Thursday, 29 January 2009

Librairie Osbourne

As long as I could remember, I spent every day at Librairie Osbourne, rue Saint-Jacques, situated behind the Sorbonne, under the watchful eye of Madame Bouchard until I could read, and after that I did not need watching, for I was always with a book. My uncle had opened his bookshop after he returned from England to sell English and Dutch books to a public that was beginning to look beyond its shores for its reading. Histories and natural sciences sold well, but it was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Manley's The New Atalantis, Congreve's The Way of the World and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera that made him money. The building had been an old bourgeois house, and as his business grew he expanded the shop from the former parlour into the sitting room, then into the kitchen and upstairs into the bedrooms, renovating room by room and installing tall bookshelves made of darkly stained oak. By some accident of the original site, every room was at a different level, so one clambered up or stomped down two or three steps to gain the next room. In the center of each room, if space permitted, he placed one or two tables: these were always covered by stacks of books, with more books piled up beneath. I made a home for myself under these tables, in little spaces between the book stacks where I could crawl out of sight, a parallel, hidden library of my own. We were infested by book beetles and silverfish, and I made it my job to squash with a tin spoon as many of these as I could find. Besides books, my uncle also sold pamphlets and notices, maps and almanacs, stationery, ink and sealing wax, and traded in curiosities and small antiques. In the rear of the shop, he had converted a stable to a printing house and bindery, where the compositor, pressmen, beaters and binders worked long days producing new editions. By the time I was eight, it had grown into a fairly prosperous enterprise employing fifty men and women, plus five factors who travelled outside Paris.

We lived on the fourth floor of this industrious building, in five rooms that my uncle had converted to a modest suite following the death of his young wife, after his own bachelor tastes, reached by separate entrance and a long flight of stairs. Uncle Adraste was an astute and meticulous business man, and was very careful in calculating his charges to his customers, so he was often up very early with his ledgers and accompts. After breakfast he would meet with authors or suppliers in a small office to the rear of the bookshop or in a nearby coffeehouse, and then return to look over the coffins of type laid up by the compositor. My uncle believed in universal education, but for me a liberal one not taught by Jesuits or Dominican nuns. Accordingly I spent most of the day in the bookshop reading the Musick of Pythagoras, the Astronomy of Ptolemy, the Arithmetick of Nichomachus, the Geometry of Euclid, the Divinity of Plato, the Logick of Aristotle, and the Mechanicks of Archimedes, first in French, then in English and finally in Latin. For the rest nothing was forbidden and I roamed widely in my reading as I grew high.

We had our trade clients: authors and playwrights like M. Biancolelli and M. Thomassin, whose work my uncle issued every few years; the occasional poet, and the scholars at the Sorbonne with their ponderous and convoluted ideas on the orgins of music or the history of the German Nations. They brought manuscripts and paper for the presses, their debts and their doughty wives demanding payment, their jealousies and suspicions of plaigiarism, which my uncle would smooth over with coffee and chocolate, and a thousand little compliments. We had our book buyers, the regulars and the curious, the dwellers who came in the morning and had to be swept out at night, amateur scholars with hobby-horses to ride, women with chores they wished to avoid, idle clergy and insolvent merchants. From my hidden vantage, I kept my eyes on known book thieves, like the Marquess of Tofino, whose voluminous skirts were lined with hidden pockets, or the Lieutenant Villiers who cut pages from books with a pocketknife. But in general I paid the customer as much attention as I did the clouds in the sky: they drifted above me busy with matters of their own.

For I was occupied that year with my own thoughts of the brilliant stage, of my new friend Marie-Thérèse, and with my father's playing cards, that I kept in the same mouse hole where I stashed favorite books and found baubles, that dark corner in the angle behind two cabinets. I studied his cards for months, for each picture was a window on a world as fascinating as the Comedie Italienne.

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