Meeting booksellers at the antiquarian book fair

Every year, the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux gathers about 20 booksellers. During the 2024 edition, I talked with some of them about their activity. I also discovered surprising publications on the tables.
Shops displayed on a table at the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux.

I decided to come back to the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux because I had enjoyed the previous edition. The cour Mably, an old stylish place of the city centre, had amazed me. Several ancient and rare publications had astonished me. Finally, the encounters with the booksellers and an author had enriched me.

This year, will the same booksellers be there? What brought them to do this job? Which original works will I find?

Texts in unexpected formats

On this Saturday afternoon, the weather is beautiful. I come into the grand vestibule. I contemplate inscriptions engraved in a marble slab fixed on the light stone that trace the history of the place and explain its various functions over the centuries. As I walk on the smooth ground made of cut stones, I notice boxes full of books at the back.

I reach the alley that surrounds the inner courtyard. I immediately see faces that I know from last year. As I pass by them, I feel the cold on my hand and face. It must be less than 5 °C and the sun, hidden behind the beautiful arcades, can’t warm me. I will have to move to not get a cold.

Then, I see a wall that marks the end of the alley. The stall owner is there, talking with a visitor. Their noises break the silence. While waiting to talk to him, I contemplate the aligned on the U-shaped tables. They form a diverse mass as the colour of their edges is varied. The pocket books are white, the large illustrated publications are black, and the books aged of several decades are brown.

I suddenly notice newspapers. The bookseller, who has finished talking to the visitor, explains that he found them during an inheritance: “They were folded, as if they just left the printer.”

The thin paper slips under my fingers. When I notice the date on of the one newspapers, Sunday, September 5 1897, it feels like the time stopped. I take it as a picture of its age. Its front page, illustrated with a coloured drawing, is elegant. It shows two heads of state, wearing civilian and military dress, inside a car pulled by horses. In the back, I notice French flags. The caption says “The President of the Republic in Russia.” The man wearing a military uniform must be tsar Nicolas II. However, I don’t the name of the French president, nor the purpose of its visit.

The newspaper Le Petit Journal for September 5, 1897

A few meters away, there are recent pocket books in wine boxes. One of them, written by Jacques Attali, catches my eye. I read several publications by this author, but not this one, the voluminous Dictionnaire Amoureux du Judaïsme. I decide not to buy it. On one side, because it’s not the purpose of my visit on the fair. On the other side, because the publications by Jacques Attali don’t interest me as much as they used to. I now prefer novels over essays.

I enter the capitular room that adjoins the cour Mably to keep myself warm during the exploration. Next to the entrance, there is a man standing in front of tables covered with books. He seems to be in his 20s, which makes me want to know more about his story.

  • “Where does your passion for books come from?
  • I chose this profession because I enjoyed accompanying relatives who visited fairs to buy. I’m not a great reader. What’s attracted me since I was a kid are books as objects.”

The bookseller, Simon Elgrishi, reminds me of Thierry, the owner of the second-hand shop Au Dénicheur, who is also passionate about old objects.

  • “What’s your favorite period?
  • Around 1920. The time between 1880 and 1950 interests me, and my favorite period goes from 1900 to 1920.

The beginning of the 20th century also interests me. I think about one of my favorite books, All Quiet on the Western Front, which was published during the inter-war period. I devoured it as I was a young teenager and sometimes read some of its pages. I used to love books when I was younger, but this activity didn’t interest me much during several years. 3 years ago, I started reading more often. However, I’ve always enjoyed having a bookshelf. In my current flat, this presence appeases me. Plus, organising it from time to time satisfies and calms me.

I think that Simon Elgrishi is brave to go down this career path. He relies on the Internet, as books are some of the most online sold products, and it’s possible for buyers to find all types of objects there. What’s more, he decided not to own any physical shop. A rent would be an unnecessary expense. This strategy seems relevant to me, but it must take huge communication efforts to differentiate oneself in a market with thousands of online merchants.

I suddenly see handwritten letters in a binder with transparent enclosures. It’s difficult to decrypt the words written with a fountain pain. I then notice an explanatory text that says it’s a letter of apology from the end of the 19th century, written by a man for someone he offended. I’m astonished to read these lines written about 150 years ago by an ordinary person. They have no literary value, but, like the newspapers, are the witnesses of a past time.

