5 years, 6 months ago
My favourite things about Paris? Pistachio Macarons, Musée D’Orsay, flea markets, cycling at night, stationery and small, specialist shops.
Yep, the French tradition of ‘a shop for everything and everything in its shop’ can be a might irritating at times – try buying painkillers in a supermarket. But I find myself more than a little prepared to overlook the odd inconvenience if the flipside is cheese shops, chocolatiers, milliners, shops that sell drawing paper by weight, violin shops, button shops and, best of all by several long miles, booksellers.
They might forgive indiscretion in their politicians, but no true citizen of the Republic will stand for anything but absolute loyalty to the printed word. And when it comes to bookshops they like them independent, focused, well stocked and happy to endure the most lingering of browsers with a tolerant Gallic shrug.
It took me quite a while to whittle my choice of Parisian Print Purveyors down to just five. And I fully anticipate that, once bitten by the city’s bookseller bug, you’ll be more than happy to come over all superior and critical about my pick. So when you’re ready, I’ll be waiting in a small café with a demi pichet, a slim volume of verse and quite probably a Fedora – see you there.
La Belle Hortense
There’s nothing more typically French than making a rule then breaking it. Welcome to La Belle Hortense: bookseller but also, wine shop. It’s painted hydrangea blue, it’s in Le Marais (land of the charmingly eccentric), inside it’s like somebody’s house except it has a really good wine bar (which would be just plain weird in a house), there’s art on the walls, comfy seats, nooks and crannies and shelves and shelves and shelves of books to browse and buy. La Belle Hortense styles itself as a Literary Cave (cave as in ‘wine cellar’ not ‘prehistoric dwelling’), the atmosphere is generous and lively and occasionally you can even buy a bundle of freshly picked herbs or a posy of garden flowers from a rickety little table on the pavement out front. La Belle Hortense, 31 Rue Vieille du Temple, 75004 Paris
Before you visit Artazart be aware you need one of two things: a will of iron or a bank that understands fiscal restraint just doesn’t apply when you really want stuff. Because if you have eyesight, you will want much, much, much stuff from Artazart. There are not enough coffee tables in the world to accommodate the deeply seductive, glossy, fresh paper smelling, bibliophile catnip on offer here. And if there’s any shop, anywhere, better at stealing time, I’ve yet to find it. Laid out to trick the unwary into hours of pleasantly dazed browsing, Artazart is a home-from-home for Parisian art students, has a permanent exhibition space for local artists and regularly hosts some of the city’s best art and design events. Artazart, 83 Quai de Valmy, 75010 Paris.
The French happily propagate the myth that they’re born with flawless palates, an innate understanding of scarves and the ability to philosophise about anything at the drop of a beret. Au contraire! Generation upon generation of scarf wearing, radical intellectual French gourmands owe more than a little to nurture. And for decades that nurture’s owed more than a little to Chantelivre. It’s not small and there are three stores (almost a chain by Parisian standards) but it’s the first, best and, for some, only children’s bookshop in the city worth considering. If you want to see the most cynical of Parisian parents get all misty-eyed with remembering, impress your children and even pick up a few books yourself (Chantelivre introduced an adult section in 2005), this is the place. www.chantelivre.com.
In the land of avant garde magazines, fashion bibles, style guides, limited editions and anything rare and readable, Ofr. is the capital. This is where US tastemakers (AKA selfie taking bloggers) like to do a spot of hanging about and being artfully engrossed. But if you can get over that (probably a lot quicker than they can get over themselves) you’ll be well rewarded. Ofr. is small but mysteriously spacious, doesn’t mind you just looking and hosts regular events and exhibitions – it’s also great for postcards if you feel inspired to do some writing as well as reading. Ofr. 20 Rue Dupetit-Thouars, 75003 Paris.
If your knowledge of Paris is based on the teeth-grinding awfulness of Les Miserables – on stage or screen – you’d be forgiven for thinking that Notre Dame de Paris can be seen from literally anywhere in the city. It can’t. I mention this fast and loose interpretation of Paris only because I’m about to point you in the direction of Les Bouquinistes which really are directly opposite non-fictional Notre Dame de Paris on the Left Bank of the Seine. Spread over several quais in the city’s Latin Quarter, Les Bouquinistes are probably the most famous booksellers in the world. I won’t bore you with the literary greats who have sung the praises of the 200 plus stallholders and their hundreds and thousands of rare books, first editions, manuscripts, livre de poche and postcards. But I will tell you, if you love books, you can’t miss Les Bouquinistes. Open most days from 1130 except Bank Holidays and when it rains torrentially in autumn.
Some (non) Essential Paris Reading
‘A Moveable Feast’ Ernest Hemingway – Love him or not, Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir of his time as a young man in post WW1 Paris makes fascinating reading even if only for all the famous folk he name checks.
‘The Pursuit of Love’ Nancy Mitford – The most glamorous of all the glamorous Mitford Sisters (politics and privilege aside), Nancy’s lifelong love affair with Paris is personified in her heroine Linda Radlett and The Pursuit of Love as WW2 looms over the city.
‘Left Bank’ Kate Muir – A very funny and insightful look at the life of a modern day Parisian philosopher who comes complete with every intellectual pretension and an American actress wife.
‘The Innocents Abroad’ Mark Twain – Not all about Paris, but enough to allow the great man to cheerfully expose the insular and charmless worst of his travelling fellow countrymen.
‘L’Assommoir’ Emile Zola – Late 19th century working class Paris: slums, absinthe and not a shred of romance but still totally compelling.
There you have it: some great places to buy books and some great books to buy. Now all you need is a pavement café and a brooding stare and Paris has plenty of both.