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Battle of The Bookshops: Abbey Bookshop in Paris

16th Oct 2012

Battle of The Bookshops: Abbey Bookshop in Paris

A welcome escape from the overkill of tourists, overpriced fondue and ‘chic’ prostitute prints, the bookshop sits in a quiet street behind an old church.

Fortunately the first thing you see when you edge hesitantly down the placid back street is the indication of books and lots of them!

Spilling outside the shop itself used comics and books are boxed into old wine crates. Next to these sits a small table and chairs balanced on the cobbles, inviting the more leisurely visitor for a quick cup of coffee and literary debate.

A fairylit stone arch marks the entrance and as one enters you are immediately struck by that smoky smell of musty paper reminiscent of churches, cellars and Blue Peter bring-and-buy sales.

The music is… medieval; the temperature… cool; the lighting… parchment yellow; the books… everywhere! Whether they be stacked high to the ceiling on mobile shelves, piled in at what first seems like random heaps on the floor, or towering over till in a semantic fort – this is a book shopper’s wet dream.

Old stone steps descend to the basement for the more ‘underground academics’ among us. Distinguished historians, philosophers, and psychologists this is your lair. Straight ahead is a path through the dense wordy forest lined by literary friends old and new.

Rickety old ladders are strategically placed like those found in the libraries at Hogwarts and admittedly I found myself waiting expectantly for an aged leathery elf to descend from the distant shelves.

Signs with haphazard arrows attempt to guide you around sections ranging from ‘new literature’ to ‘childrens’ to ‘voyages’ to ‘food and wine’ to ‘crime’ and so on. They have it all pretty much covered and continue to boast a special collection of Canadian literature.

The bookshop is actually a subsidiary of Toronto’s Abbey Bookshop and is the only bookshop outside Canada representing Canadian publishers.

It stocks over 35 000 titles, all English language bar a small collection written in French by French-Canadian authors. I visited the store when it was relatively quiet but still found myself slowed to a single-file circuit punctured with the occasional comical topple of books nudged by flustered customers so patience is key.

The staff are friendly, educated, loyal to their locals, and all I’m sure possess a photographic memory. Seriously, their book finding skills are almost otherworldly. And the dynamics of book browsing at Abbey Bookshop are rather unique too.

On the one hand it works as a totally conventional systematic bookshop. I witnessed customers entering the shop with a long list of prescribed books which were then plucked out of the chaos by the lovely Mateissa.

When talking to the serene Brian Spence, owner of the book store who opened shop in 1989, I came to realise that behind the romantic disarray was actually something “hyper-organized”.

Although the shop is constantly evolving with people coming in to sell their used books daily, there is, he outlined, a method in the madness.

The used books are used as dummies and if they sell well are bought in new. As a result there is a constant revival of stock and new titles are ordered both on request and through extensive research.

On the other hand the more mystical side of me can’t help but think something more providential is at play here. Before leaving for Paris I called on my knowledgeable Pa for some Parisian literature to get me in the mood.

The one book he insisted I read was Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, about the infamous Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

Lo and behold, the first book I laid my eyes upon as I started my peruse was the very same title, which I hurriedly yanked from the shelves.

Now, this doesn’t seem a huge coincidence as it’s a very popular book, especially in Paris and in a Parisian bookshop, but it was more the way it came about.

It’s almost as if the sheer density of books forces us to call upon our unconscious intuition in a desperate bid to find something recognisable and enables a kind of ‘serendipitous’ mode of book shopping.

Either way, however you choose to shop I challenge you book browsers to go to Abbey Bookshop and not find something you’ve been on the lookout for, because I’ve no doubt it will find you. Happy shopping.

Molly Harragin