contain? Were they just duplications of Barnes & Noble best-sellers-plus-popular-press-plus-magazines-type stores in the US? Or were there titles here that we might not find in the US? Or what? Naturally we had to find out.

Mary Ann sent me a list she had found online and I located them on Google Maps. With what we had, we plotted out a full-day crawl through five English language bookstores. Four were in the Latin Quarter and one actually just around the corner from our apartment.

And on Tuesday we took off on our adventure.

The first store on our list was the near-to-our-apartment bookstore of the American University in Paris. And though the university appeared to be just around the corner, our bookstore was not anywhere to be found! Chalk one off.

Then we got on the Metro (see my blog post on the Metro for that adventure) and went to the Notre Dame / Saint Michel area to visit four more on our list.

Gilbert Jeune Books

The first was the Gilbert Jeune bookstore, misnamed in a way because it was actually six separate bookstores each covering a separate set of categories, everything from social science to religion, to travel and language. The popular store was the largest, but Mary Ann found few books in English there.

The Abbey Bookstore

Not far away was one of the more curious and fascinating bookstores I’ve ever been in, The Abbey Bookstore. Owned and run by a Canadian man (the Canadian flag hung outside the door), it’s a tiny space – very narrow – that goes back and back. Aisles were probably no more than 18 inches wide. Definitely no room for two-way traffic, so lots of gentle dancing of customers past each other, or backing up to some one of the few places you could get a bit more space to let someone pass.

Books were piled high on shelves, and stacks of them laying on top of each other like big biblio-stalagmites of three and four feet in height. You are at constant risk of toppling one or more of them.

Even scarier was a very steep and narrow (think 16”) stairway going down to a very deep basement where there were a similar number of books in similarly narrow aisles. This is not a bookstore for the claustrophobic.

The owner (Brian Spence) was genuinely interesting. Smart, well-read (obviously!) and seemed easy to get to know and like. A real Canadian to the core, he was explaining to a customer that Winnie the Pooh had Canadian roots inasmuch as the character of ‘Winnie’ got his name from that of a Canadian black bear (named Winnie) who was a WWI mascot that drew its name from the city of Winnepeg. (It’s true, I checked!)  OK, you could say our Canadian owner was stretching things a bit to claim some literary credit for his great country, but it was great fun listening to him talk with pride about this. Consider that he hangs the Canadian flag outside his store right there in the middle of Paris. In France, for Pete’s sake!

The store was almost completely filled with used books. Nice condition, most of them, and while they were organized after some fashion, the incredible number of stacks and stalagmites made a serious ordering of them nearly impossible. Finding a title of interest at The Abbey would be a matter of pure serendipitous luck. And we weren’t coming up with much (though I suspect that if we had some hours and some perserverence, we could have). So we left and headed off to our next target, The Berkeley Books of Paris.

berkeleybooksBerkeley Books of Paris was easy to find. It was as small as The Abbey, maybe smaller. But it was organized as orderly and precisely as The Abbey was chaotic in its somewhat orderly way. Probably 1/8th the inventory, the mostly paperback style book inventory was also nearly all used. None of it had anything either of us was looking for, though I found four copies of “The Human Comedy” one of my favorite books since childhood by California author, William Saroyan. Each a different printing, but FOUR copies of this long forgotten novel.

Our last target, San Francisco Book Company turned out not to be in the location we thought it was in. And it was farther away than I knew our feet were going to take us, so at that point we called a day. (We later learned that it was used books of the sort we had already seen, so we probably won’t check it out. )

We were kind of bummed out at not finding some titles to take home with us, but something else started to settle in on us, that this day wasn’t at all for naught. The walk had been incredibly interesting. For one thing, we discovered MANY bookstores in this area. And then we realized that the Latin Quarter is home to the Sorbonne and some other really fine schools, so of course there would be many bookstores in this area.

We discovered interesting neighborhoods, fascinating little shops, interesting people and did it all on a cool, sunny fall day enjoying each others’ company and getting caught up in the weekday hustle-bustle of Paris. So while the object had been to find books where we ended up finding none, we found instead this rather nice day of doing nothing in particular and enjoying so much of what came our way! AND, we finally got to use the Metro and gain some confidence in doing that.We returned home tired, but happy for it all.

After a short rest, I went over to Les Invalides to get six-day Paris Museum Passes for us, but that’s the next blog post.


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