we headed for Bordeaux. Since we were staying on the outskirts, I took the bus downtown. The first thing I spotted was this giant column, supported by a spectacular chariot
guarded by this arrogant rooster.
If his name isn’t Napoleon it should be.
I started walking in the direction of the Mollat Bookstore that publisher Heloise D’Ormesson had recommended I visit (at 15 rue Vital-Carles). It’s the oldest independent bookstore in France, and one of the biggest. It’s been in business, in the same family, since the 1890s and it’s located on the site of the last house that philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu lived in. I found it easily enough. When I arrived I figured I’d try to meet the owner, Denis Mollat. Turned out he was due to show up in 45 minutes, so I asked where all the charming little dying-to-be photographed ‘libraries’ were at, and was told to visit a nearby side street. Here’s what I found:
This is no longer a bookshop, but the old sign’s still here so it counts. I love the lettering, and the colour of the paint.
The owner here wouldn’t let me take his photograph, but he did give me his latest catalogue.
Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.
The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.
She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.
I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.
He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.
Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,
the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation:
It was a tough trek. Way longer than I expected – from the American University of Paris to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore along the Seine. I was lugging my laptop too, and the books Daniel Medin had given me after our conversation about translation, plus this
Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Predictably I wasn’t on time for my interview with its editor, Krista Halverson. It wasn’t that I was winded, or, despite the heat, sweating too much; no, I was annoyed because I was unnecessarily late. Krista quickly shooed this funk away, assuring me that she hadn’t noticed, inviting me to join her for a beverage at the store’s adjacent cafe (there on the left, all dressed in white).
Yes, Shakespeare & Co. has its own cafe now! – a luxury that long-time owner George Whitman could only covet. The store, and cafe, are now owned by his daughter Sylvia – as in Beach – who I had hoped to interview. Unfortunately for me, she was off on maternity leave, nurturing the next generation of bibliophiles.
I ordered an espresso, Krista chose some sort of energizing berry-carrot concoction. Of course that’s what I should have had – being hot and tired and late and all. We moved to the outdoor patio to plot out how our conversation would go. Krista couldn’t finish her drink and offered me what remained – looked like half the glass. Perfect.
She showed me through the shop, which, thanks to various adjacent rooms and apartments coming on the market and being bought or rented at different times , really does
resemble a rabbit warren.
You need to pay attention to details if you want to get the full bookstore experience. Floor tiles
overhead signs, biblical
(City Lights in San Francisco is a sister store, and sports a Shakespeare &Co. sign above its door), and I really liked this window full of flowers
She told me to get off at the Monge metro station, her office was nearby. I envisioned traipsing around a bunch of back streets squinting at numbers on buildings, and being late for our rendez-vous. But no. I simply crossed the road, looked up at the street sign – and there it was
3 rue Rollin, rockin’ right in front of me. I’d arrived in plenty of time.
Héloïse d’Ormesson is the founder, with her companion Gilles Cohen Solal, of Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, a small but sturdy publishing house that attentively puts out 20 books a year. It’s now published more than 200. Here’s most of them
They greet you as you enter the office.
Héloïse invited me into her bureau where we talked generally about book publishing in France. Click here if you’d like to listen in:
Specifically, we dove into why so many editors become publishers, the late adoption of illustrated covers in France; are they readers or customers? the lack of good literary agents in France, Fixed Price policy and the importance of booksellers; Heloise’s heart and soul, her famous father Jean, books in the house at an early age, favourite bookstores, the new Jean d’Ormesson Award, every book is unique, hence there’s no set formula for success – and many other things.
We experimented with Airbnb in Prague, for the first time. It was an unmitigated success. A beautiful apartment, high ceilinged, modern fixtures, clean, close to two bookstores, across the road from a crazy restaurant/hotel,
around the corner from this wonderfully warped whatever
Among other things we talked about the great poets in From a Terrace in Prague and it functioning as a literary guide to the city; prolific surrealist poet Czech Vítězslav Nezval; the importance of reading and translation to the Czechs and Europeans, and famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. After the interview we made for Stephan’s local, and a couple of quick cold Pilsner Urquells, passing this statue of Czech poet Svatopluk Čech in the dark along the way.
Not surprisingly, Prague is shrouded in the Kafkaesque, filled with fascinating,
There’s the Kafka Museum situated upstairs, dark and mysterious, under a stooped roof, with its piss artists
complete with people picking coins out of its waters,
another English language bookstore close by, Shakespeare & Co. – not to be confused with its more illustrious Parisian namesake; the Mucha Museum, with the famed Czech Art Noveau artist’s Sarah Bernhardt theatre posters (yes, he also illustrated books) and, although I missed it, the not to be missed
Library at Strahov Monastery.
My other big Prague adventure involved tracking down a legend. A last minute decision to email his agent put me in touch with Ivan Klima’s son Michel who set up the meeting. Now, all I had to do was to get a hold of his memoir, My Crazy Century. Since it was too late to get anything from the publishers, and not stocked by any independent bookshops I’d visited, my last shot was to scour some second hand shops in Oxford, where we’d stopped prior to travelling to the Czech Republic. At the very ‘Last Bookshop’
I chanced upon it, yes: another biblio-coincidence. Downstairs in the biography section it was. Every book in this extraordinary shop was priced at three pounds. My lucky day.
Klima’s house is located on the outskirts of Prague, right across from a little forest, copse really. After getting off the tram, hiking up a winding road for about 10 minutes and asking several people for directions, I finally found the house. It had these plaques on it
Ivan’s wife greeted me at the door and led me upstairs to where I found Michel and his wife, and Ivan himself. The three of us then started to talk. Here’s the conversation:
Love and Garbage is Klima’s ‘best,’ and most popular novel. It probes the waste, dishonesty and hypocrisy found in authoritarian regimes, and examines the challenges that those inside experience trying to ‘live in truth’ and freedom. Other important authors connected with Prague include, Kafka, of course, who imposed his dark, tortured world-view on the city with depictions of helplessness in the face of aggressive, incomprehensible bureaucracy; Jan Neruda, whose Prague Tales (1877) about the tumultuous, loving lives of ordinary citizens, was very influential (he’s been called the Charles Dickens of Prague; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda adopted his name); Jaroslav Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a satire flagging the futility of war and stupidity of military authority; Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.