PARIS: On a bright and sunny Wednesday, we set out to see the catacombs– I should have guessed we wouldn’t be the only tourists heading over to Montparnasse for a glimpse of the deep macabre; problem was, we weren’t exactly expecting the line to literally reach around the block and number into the several hundreds. We had grinned and bore the hideous line at the Eiffel Tower and swore we would try our damnedest not to repeat that. Getting in this catacombs line would have been a direct slap in the face to our solemn promise, so instead we improvised. It could become my afternoon away from the boys; an afternoon stomping around the 14th arrondissement, Montparnasse. After a quick make-good trip to the closest playground to appease my disappointed 7-year-old son Jamie, I was on my way.
The first place I found myself was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, where I paid tribute to Simone de Beauvoir and her man JPS (did you know they were buried together?). Then I found Eugène Carrière, an artist, because I noticed he was there and we’re staying for six weeks on a block named after him. I said a quick hello to Ionesco, and then a longer one to Samuel Beckett (and his wife Suzanne, who died the same year he did) before making my way to section six to see Charles Baudelaire. I was most excited about this part of my pilgrimage, since I used to, for kicks, check out different translations of Les Fleurs du Mal and sit them up against the other to see the differences… okay, I did it once at 19). Unsurprising, I found two teen-aged boys sitting next to his family gravestone, who in their sweet and choppy English told me about how he hated his stepdad because his opinion had differed from his own about the military, but he had to be buried with him anyway. They asked me if I’d seen Serge Gainsbourg (I had) and on my way out, I found Marguerite Duras to say a quick “Thank You” for The Lover.
On to my next stop: another English bookstore called Tea and Tattered Pages (got made loads of fun for wanting to visit this one). Online, this teashoppe seemd to be a comfortable and bookish place to linger amongst fine company and hospitable cups of Earl Grey.
I walked a short ten minutes from the cemetery and found the store on Rue Mayet. On the outside, it’s cute and inviting—the exterior moldings are painted red, and labeled with a signage that recalls brightly painted shops in London. I walked in, and at once was stared at by the curmudgeonly shopkeeper behind the desk. “Wow, an English bookstore!” I said too enthusiastically, apparently. “There are lots of English bookstores in Paris,” she growled. “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Um, okay. I was feeling properly dressed down, and had quickly lost my taste for wading through her stacks of as-promised tattered pages, whose publication dates rarely moved beyond 1987. There was a laminated page of Pulitzer Prize winning books hanging up, but I didn’t see many as I scoped through the stacks which were heavy on mass market paperbacks.
To the immediate left of Ms. Meany’s desk hangs a sign that reads “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.” The second sign I saw, which hangs over the staircase leading to the crappy collection of paperbacks in the basement (Primal Scream 1 and Primal Scream 2 take their place in the forefront of the psychology section), was a sign that said “Please leave your bag at the front. And do not steal. Our prices are already cheap.”
About those prices… Ms. M explained to me that they were listed on the inside of the cover. I was casually looking for The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, because in a romantic moment my husband had told me that it was a beautiful small novel set in Normandy where we’d just come back from visiting. Plus, I loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The only copy I found was a tattered hardback for 7 euro; not bad, I figured. High for a used hardback in terrible shape, but for a relevant read in English I’d spring for it and downscale the next meal or something. After I’d moved my way through the store to pay to make my singular purchase, Ms. M opened up the jacket and told me that there had been a mistake. “The book should be marked 10 euro; I didn’t mark this. It should be 10 because it’s a hardback. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll pass.” I said, and made my way out into the sunshine, where I promptly dropped 10 euros on a lovely tea that I hadn’t been offered or, for that matter, anywhere in sight in the languishing den of hospitality, Tea and Tattered Pages.