“Sir, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to apologise for my foolish behaviour for a very long time now.”

By bringing my eyes closer, I manage to decrypt the first few words. The style brings me back 100 years ago. I give up reading, as it would take me too much time. This document still allows me to jump in the private life of these people. It’s difficult to be more authentic!

Handwritten letter from the 19th century displayed at the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux.

Talking with lovers of literature

The organiser of the fair, Jean-Michel Andrault from the association ALAM (Friends of the Ancient and Recent Book) is here. I don’t hesitate to talk to him.

The retired man has read since his childhood. When he was about 50, his interest for antiquarian books developed: “I thought that the book was an object link to a certain period, and that it wasn’t uninteresting to read for example Persian Letters by Montesquieu in an old version. Not necessarily the original issue, because it’s extremely rare and expensive, but one that a man of the Enlightenment could have held in his hand. The paper, the typography and the biding are different.”

Despite my appeal for physical books, I’m not much interested by old publications. However, his sharing of experience makes me want to know more.

“The first antiquarian book I bought was The Age of Louis XIV, by Voltaire. The object is from 1752, and the original issue was published in 1751. I bought it at a fair price of 1000F, which is lower than 150€. For one of the first issues of one of Voltaire’s greatest texts…”

As I hear him tell about this bargain, I say to myself that his passion is speaking. He adds: “Plus, it’s one of the only versions that contains a letter by Frederick II.” This detail triggers my curiosity, because it reminds me of my visits of Potsdam, where the philosophe lived, at the court of the King of Prussia. “In this letter of about 15 lines, he told the writer that he hoped he recovered from his health issues related to scurvy and that, even though his style was unassailable, some of his ideas could be dangerous.”

This description makes me want to read the letter. As it’s in old French, I think it would be difficult to understand it.

After this first purchase, Jean-Michel Andrault developed the habit to talk with old booksellers and to acquire their objects. That’s how his interest for the history of the books raised.

Then, I see a large number of art books carefully displayed on an exhibitor’s tables. I glance at the front pages, hoping to find one with photographs of Brassaï. His black and white pictures about the Parisian nightlife fascinate me. Why not buying myself a compilation of his work, that would throne at a good place on my bookshelf?

All of a sudden, I see a tall man coming to meet me. Unlike other merchants, he presents his products to me and asks if I’m looking for a specific book. He must be a salesperson. After all, I’m on a fair, and the exhibitors are here to find clients. I tell him that I’ll write an article on this event and add that I don’t think I’ll buy anything. He works as a cultural delegate at the publisher Citadelle & Mazenod that specialises in art books. While listening to him telling me about his collections, I stare at the large appealing publications and imagine them on the bookshelf of a cosy apartment. The main works of each artists illustrate them. I notice one about Edward Hopper. His cover is a painting of a woman waiting in from of an urban house. It evokes to me New York City in the 1950s. The publishing house hasn’t published any books dedicated to Brassaï. Therefore, I decide to move to the next stand.

The bookseller standing there is Michel Marcillaud, owner of the bookshop M. de B. in Bergerac:

  • “Where does your passion for books come from?
  • When I was 10 years old, my mother bought me a book about ancient Egypt. I didn’t stop reading it. My passion for egyptology started there. I have been 7 times in this country. I also love 20th century-literature.
  • Who is your favorite author?
  • My top 5 is Marcel Proust, Céline, Julien Gracq, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean d’Ormesson.”

The 20th century is also my favorite period, but I haven’t read any of these writers’ books. However, I believe I studied a text by Blaise Cendrars during a French class in high school. I feel deception as missed these famous writers. The enthusiasm of Michel Marcillaud reinforces this feeling. For example, he says with confidence: “Jean d’Ormesson is going to become a classical author.” He affirms this quickly, with a happy face. Literature and books must take a large role in his life.

His bookseller activity was a Sunday hobby. It became a full-time activity when he retired. I feel admiration for the 78-year-old man. On one side, because he lives his passion. On the other side, because he seems very busy for his age. He indicates with a smile on his face: “I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.”

The room is full with visitors who had the same instinct as myself: keep warm indoors. I take a look outside through the door glass. There are few people under the arcades. Most of the visitors look more like onlookers than collectors. I imagine that they expect to be surprised by a nice object.

