When I arrived in Paris in 1969, in the last year of my adolescence, Fnac opened a branch on the Wagram Avenue that became the largest book sales area in France. Fnac had been created two decades before as a sales center at reduced prices; the opening of the store on Wagram Avenue prompted, 12 years later, the Minister of Culture Jack Lang, to protect small booksellers, to decree the law of the fixed price, according to which all books should be sold at the same price, wherever was. Despite this restriction, the Fnac continued to expand and today there is no French city that does not have its Fnac, offering the public not only books but music, movies and electronic devices, a sort of Amazon made of brick and iron.
At the beginning, the directors of the chain justified their pantagruélico project alleging that the Fnac would not be a large anonymous surface, but a set of specialized bookstores. On my first visit, a young expert guided me through a long maze of poetry books, commenting and recommending authors and publishers. That was short-lived. After a few months, citing the old refrain that poetry is not for sale, the section was reduced to a few shelves, and the young expert was replaced by a kind lady who had never heard of Verlaine. Meanwhile, and not entirely due to the existence of the Fnac, many of the best bookstores in Paris were disappearing. Saint-Germain-des-Près, par excellence of books, became, in the eighties of the last century, a conglomerate of fashion stores.
Interior of the Ler Devagar bookstore in Lisbon. EFE
We know it: the firm runs away and only the fugitive remains and lasts, but that is not consolation. Certainly, the profession of bookseller has changed over the centuries. In Greece and Rome, the bookseller was also the copyist, and in the first century Marcial recommended the reader his new book of poems, which, according to the notice of a certain library tavern, can be purchased there for five dinars. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the bookseller not only copies but also searches for manuscripts: Petrarch boasts that he bought an old copy of Homer in a bookstore, which, unfortunately, he cannot read because he does not know Greek. From the 16th century on, the bookseller was also an editor: the author paid him to print his book, or sold him the rights for the bookseller to publish on his own account. A certain James Lackington, at the end of the 18th century, opens the Temple of the Muses in London, a bookstore that houses more than half a million copies and that, predecessor of the Fnac, promotes the sale of books at a cheaper price than the from its competitors, but always in cash. The Temple of the Muses does not sell on credit.
My life is a long and happy journey of bookstores that extend their shelves from my childhood until today through all the countries in which I have lived. Prufrock measured his life in teaspoons of coffee; I measure it in bookstores. The first I remember (one does not forget his first love) was in Tel Aviv, near the Argentine Embassy. It was a large cavernous store where my nurse would let me walk the lowest shelves, which were within my five or six years’ reach. There I discovered a magnificent illustrated series of the tales of the Grimm brothers. I still have one: the table, the donkey and the wonderful cane. I don’t remember the bookseller: in the bookstores that I love the most, the booksellers are intuited presences like discreet ghosts that do not impose themselves or harass us with a “What are you looking for?” Browsing bookstores is a solitary activity: readers don’t hunt in packs.
I have met bookstores on all my trips: the smallest one, a table under a coconut tree in the Cook Islands. And the most exotic, in a market in Samarkand
When we returned to Buenos Aires, I discovered the bookstores in my neighborhood, Belgrano, which mainly sold stationery but also books. My favorite had the complete Robin Hood seal collection. Under its yellow covers I discovered my first Sandokán and the adventures of Bomba, the boy from the jungle, a pale imitation of Mowgli whom I would not meet until later. Then when I started high school in the historic heart of the city, my bookstores were old. My colleagues and I frequented the venerable Library of the College (today Librería de Ávila) whose origins date back to the eighteenth century, and then we walked the Corrientes Street with its innumerable caves of paper and ink, where the booksellers, many of them republicans exiled from the Franco’s Spain, discreetly watched our comings and goings among the dusty tables where their treasures were piled up. There I discovered my first modern Spanish poets — Blas de Otero, Vicente Gaos, Miguel Hernández, Pedro Salinas — and the Latin American boom novels published by Seix Barral, all stacked between Jardiel Poncela’s innocent pornography and the sinful translations of the Russians, Czechs and Hungarians in the Austral collection.
