Two years ago I moved to the 15th Arrondissement of Paris, at the southern edge of the city. As in other peripheral neighborhoods, the well-preserved homogeneity of the city center loses its grip here: large apartment buildings, some of them public housing, overlook the railroad tracks leading south, interspersed with older, more-typical Parisian houses, but worn and dilapidated, barely hinting at their prior glory. The neighborhood’s inhabitants are primarily Sub-Saharan and North African immigrants in colorful traditional attire, young bohemians, and an aging working-class population. If there is a chance I will ever feel at home in Paris, it will be in a neighborhood like this.
As soon as I moved here, I went out for walks whenever I could. On one such walk, I discovered the used-book market. My girlfriend and I were on our way back from the Sunday local market, and as we crossed through the neighborhood park, a shortcut to our street, we suddenly noticed that what looked like an empty, deserted hangar during the weekdays was now overflowing with small stands packed with used books. I dropped the bags I was carrying, mumbled that I would be right back, and disappeared into the hangar.
We both realized that this was going to be a problem; we have little space and little money, but when it comes to books, I’m reckless. And like a bashful suitor, I’ve been visiting just about every week since. My girlfriend has stopped trying to drag me to the other side of the street. Each Sunday, as we cross through the park, she shrugs and continues home alone.
For 31 years, every weekend since 1987, the Brancion Market for Used and Antique Books spreads out its wares on crowded tables, boxes, and shelves. The crowd is a mixture of intellectuals, antique enthusiasts, bobos, and students; they stroll leisurely, browse over stacks, and pore through boxes of iconic posters, old records, and other cultural memorabilia. They come to explore, to touch, to smell, and occasionally to buy.
As a youngster growing up in Israel, the desperate search for quality literature in Arabic was among my formative childhood experiences. The mosque library only offered books on religious topics, whereas the school library offered books primarily about hygiene. To resolve existential questions or grapple with issues of identity, I was forced to hitchhike to a small book store in Nazareth: Mr. Sfadi’s store, with its handpicked book selection and stacks of magazines from Cairo and Dubai, is where I discovered the great treasures of the Arab culture.
The story of the book market begins in the mid-19th century, when the slaughterhouses and livestock markets were moved to the outskirts of the city. Until then the blood of slaughtered beasts flowed in the streets of Central Paris, as the playwright Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote; the terrified screams would shock and jolt passersby. Hygienic considerations, as well as perhaps aesthetic and moral sensibilities, led to the transfer of the meat industry from the main streets of Paris to its fringes, and until 1970, this hangar served as a huge holding pen for horses before they were led to the nearby slaughterhouse (now our neighborhood park, named after the singer Georges Brassens, who lived not far from there). The park has little evidence of its bleeding past; only the statues of bullheads adorning its entrances and a bronze butcher, commemorate this location’s less pastoral origins.
I went to meet the new manager of the book market, Madame Denise, on an extremely cold day. There is no other season that is as self-confident in Paris as winter. Huddled in my coat, I walked through the book market, looking at the booksellers taking books out of their boxes and arranging them on the tables and shelves with half-frozen and gloved hands. Some won’t finish arranging their stall until it’s time to pack it up, their way, I suspect, of never fully revealing what they have. Others just sit stiffly, covered with blankets, a steaming thermos to their side and a perpetual cigarette in hand. There’s quiet conversation, there’s laughter. It feels like a territory in a different time zone, with different codes. This is not Shakespeare and Company, the famous book store in the Latin quarter; here are no queues of tourists waiting for their turn to enter. One is unlikely to run into a tourist here at all. Ah, yes, because there are no books to be found in English. This is France, not America.
I met Madame Denise in a small café on one of the neighborhood corners. Yes, she sighed, the market has known better times, but she and the merchants hope to revive its prior glory. She showed me the schedule she has planned for the next two months with book launches, poetry readings, and concerts. Towards the end of the 18th century, there were ten times more readers in Paris than in the previous century; Is this still true two centuries later, I asked? That’s a tough question, she said; Amazon and the internet have impacted the literary industry, and now everything is accessible at the touch of a button. Old fashioned bibliophilia has been replaced by Netflix and YouTube.
In its early years, Madame Denise explained, the book market was overflowing with both sellers and buyers, nearly 100 merchants pouring in weekly from all parts of France. Today, it’s less than half that number. I asked how the market differs from the traditional green book stands along the Seine. Here we don’t sell knick-knacks or kitschy paintings, she said. In her opinion, the Book Market is actually a site de resistance, which she likened to a network of activists refusing to heed to directives of the literary industry: the aggressive marketing of new books and the influence of critics and bestseller lists. She herself had started out as a salesperson in a bookshop. One day, she was fed up with her job and bought a truck and began selling used books she had collected. She talked enthusiastically about her plans for the market as we left the café, and led me among the book stands, introducing me to the veteran merchants.
While visiting in one of India’s temples, Jean-Noël had a vision in which he saw himself selling books. With his return to France, he left the theater with which he had been involved and devoted his life to selling books. I introduced myself. He asked where I’m from. “From Israel,” I replied hesitantly. “No one is perfect,” he said. “You live in a virtual hell,” he added. I nodded in agreement, I know.
He specializes in antique books from the 16th to 19th centuries. These he usually steals or finds in the trash can, he said with a mischievous smile. He also observed that traffic was much greater in the Market’s earlier years. What has changed, I asked. The market for old books, similar to that of antiques, suffers from a general worldwide predicament. Interest in items from the past is waning. Now millions surge upon the plastic altars of Ikea. Jean-Noël described a scene I am familiar with from my frequent rides on the Metro: masses of people with their heads tilted downward at screens. I was surprised and thrilled to find my native village mentioned in one of his old travel books on Palestine.
