Paris has it all. (Part one…)

My first ever overseas trip was a school exchange trip – to live with a German family in the town of Arnsberg in what was, at the time, West Germany. I was fourteen years old and although I was initially homesick and found actual spoken German, rather than school boy German, difficult to understand – in the end I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and became well and truly bitten by the travel bug.

Since then I have travelled all over Europe, the UK, the Mediterranean area including a couple of north African countries, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, a few of the Pacific Islands, The USA, Canada and Mexico. I don’t have heaps of money so usually this means travelling on a tight budget – even backpacking and hitch hiking. Naturally I have my favourite places – places I would willingly return to time and time again. In general I try to avoid some of the busiest cities – countries capitals – BUT I must admit to having a love affair with the French capital Paris.

Getting an eyeful of the Eifel Tower

For me, Paris has everything. My passions are writing, photography, art, travel – not to mention good wine and rich strong coffee. Paris offers up all these and more. It’s been a magnet for writers and artists, connoisseurs of fine wines and foods, travellers, poets and of course, being the city of romance – lovers. 

All the best writers of old had lived and written in Paris – F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to name but two. Of course France produced many famous writers of its own including Proust, Dumas, Flaubert, Sartre and we can’t miss out Voltaire. Paris was and is still a breeding ground for literature, philosophy, art, fashion and new ideas of all kinds

I have only visited Paris once, for a week, back in 2016, but I am smitten. We stayed in a small AirBnB apartment in the 17th arrondissment. It was basic, but clean and tidy and served our needs – and being in the 17th it was far enough off the tourist track for us to be away from most of the hustle and bustle. By this time, we had been on the road for about four months, so had become adept at living on a budget and sourcing and cooking our own food – although we did indulge ourselves in the cafes and patisseries. Who can resist French pastries? 
We had started our journey in early July of 2016, setting off from New Zealand with our backpacks and romantic ideas of travel. By the time we reached Berlin at the end of August, any ideas that travelling with backpacks was romantic had been kicked into touch and our packs had been swapped for suitcases with wheels – why carry when you can wheel? Paris was our last stop in mainland europe before catching the Eurostar train under the English channel to England. Despite having lived in England for my first almost 30 years of life I had avoided visiting France. Now because of my interest of writing and books, and having recently seen the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” I was quite keen to visit the “City of Lights”…..and track down some of the places that the movie was filmed.
 
We did a lot of the things on most tourists lists – went to see the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, Sacre Coeur, the museums and galleries, visited Printemps the big department store – partly to shop for a berret (the wife is so cliched) but also to visit the rooftop cafe which has some of the best views of Paris over the rooftops. The only downside was that on the day we went up to the roof it was overcast so Paris was not photographed at her best. However, what we enjoyed the most was just meandering through the streets and alleyways particularly around Montmartre – visiting the cemeteries and the final resting places of the famous (including writers – Proust and Wilde and composers Bizet and Chopin…and Jim Morrison of the Doors) and of course strolling the left bank of the Seine – perusing the wares of the book sellers lining the bank. Or simply enjoying a coffee in a cafe and watching the world rush by.

One of my highlights was visiting Shakespeare & Company book shop (twice). What an awesome book shop. A warren of rooms, packed bookshelves, books piled in every space, little sayings and quotes printed on the walls and stairs, and of course just breathing in the history of the place. The building used to be part of a 17th century monastery, although this particular shop was only opened in the 1950’s. Many famous writers, actors and artists have graced its rooms – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were some of the first. As an english language book shop in the heart of Paris, it became a haven for American and British ex-pats. Some have even slept there amongst the books, early in their careers (such as Ethan Hawke and Geoffrey Rush) or when down on their luck. From day one owner George Whitman encouraged writers and artists to seek shelter in his shop – a place to sleep and eat a meagre meal, in exchange for a couple of hours of work (and they also had to write a short bio and promise to read a book a day while living there). It’s been estimated that over 30,000 people, over the years the shop has been in business, have taken up the offer of food and shelter. It’s been owned by the same family throughout. Opened by George Whitman in 1951 (originally under the name of Le Mistral) and run either by him or under his watchful eye until he died in 2011 aged 98. His daughter Sylvia – named after Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919 on rue de l’Odeon – took over management of the shop in 2006. In 1964 on Shakespeare’s 4ooth birthday, and with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, the name of the shop was changed to what it is today – Shakespeare & Company. On my first visit, to the shop, I bought “My Brain on Fire” by Leonard Pitt – about his experiences living in Paris as a young man. Of his struggles to become a writer, living in a garret – naturally – and his mishaps in romance. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and read it before leaving Paris, it was so enthralling. I was lucky enough to get a signed copy.

