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Tea & Tattered Pages
My wife is French, and thus I often find myself in Paris visiting the in-laws. With so many obligatory places of interest in the City of Lights, it wasn’t until my third or fourth trip that we started exploring the endless marginalia that makes up Paris’ less obvious, but often more memorable attractions. These days instead of queuing for the Mona Lisa or suffering the hordes at the Notre Dame, I marvel at the improbable size of owl droppings at the Museum of Hunting and Nature, visit the small mansion of Marcel Proust’s friend, Moïse de Camondo, the Turkish-Jewish collector of 18th century art and furniture, or pop in to André Bissonnet’s music shop, a jaw-dropping menagerie of the most bizarre extinct instruments, as if plucked right from the brain of Dr. Seuss (and if you are lucky he will play them for you). I would never suggest going to any of these over the Louvre. Certainly not on one’s first trip to France. But honestly these tangential excursions linger longer in my memory.
In this light, I present to you the English-language bookstore, Tea & Tattered Pages. It is probably nowhere near where you are going, it might not have the book you are looking for, and if you are claustrophobic, allergic to cats, or have particularly rambunctious children in tow, this isn’t the place for you. Yet despite not being a top-tier destination, or the “best” English-language bookstore in Paris, it affords a shabby-charm that lingers, evoking a nostalgia for a time when most bookstores took on the character of their owners.
You might find this owner, a diminutive woman with high-waisted jeans, a formidable necklace atop a tucked-in turtleneck sweater, and a sonorous, gravelly voice, taking a drag from her cigarette at her computer, when you enter the tiny main room. The aisles are so narrow you could probably flare your arms and elbow both Auel and Zizek from opposite shelves. Despite the size of the place, every conceivable space is utilized. Books are everywhere in various states of wear, shoe-horned into shelves, amassed in piles by your feet, piled in plastic crates, mounded by the spiral staircase that leads to the store’s second room of books in the basement.
With a preponderance of used, mass-market fiction you probably won’t find that book by Aimee Bender or Steve Millhauser you were looking for. But, oddly, the individual books were less the point for me. It was the comfort of being surrounded by books en masse, as if being held by them in that tiny space, that compelled. When we visited we were the only ones there. Classical music wafted atop the dusty air as we made our way to the little tea room in back. Even here the place is stuffed with books. And from here you can while away the hours with the book of your choice, some English tea, a piece of fruit cake, and Ming Luong, the resident orange cat, who we found stretched out asleep on one of the chairs, half-hidden by the table cloth.
Tea and Tattered Pages is not a store you will come upon by chance but you can make a great literary day of it. I’d recommend starting at the Montparnasse cemetery, a far less-visited cemetery than Père Lachaise, but a place I return to every time I’m in Paris. It contains the graves of many of the great French writers—Baudelaire, Maupassant, Beauvoir and Sartre to name a few—and other étrangers just as formidable, from Beckett and Sontag to Ionesco and Julio Cortázar. After paying homage to your favorites (and hopefully a brief hello at Serge Gainsbourg’s resting place) have lunch at the nearby Crêperie de Josselin. Order the fixed-menu: a pitcher of hard apple cider, a savory buckwheat crepe filled with egg, cheese and ham, and a dessert crepe of chestnut caramel, and then walk it all off as you make the fifteen minute journey toward the calm, out-of-time atmosphere of Tea & Tattered Pages.
David Naimon is a writer, physician, and radio host of the literary program Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Missouri Review, StoryQuarterly, and ZYZZYVA, among others, and he was a 2009 fellow at the Tin House Writers Workshop. He is currently working on a co-authored novel that takes place in the arctic of the future with Ben Parzybok.