I asked whether he also sells through the internet, but Jean-Noël retorted that he has no patience to sit all day in front of the computer screen or deal with keyboards and “mice.” Friends who market via the internet experience dwindling sales and decreased traffic; in his opinion, it expresses a cultural crisis that crosses worlds. He recalled how he encountered globalization back in 1982 on that trip to India, how he witnessed all the inhabitants of a small distant village gather together in the evening to watch an episode of “Starsky and Hutch” on the one television. He saw it and could not believe it. This was a sign of the future, he says.
We talked about the limitations of monotheism: he is drawn to non-monotheistic cultures, he said, like India’s, and to anti-monotheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche. To his mind, animals are far more interesting than humans, so enthralled by power. The world’s woes he said, began with the Book of Genesis, when man placed himself at the center of the universe, above other species and even nature itself. This was a tragic mistake.
Another veteran merchant, Charles, studied at the University of Vansen when it was a stronghold of activists in May 1968. Charles’ stand was overflowing with books on the topic of revolutions, which quite naturally brought our discussion to the Israeli-Arab conflict. In his view, both the Jews and the Arabs are pawns on the larger chessboard controlled by the superpowers;Israel, he said, has proven an excellent source of radical, clandestine literature and expository books, a fact that had eluded me. Among the Jews that immigrated to Palestine there had been untold numbers of revolutionaries adhering to various streams of political thought, he explained, communists, anarchists, and socialists, who packed in their valises a substantial quantity of revolutionary books from their lands of origin, along with their hopes and fears. Over time, these became rare and invaluable testimony of a turbulent century, accessible only in Israel. I noticed a pile of books related to Jewish history, which he explained was part of the estate bequeathed by the mother of one of his friends. In it, I found a book I had been searching for recently: The Forgiveness, written by the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch. I wondered: Did his friend’s mother forgive?
Of all the merchants, Jeff has been selling books the longest. Originally from Holland, he immigrated to Paris several decades ago, and he specializes in historical and esoteric literature. His father and brother were also in the business. Jeff’s aspiration to read books only in the original language in which they were written (or “ogni traduzione è un tradimento” as he quotes), led him to learn many languages over the years. The old newspaper clippings he held up in front of me spoke of a lively spirited period the book market knew during the 1990s. During our conversation, he pulled out an article that he recently published in which he analyzes Arab Muslim lithography presented in a book by a Dutch expedition in Indonesia. Another article he wrote criticized the controversial Carlos Castaneda, who gained fame from his books about tribal wisdom, spirituality, and mushroom-induced visions (Jeff considers Castaneda a spiritual fraud, who led a lost and eager Hippie Generation astray).
When Jeff told me of his affection for the writings of the philosopher René Guénon, I asked what he thought of the use that Steve Bannon made of his theories. Jeff insisted that Bannon did not understand Guénon, and doubted he read him very thoroughly or deeply; Guénon was strongly critical of modernity, he explained, and his search for tranquility brought him eventually to convert to Islam and take up residence in Cairo. Today, Jeff is most interested in pre-history, the world that preceded the written word. Maybe he is weary of words, or of people.
Isa is the only black merchant in the book market, and at his stand, I find several books in Arabic; one of them by Ghassan Kanafani, a famous Palestinian author. To buy or not to buy, I deliberated. But as I imagined the look I would encounter upon returning home with another book, I gently placed it back on the table and decided not to, for now. Isa specializes in African literature, which he feels is his mission to bring to Paris. Posters of his black heroes decorate his stand and he also offers books by James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Mandela.
Isa tells me that while the first word in the Koran is “read,” we have become a backward nation; I agree, sadly, that too few Muslims obey the first commandment of the Koran. We spoke of the lack of quality translations of Arabic and African literature. He originally studied real estate, but left that field to devote his time and energy to his earliest passion, books.
When I asked Jeff whether there are any women among the veteran merchants he pointed to Kyoko’s stand, who left Japan for Paris, thirty-five years ago. For her, the book market was the most special place in the world, though she acknowledged that the number of booksellers has dwindled. When I asked why she thought that was, she explained that the demand is low. “It’s also a sad kind of work. When a bookseller dies he is never replaced.” Our discussion wandered through the differences between monotheism and Shintoism, whose God is found everywhere, in all things and beings, and not just in the seventh heaven. She is an expert on Japanese literature, vintage children’s books, and showed me a beautiful erotic Japanese book, alongside Momotaro and books by La Fontaine. An elderly woman who approached the stand suddenly became emotional when she discovered a loved book she remembered from her childhood. The woman, smiling, purchased it without hesitation.
Kyoko met her French love in Tokyo and came with him to Paris. Together they have managed their stand from the first days of the book market, but even after all these years in Paris, she still feels foreign and unfamiliar with the French language. I found this thought unsettling.
Towards dusk, the merchants began packing their literary treasures into cartons. I made my silent promise to visit again soon and as I headed home through the park, the winter foliage at the park’s edge reminded me of the illustrations in an Indian book I saw in the market, a story was about the women of the Wakwak tree.
Neighing sounds from afar caught my attention. Was this the prophet’s horse or one of the immortal animal statues at the park’s entrance come to life? It was a pony with poignant eyes, who is brought each weekend to the park by its owner, who charges fifteen euros for a fifteen minutes ride. He stood in a corner of the park waiting, with eternal patience, for the next child rider.
Translated from Hebrew by Alfa Pieri.