There were at least three English language bookstores in Buenos Aires in the 1960s. Mitchell’s, Rodriguez and Pygmalion. The latter was led by a highly educated German, Lili Lebach, who had published Stefan Zweig when he lived in exile. At the age of fifteen, I started working at Pygmalion, thanks to the generosity of Fraulein Lebach. When hiring me (I explained that I could come to work in the mornings and also after school, because my classes were on the afternoon shift) he told me that my first task would be to pass a duster to books: this way I would learn to recognize and locate them . Contrary to many booksellers today who rely on computer memory to find a book, Fraulein Lebach insisted that we know our background, and also that we read the news that came from England and the United States to know what to recommend to customers. Thanks to her, I discovered Saul Bellow, Patricia Highsmith, Steinbeck, Evelyn Waugh, and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff for whom Fraulein Lebach had evangelical adoration. Unfortunately, he could not convince his clients of the importance of the great sage, and Gurdjieff’s books were sadly piling up in the warehouse. Many of the great Argentine writers came to Pygmalion. In the small space between the shelves, I heard Ernesto Sabato compare Dostoevsky’s translations into Spanish with English and French; to Victoria Ocampo to talk about Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf; Borges to recommend a biography of Kipling that his blind fingers had miraculously recognized. It was in Pygmalion that Borges suggested that I come to read the stories Kipling, Stevenson and Henry James at night. I found out later that Borges wanted to revisit the stories that he considered masterpieces before rewriting the fictions that would bear the name of Brodie’s Report and The Book of Sand. To study those tales, I needed the eyes of others. I was one of many chosen but, with the arrogance of a teenager, I thought I was doing a blind old man a favor. Listening to Borges commenting on those readings was perhaps the most important lesson in my life as a reader.
Interior of the La Belle Aventure bookshop in Poitiers.
I traveled to Europe in 1969 and in Paris, London and Milan, other bookstores marked my life. In La Hune de Saint-Germain, Severo Sarduy introduced me to Roland Barthes, who recommended the illegible Maurice Roche. There, Severo gave me a book by the Brazilian concretist Haroldo de Campos (translated into French) and made me read to Raymond Queneau. On the Rue de Seine was the Fischbacher bookstore, specializing in books on African and Eastern art, where the owner, with the generosity of a refugee, gave me work and allowed me to sleep in the back room. I, who could not find a job with my Argentine passport and without a work permit, I owe to Monsieur Fischbacher my survival in Paris. I remember that, with my first salary, I offered myself a huge café au lait with croissants after having eaten almost nothing for several days. Little is said about the generosity of booksellers.
I think I would be a bad bookseller: I am too attached to books to let others take them, even if they pay me. To be a good bookseller, if you are a passionate reader (as those who are dedicated to that sacred profession frequently are) one has to put aside the greed that drives us to treasure volumes and the selfishness that prevents us from letting go of them. A law bookseller is a Saint Martin willing to give up not only half a layer but the entire layer. Alessandro Baricco went further. In the 1990s, he opened with a group of friends a bookstore, El búho de Minerva, which sold only a dozen titles, all works (according to Baricco) of its most secret and beloved authors. Getting rid of hundreds of titles for which one feels more or less affection requires less altruism than getting rid of a handful of essential loves, those books without which (Pierre Menard would say) “the world would be poorer.” Of course, shortly after opening, Minerva’s Owl went bankrupt, but his memory survives among a few grateful readers.
I have met bookstores on all my trips: the smallest one, a table set under a coconut tree in the Cook Islands where I found a first edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery of the Roman Hat; the most exotic, in a market in Samarkand where I bought a small handwritten Koran with beautiful calligraphy; the most attractive, the Acqua Alta bookstore in Venice, a chaotic conglomerate in the most beautiful city in the world.
Perhaps the first booksellers were the Egyptian priests who sold copies of the Book of the Dead to the families of the deceased in their temples, to guide the soul to the afterlife.
Today, despite the harassment of Amazon and the coronavirus, the bookstores of this last chapter of my life have managed (until now) to survive. Adapting, reimagining, proposing new services, but always being that generous, discreet, wise, sometimes virtual presence that still accompanies me. I don’t want to talk about my favorite Spanish bookstores, because they are several and I don’t want to offend any of them. But in my other cities I have certain particularly beloved bookstores: the profession of reader authorizes polygamy. In Buenos Aires, the wonderful Guadalquivir bookstore, where the boss, Natalia Urueña, in a very small space, manages to expose inhalable titles defined by her exquisite taste. Guadalquivir has a website where, almost daily, titles are recommended by subject or editorial: I try to read as many as I can. When he lived in France, he mainly frequented two bookstores: Tschann in Paris, in the Montparnasse district, ceded by the former owner to her employees, who manage it efficiently and with good taste; and La Belle Adventure in Poitiers, founded by Christine Drugmont at the beginning of the millennium, to give the city of Foucault a cultural site where authors and readers can enter into continuous dialogue. La Belle Aventure then opened a section for children’s literature that turned out to be one of the best in France. In my book mapping, these three bookstores are marked with a gold star.
Perhaps the first booksellers were the Egyptian priests who sold copies of the Book of the Dead to the families of the deceased in their temples, to guide the soul on its journey to the afterlife. These priests are the ancestors of our booksellers, who, like them, offer us today, for a few coins, guides to strengthen our souls and to help us navigate with skill and courage this troublesome world of ours and also, if necessary, the one that will come. .
Alberto Manguel He is the author of A History of Reading and former director of the National Library of Argentina.