About this, Jean-Michel Arnault finds that one of the advantages of antiquarian book fairs and second-hand shops is the opportunity to buy old releases at descent prices: “For example, you can for find the 1st commercial release of a remarkable novel by the Duchess of Duras, Ourika, published in 1824 with a printed cover considered as new, on the table of a bookseller at Quinconces, for 10€.”

I had never heard about this work. “She had an exceptional writing and tackled very marginal topics for her time’s social norms. Ourika is an autobiographical story of a slave, who existed for real and who was raised like an aristocratic family’s child. She fell in love with the son of a family from the same milieu, which caused issues. She ended up in the convent. The real original release was produced in about 25 copies, and shortly after she was advised to publish it. There were maybe 8 000 or 10 000 copies, which was huge at that time.”

I imagine aristocrats in a luxurious living room, holding a book and talking with the author.

At the back of the room, I notice a large tag hung on a publication which says “incunabulum.” This book with a banal cover actually dates from shortly after the invention of the printing press, over 500 years ago. What a surprise to find it her, placed on a shelf and open to everybody’s eyes!

With care, I open it and leaf the dense pages through. As I touch them, I think that the moment is solemn because very few copies of this book exist. I put it back as I can’t understand the text written in Latin. However, the thick and elegant typography fascinates me.

Who can buy this object? Maybe someone who wants to possess a rare object or a specialist of the 15th century. This period interests me as it marks the transition between Middle Age and Renaissance. I think about a trip to Granada, taken by Christians in 1492, and about another on to Florence.

Book by Johann Herolt dated from 1497 at the antiquarian book fair in Bordeaux.

The presence of this incunabulum shows how diverse the objects are. The place is an historical Ali Baba’s cave containing objects from the 15th century as well as from the 21th century. The fair thus offers a good environment to deep dive into distinct periods. Moreover, the objects say a lot about their time. For example, the letters from the end of the 19th century remind that this way of communicating was widespread back then.

How does the fair evolve year after year?

I leave again under the arcades of the courtyard where the cold and the silence welcome me. The setting sun indicates that the fair is going to close soon. I follow the majestuous walls that boards the books. Two merchants are talking to each others.

Then, I see the bookseller Antoine Fleury, who is a recognised specialist of books by Jules Verne. Jean-Michel Andrault told me about his. Every exhibitor has a speciality.

Then, I head towards the beautiful books I saw when I arrived, next to the entrance. The majority of them are large-size illustrated publications about bucolic publications or famous artists. I admire the covers one after the other. The merchant doesn’t offer me advice, like a seller in a shop would do. This gives me time to watch and educate myself. Like in a museum.

Despite these appeals, the fair brings fewer visitors than at its beginning. Plus, the booksellers tend to come from not as far away as before. Jean-Michel Andrault thinks that the Internet contributed to this evolution. He adds that the one who are doing best sell both online and physically. I think that the attendance drop is also due to the need for immediacy of our time. It’s easier and quicker to find a book on the Internet than to take the time to wander and be surprised. I myself rarely go to bookshops whereas I appreciate visiting them without having a clear shopping idea in mind. This is because I go to libraries mainly to buy a specific publication, and because I first want to read the one on my bookshelf that I haven’t started. This fair offers me a different experience in a place dedicated to written texts.

However, Jean-Michel Andrault says with a smile: “It’s the 17th edition, which is not too bad. The booksellers come back every year.” For Simon Elgrishi, this fair was his first time. It’s the opportunity for him to find new clients he can send his catalogue to. Moreover, Michel Marcillaud is convinced that a young antiquarian bookseller can make a living out of this activity, as long as he loves literature and is curious.

As I leave the place, I say to myself that I spent the afternoon in a beautiful site, surrounded by objects that are a source of wonder. I hope that next year I’ll meet again all the booksellers I saw today.

The association ALAM organises every year in October, in the Chartrons district, the Antiquarian and modern book far, and in January, in the cour Mably, the Antiquarian book fair.

I thank all the people I interviewed:

  • Simon Elgrishi from the bookshop Makaira in Périgny
  • Michel Marcillaud from the bookshop M. de B. in Bergerac
  • Pascal Mesrine, cultural delegate at the publishing house Citadelles & Mazenod
  • Jean-Michel Andrault and Jean-Pierre Bordes from the association ALAM

And you, where do you buy your books? Would you be interested in attending the next antiquarian book fair?

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