On my second visit a few days later I bought the book about the shop – “Shakespeare & Company Paris” and subtitled “A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”. It’s been compiled partly from George Whitman’s notes and letters and partly by the many many people who have lived and worked in the shop over the years. It has photos, notes, receipts, short biographies and notices throughout its pages – edited by Krista Halverson – it’s a delightful book to own and to read. It gives a real understanding of life in the shop – bedbugs and all – and provides a window into the eccentricity of an interesting, passionate and complex man who’s dream and life this shop became. It is available from the many on-line retailers but my advice would be to go to the shop yourself, pick up a copy and absorb some of that magical atmosphere.

The two books purchased from Shakespeare & Co.

Part two to follow soon…….

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You never know what you’ll find…

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Second hand shops (not second hand Book Shops) can be a treasure trove of old books. Second hand Book Store owners tend to know their stuff and price their books accordingly, where as general second hand shop keepers are not always as well versed in the value of old books that pass through their hands.

I have amassed books, as opposed to “collected” books in the past. I select books that I like the look of the cover or the review or subject matter or author and I tend to rarely throw any of them away…..even the bad ones.

That was until I read a book called “A Pound of Paper” – (subtitled Confessions of a Book Addict) by Australian author John Baxter. It chronicles his book entwined life. How he became a writer – in his teens…as a protest to poorly written Sci-Fi stories in a magazine – and how, via working in the book trade he became a collector of books…..initially by Graham Greene. His collection is now a vast library of first editions and author signed books – probably worth thousands of dollars.

His work took him from Australia to the UK and the USA, but he now lives with his French wife, in Paris, on Rue de l’Odeon – in the same building once occupied by Sylvia Beach – owner of the original Shakespeare & Company book store. The building is steeped in literary history, having been visited by Gloria Steine, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to name but a few of the famous literary figures to have graced its halls.

John has written biographies about famous movie stars and directors including Woody Allen and Robert de Niro, but these days tends to write books about the love of his life….the City of Paris and it’s literary history. Indeed John also conducts walking tours of his favourite literary haunts in Paris – the tours ending at his apartment building where guests are invited upstairs for lunch and can view his vast collection of books.

To get an idea of Johns depth of knowledge about Paris and the famous writers who have lived and worked there I suggest reading either of his books “The most beautiful walk in the World” or “Five Nights in Paris” – a book about Paris after dark. These are just two of John’s books about Paris…there are many more.

It’s only a few months ago that I read my first John Baxter book – “A pound of paper” – which I thought was a very well written, knowledgeable book about books, the book trade and book collecting. He’s very easy to read and his writing flows in such a way that before you know it you’ve finished the book….and are looking for his next one. I’ve since read three others and am eager for more. He’s a treat to read.

It is his passion for collecting books that made me look more carefully at the books that I buy…..and to look for bargain investments in second hand shops. Just this month I acquired – a 3 volume set of Finden’s Illustrations of Lord Byron’s Life & Works. Vol 1 and 2 printed in 1833 and vol 3 in 1834 – for the princely sum of NZ$15. On checking on AbeBooks.com the same books are currently selling for between US$250 and US$500. Although it is tempting, I won’t be selling the books, but will take my time in reading them and then who knows…they may be the first books in my “serious” book collection.

As I said, you never know what you’ll find in second hand shops. Happy hunting!