Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Paper Peddler

Our nose can lead us to many places.  Some people fall in love with the intoxicating potential of a perfume or cologne, others are led by scents capable of filling their stomachs.  And then there are those possessing noses that hide silently behind the spine of an object laced with the scent of ink. Books.

I’m not certain when or how it happened, but over the last few years I’ve developed a habit.  I visit independent book shops.  In the beginning, it was by accident that I would stumble upon these pint sized gems, but over time, I began to search their existence.  My fascination isn’t only with books, it’s the souls that choose to make book peddling a full time job.

Rodney’s store is called The Fine Bookshop.  It was an accident I tripped over while meandering around a cobblestone pedestrian street in Palma de Mallorca.  Entering the open doorway, I noticed a disheveled man with wild grey hair and metal rimmed spectacles perched behind a desk engrossed in a football game being played on a black and white, palm sized TV.  His attire seemed to mimic his hair, washed in shades of pale grey.  The button down shirt only made half an effort to be tucked in and his trousers looked like they would run in fear if an iron ever graced their presence.  This man was beautiful, although his greeting wasn’t exactly warm.  Moving past Rodney, I noticed scattered haphazardly various pieces of framed art and maps, vintage phones, typewriters, and globes older than Rodney.  All of these fragments, combined with his collection of rare and used books left me intrigued.  I wanted to leave with a remnant of this labyrinth; so I asked if he had any books by Robert Graves, a poet who lived and died in Mallorca.  With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he showed me the way.  As we passed stacks of books, challenging me in height, Rodney snickered to himself, recalling the times he would drink with the author. This wasn’t difficult to imagine.  I could easily see him swigging a shot with classics like Graves, as much as I could see him partying with the likes of Bill Wyman. There’s just something that screams he’s “been there, done that”.  No questions asked. Telling him I was on a budget that compared to his palm sized TV, he handed me a tattered parchment colored hardback that was a first edition of poems.  It was so small, I could fit it in my back pocket.  Not unlike the bookshop and its owner, my new book wasn’t perfectly intact, it too appeared to have stories that stretched beyond the coffee stained cover.  I loved the tangible element I could take with me of the whimsical disheveled mess I’d stumbled upon in Palma.  Both Rodney and his collection affirmed that the world of independent bookshops are wondrous and filled with elements a Kindle could only dream of, a heartbeat along with ink stained pages. 

Recently, while in the south France, my fascination with independent bookshops brought me to three different locations.  I sipped cappuccino while thumbing through books in a wonderful two story shop, Bar in Book while in Aix en Provence.  The owner, along with her employees were welcoming and accommodating.  After purchasing my new book companion, I found myself running back inside to ask the owner if I could snap her picture.  Like a proud mother hen, she insisted to be photographed with all her prized employees.  Next on the list was a jewel of a town called Valbonne, where I found myself in a quaint shop called The English Book Centre.  The space was the size of a Texas walk in closet (which also happens to be where the owner is from, Texas, not a closet).  What it lacked in space, it made up with in charm.  Like a refreshing Mint Julep on a hot summer day, these two shops offered a cool dose to quench my thirst for knowledge. 

But the third was the best surprise.  The store’s location is known more for the percentage of billionaires, than books.  Glitzy, glamorous Monaco.  American, Siri Khalsa had the fresh glow that normally accompanies mothers of a newborn. Her newest addition won’t be wearing milk stained bibs or babbling words from lips.  Siri’s newest addition is the Book Boutique of Monaco (also known as BOMO). Before stepping in the doorway, I knew this store was going to be different from all the others.  And I was right.

Most independent book shops ooze with old world charm, like Shakespeare and Company in Paris.  These places pride themselves, rightfully so, not only on their collection of books, but the architectural space their books call home.  Many shops in Europe are housed in buildings predating the French Revolution.  With the exception of books, Siri’s boutique lacked most of the qualities found in the other independent stores.  Not unlike the owner, the shop exudes grace.

