Plein-air bookselling along the Seine (2010.12.2[Thu.])


This continues a thread started in the previous Library Column - I wrote of the bouquinistes open-air bookshops on the banks of the Seine, but it has to be admitted that for natural history books and plates, the area between Quai-Voltaire and Quai d'Orsay on the south bank has a better selection. The Left Bank indeed seems to have a greater total number of stalls as well. Perhaps this reflects the relative sizes of the tourist contingents in each spot. I discovered this for the first time as I gazed out the window at a reception on a river cruise during the meeting.

    Seen from afar, it looks like a relaxing and enjoyable way to make a living, but I'm sure it must be a tough business in reality. The shops open in the afternoon, and some days the owners doubtless need to keep their wares shaded from the sunlight, to protect them from fading. In any event, there are all types of venues, from crowded little stalls to neatly organized shops, and even a few outlets for bricks-and-mortar stores based elsewhere in the city. The feeling is a bit like that in Kobe's Chinatown, I suppose. I'd like to introduce one of the nicer of these sellers in particular.

    It's a lovely little shop (see Fig.) with heaps of natural history plates covering animal subects from insects and mollusks to various vertebrates. Inside, they have a number of attractive, gilt-lettered volumes of Buffon, advertised by a handwritten placard and selling for 50 euros each. My quarry is plates, which are wrapped, as is the norm, individually in protective vinyl bags, and organized in thick bundles by price, age, and subject matter. Some are even hung from the shop's ceiling. I could tell right away it was my kind of bouquiniste.

    I immediately began working my way through a number of the bundles, and carefully selecting a few distinct plates, then asked the owner of the price. Seeing my selections, she remarked, "I see monsieur enjoys coquillage (shellfish). I am sure I have a few more for you to look over..." She had a pleasant manner and charming interest in selling her wares, and going along with the moment, I replied in what French I have, "Yes, I am a zoologist from Japan, and I thought I'd look for a few plates of shells and barnacles for my wife." Thus our conversation began, and my own opportunity for a glimpse into the bookseller's world.

    The shopowner was an intense but kindly older woman, like a character straight out of a Studio Ghibli animation. She wore sunglasses and a constant smile, and had an uncompromising demeanor. She was such a disarmingly interesting character that I decided to take the opportunity to make an inquiry about something I'd been seeking for several years.
"Do you have the volumes from Buffon's Histoire Naturelle with invertebrates, such as insects or crustaceans, or if not, then those describing the fishes?"
The reason I was seeking these specific volumes was that when Buffon published his famous work of natural history, he issued an octavo edition for non-specialists in 1752 that only featured tetrapods and birds, which I'd heard still circulated in the Seine area, and had bought that whole set previously in Tokyo. My wife later assumed ownership of the set, which we jokingly called The Incomplete Buffon. I had asked about the missing volumes at a different bookseller in the past, but the old guy only said they might be buried in the shop's warehouse somewhere, or then again, might not.

    Unlike the primarily monochrome copperplates at this shop, the plates that decorate the entrance foyer to our home are mainly hand-colored, which may have been reflected in the price. Not long after these were published, in 1778, new volumes featuring other phyla appeared. In fact, the Buffon's Natural History published by Kosakusha1) is referred to as the Sonnini edition, which was completed by Laspede after Buffon's death, and features large, gorgeous colored plates. It goes without saying that it is simply unacceptable in our family to leave a set unfinished, and so I've been determined to locate the missing volumes for some time.

    The old woman told me what I already knew, that Buffon had first published a 50-volume edition focused only on mammals and birds, and had subsequently added new volumes on other types of animals.

When I explained my situations, she said with a jolly laugh, "What? You've got the mammals and birds and want to complete the collection? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find Buffon's Histoire? Once, I think it was in the mid-80s, I had a full set. I think I remember remember where they are. Ah, I'm selling them split up for 50 euros each, just over here. But I don't think it would be the kind of thing monsieur would have been interested in, no?"
    It was true. When I inspected them, they were text-only editions, suitable for placing on a bookshelf, perhaps, but little else. It seems that the complete Buffon isn't the must-have acquisitiion I'd thought it was, but it is still nonetheless a difficult find, akin to locating a full set of the journal Contributions to Embryology*1.
    "Perhaps monsieur is familiar with Cuvier's atlas of the fishes? Now that is a beautiful book... A book without equal."
Chatting with customers knowledgeable about natural history makes good business sense, I suppose, but how could I not know of Cuvier's atlas? 2)
"Yes, of course, with the crustaceans, mollusks and zoophytes (as many aquatic plants that resemble animals were once called) as well. My wife owns the 6-volume set. It is quite beautiful. They never made such beautiful plates again. I'd like to add vertebrates and insects - I don't suppose you have the atlas here, do you?" I replied.
"What, here? Who could I find to buy them?" she laughed.
    She was right, of course. While there are doubtless still people who might be interested in these books, it is unlikely that casual passersby would open their wallets to purchase them on a tourist's impulse. The shop doesn't take credit cards either, so one has to be careful in displaying the merchandise so that it doesn't become soiled. I myself wouldn't think of putting such a lovely book in an outdoor stall. Indeed, I would expect to find a Cuvier in the vicinity of Seine, and in any case, with her stock and network, I'm sure this old woman could find a better route to dispose of such works.
    Paris was hot and muggy that day, but I felt refreshed in entertaining my bibliomania. I asked her if it was all right to take her photo, and she removed her sunglasses (which French always do) and gave me a lovely smile. It's comforting to know that here in Paris, one can find such women, and men, with whom to share one's love of works of natural history.

1) "Buffon's Natural History - A full natural atlas and the roots of evolution" (from the popular edition and other select editions of the Histoire Naturelle (Sonnini ed.)) "Transl. by Naomi Becquerre. Kosakusha, 1991 *2.
2) Le R`gne Animal distribué d'apr`s son organization (1817-)*3

*1 This material is available in the CDB Library (some issues missing).
*2 This material is available in the CDB Library.
*3 t.1-t.4 are displayed in the CDB Old Book Collection.