The antiquarian book fair, a place for discovery and exchanges

An antiquarian book fair takes place once a year on the cour Mably, in the city centre of Bordeaux. Out of curiosity, I decided to visit it.
Second-hand books stalls on the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux.

As I walk towards the place where the event occurs, I don’t know what to expect there. I have no idea what this fair is about, nor who the exhibitors are.

A wide variety of books

When I step into the inner courtyard, I’m disappointed to see the place so empty. I must have arrived at an off-peak time. The pathway surrounding the courtyard hosts the stalls. They remind me of a second-hand shop, except that they only offer books, magazines, and comics.

While watching the environment, I walk down the alley where silence, sometimes interrupted by book sellers chatting with one another, reigns. The blond stones typical for Bordeaux form arcades that are both elegant and austere. The ancient cobbles give an historic look. In the backyard, I see a bell tower made of the same stone rising into the sky. I say to myself that the cour Mably is an ideal place to host a fair dedicated to old books.

The variety of periods and styles of books attracts me because I never know what I will stumble upon before getting closer to a stall. I notice on a table a pile of neatly stored Magazines Tintin, a weekly magazine. Their cover has yellowed and their paper seems fragile. They must date from the fifties. I leaf through one of them, hoping to find Tintin adventures I haven’t read yet, but the Belgian reporter is absent from the issue.

On a nearby stall, a large number of more recent books, dating from the 20th century though, line up. I see a huge book on which I read “Prussian art”. It’s so heavy that I have a hard time handling it, but I contemplate it with pleasure because it contains numerous large pictures of palaces of Potsdam.

Antiquarian bookseller: a rapidly-changing business

While walking on the alley, I decide to chat with one of the stall owners. I see one who is not talking to any visitors. His oldest work dates from the 17th century! It’s one of the first issues of Montaigne’s Essais, split into three small brown books. Their spines adorned with elegant designs are worn down, but I find their cover in good condition for their age. I wouldn’t have thought that they’re so old because they seem ordinary amongst the other books. Plus, I find their price reasonable. I open one of them and enjoy its smell, which makes it look even older than it is. I like to leaf through second-hand books because they smell different from new books.

One of the first issues of Montaigne's "Essais", from the 17th century.

Their owner, Luc Martin, is a bookseller who distributes only at fairs. Wouldn’t it be beneficial for him to sell on the Internet? He explains to me that he likes meeting buyers face to face. Moreover, he doesn’t own any physical bookshop because he can’t be present at the same time in a store and at fairs. While listening to him, I say to myself that his job is tough.

I feel closer to him when he says that his favorite genres, which are his domain, are adventure and travel books.

A bit further, I see a dynamic bookseller advising visitors, who are ever more numerous. According to him, the attendance of the antiquarian book fair dropped compared to last year, which doesn’t surprise me. The bookseller, Laurent Desrois, owns a physical bookshop in the city center of Bordeaux, where he offers works from the 16th century to the 20th century. When he says that there were 70 antiquarian booksellers in Bordeaux when he settled 28 years ago and adds that there are only 6 or 7 left today, I find, again, the job though.

Yet I find it clever to buy in second-hand bookshops because it’s less expensive and reduces the amount of waste. However, I rarely buy second-hand books. First because most of my books are present. Then, because when I have a clear idea about what I’m looking for, buying new is quicker. According to Laurent Desrois, many people aged between 25 and 35 don’t read anymore, which would explain the challenges encountered by antiquarian booksellers.

I’m only partly surprised to hear him say that. I believe that people who grew up with the Internet find it hard to read because there is a lot of content online, and because it’s more tempting to watch videos on a smartphone than opening a book. A documentary by a literature youtuber confirms that.

Even though I read only 5 to 10 books per year, I always have something to read. And I started to enjoy reading 2 years ago, even though it’s always an effort. It’s only after 10 to 15 tasteless minutes where I lack concentration that reading becomes a delightful moment. That’s why I try to set aside 30 minutes to read, most of the time before going to bed.

Moreover, I believe that, for reading to be rewarding, it’s key to search for books and to stay curious. What I mean by that is that you have to find works that you like. By reading book reviews and chatting with my relatives, I broaden my horizons and find books that are worth it. For example, I discovered The age of innocence, an historic novel by Edith Wharton, about New-York’s high society from the late 19th century, in a generalist magazine.

I step in a room in front of the courtyard where I find many more stalls. And then I notice shelves next to me where books are neatly stored. I stare at a red book in good condition. It’s the first issue, dating from 1926, of Makhno et sa juive by Joseph Kessel. I enjoy his historical books and adventure novels, but I’ve never read this one.

On the same shelf, I read on a small plastic card “Humanist bible” and “1498”. Next to it, I don’t see any books.

I go and meet the bookseller. The bible was his oldest work, an incunabulum. This word, coming from Latin “incunabula”, which means cradle, names a printed book aging from before 1500, the first years after the invention of the printing press. I imagine that searching for such an old book was difficult but rewarding.

The stall owner, Jean-Luc Boisseau, sells at fairs and online, on AbeBooks. He adds that he only offers a hundred books for sale online because adding pictures and writing descriptions take a lot of time. Plus, he prefers to meet buyers in real life, like Luc Martin. Jean-Luc Boisseau believes that the profession of bookselling will remain but must adapt to the rise of the Internet. 

At the antiquarian book fair of Bordeaux, the first release of Joseph Kessel's book "Makhno et sa juive".

Meeting an author conveying the memory

Then, I walk through the room, where I see only a few young persons. The fair doesn’t seem attractive for people my age, and this disappoints me. Most of the attendees must be over 50 years old.

At the back, I notice on a small table several copies of a book. I get closer as I read the word “Harki” on the cover. A smiling man is sitting behind the table:

– “Do you know what ‘Harki’ means?

– Yes.

He seems pleasantly surprised:

– Where did you learn about it? At school?

– I don’t know… No, it must not have been at school. I know what it means because I’m interested in History.”

The author, named Michel Messahel, is the sitting man. He is enthusiastic to chat with a young person who shows interest in the topic of his book. The latter tells the story of his father, a Harki, which means an Algerian being part of the supplementary soldiers enrolled in the French army during the Algerian War. The Harkis served in Harkas, a term coming from the Arabic word haraka which means “movement.” A Harka designates a militia troop raised by a political or religious authority. Like many other Harkis, his father had to flee to France at the end of the war. 

I learn from Michel Messahel that a tribute day paid to the Harkis was created in 2001. However, it seems to me like very few people from my age, or younger than me, know about their story. To write his book, the author spent a lot of time searching for living witnesses from this period and interviewing them. 14 years elapsed between the beginning of his work and the release of the 3rd issue. I’m impressed by his determination to convey the memory.

I go back to the courtyard, then scan the tables filled with books before leaving.

And you, what does reading mean to you? Where do you buy your books? 

Share your thoughts in the comments!

The antiquarian book fair takes place at cour Mably, every year. It’s one of the two fairs organized each year in Bordeaux by the association Amis du livre ancien et moderne (ALAM). The other fair takes place in the Chartrons district. I would be glad to meet you personally at the next fairs, probably at the end of 2023 and beginning of 2024.

Learn more about the work of the people I met on the fair:

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