Walking up to the structure, you're struck by the glistening windows and the fresh streamlined blue and white logo hanging over the entrance.  No lopsided signs here, nor was there a book out of place or dust among the pages. The space didn’t scream old world, more like it whispered with a crisp, confident sense of clarity, “I’m here, therefore I am”.  Like a new born baby, all it needed to do was lie still and allow others to inhale its natural beauty.  The snugly corner location offers plenty of light filled windows.  The space feels smart, yet accessible.  Nearly a quarter of the store is dedicated to the future readers of the world, children.  I enjoyed watching my five year old dash for the playful tent filled with puppets, while her older sisters reminisced about their favorite childhood books and their dad and I perused the shelves.
Before leaving, I pulled a book from Siri’s suggested title shelf by an unfamiliar author. With a genuine smile she treated me to a tutorial that rivaled a mini university lecture, a sneak preview of why she admired the woman I would soon explore on my own. Siri was a beautiful reminder of the wisdom and wonders that can only transpire by walking through the doorway of an independent book store.  The books are brilliant, but the heartbeats that glow within are the real classics.

And for those who read my last article, “Turning Lemons into Oranges”, Falling in Honey by Jennifer Barclay was just as delicious as the title! 

Long live the book peddler, and their followers…

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Turning Lemons into Oranges

A few months ago, our family booked a dream vacation to the tiny Greek island of Santorini.  It was surreal to imagine what I had always admired in the glossy pages of a magazine would become a reality. We found a chartered flight on Condor Airlines from Brussels, booked a traditional white cave residence and had our car rental reserved.  I even ordered a wonderful book about a woman that travels and decides to stay in Greece, Falling in Honey.  My book arrived three weeks before our scheduled departure, the same day we received an email from Condor Airlines.  Apparently they had not only changed our travel dates, but also the final destination had been changed to Crete.  We were told our option was to cancel and receive a full refund or go with their changes and find our own transportation from Crete to Santorini (a seven hour ferry).  We chose to cancel, not because Crete wouldn’t have been wonderful, I’m certain it is, but because Crete wasn’t the dream, nor was the seven hour ferry crossing.  The book’s title seemed to mock the situation.  Like the gooey offerings from a bee, this vacation was becoming a sticky mess.  The Condor reservation agent said this change was rare, but it didn’t feel like a rarity when it happened to us.  I took this as a proverbial Greek sign…the Gods were not ready for our family to descend upon the Greek Isles.   With only three weeks until our vacation, it was time to find an alternative.  Goodbye Santorini.

I found myself rummaging madly through the library’s travel books, asking neighbors for suggestions, all while listening to our four daughters’ opinions.  Our family of six agreed on one thing, it must be sunny and warm. It’s an odd problem to have when our location in Belgium gives us such rich access to so many wonderful destinations, most at reasonable costs.  We looked seriously at the three M’s:  Madeira, Morocco, and Malta; but after much thought, my husband and I agreed, they just didn’t feel right for this vacation.  While it was important (especially for our girls) to be in a location that offered warm doses of sunshine, it was just as important to their dad and I to be in a place that was easy.  We didn’t want this vacation to be full of logistics and timetables.  We wanted to relax, which is why we decided to go back to a place where we found both relaxation and discovery.  

We traded our Greek lemons for the orange orchards of Provence.  And it feels right.  We not only found a beautiful house that is walking distance to a cafe, bar, and morning newspaper, but also has a pool for the girls.  For nine lovely days we’re staying minutes outside the perfume capital of the world.  Grasse, France. 
We’re a quick 15km from Cannes, where we’ll get a sneak peek at where glitz and glamour will unfold in May, as the Hollywood star studded Cannes Film Festival will descend weeks after our departure.  And with Nice also a short drive, we’ll catch a Saturday football match at the Allianz Riviera Stadium and enjoy the visual eye feast of walking along the Promenade des Anglais.  A few other adventures planned, include a trip to Aix en Provence to trace the footsteps of C├ęzanne and M.F.K. Fisher and visiting the homes of two culinary legends.  As I write, I’m reminding myself to squeeze in relaxing!

Our vacation plans are not turning out as I envisioned, potentially, the reality will be even better.  The Greeks gave me a lemon and I choose to make…orange juice. One day the Greek Gods may pave an easy path for me to discover the bounties of their land, in which case, I’ll jump and happily go.  Along with my travel plans, my new book’s title has taken on a different meaning.  I no longer see a sticky situation, but one with sweet potential. I still plan on packing the memoir I bought about Greece, but I’ll read it in the Provincial sun with a pastis to quench my thirst, instead of an ouzo.