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I've long considered the front of our bookstore a trap, one carefully set.
This is as it must be. Although we are in the wearyingly popular Marais district, we are in the lower Marais, closer to the Seine but farther from the falafel stands and crêperies, the pedestrian streets, and thus the crowds, and thus, customers. One side of our block is almost entirely taken up with the blank back wall of a monastery, which may or may not be occupied. Despite all the bells, I've never seen a monk on the sidewalk. Opposite the monastery, a succession of shops like ours, peering out from the ground floors of anonymous flat-front buildings in various shades of cream forever staining yellow. High above, zinc roofs slowly bruise black, windows shrug away shutters. Here and there appear flowers, or their remains. So, too, wrought iron railings, or their remains.
And our store, bright red, like an apple, a wound.
The store has always been red, but it was deeper, bluer, more toward the color of Cabernet when I first saw it. It was my choice to update it to cherry, almost fire truck, red. This caused a mild scandal even though I'd cleared it with our landlord, the store's original proprietor, Madame Brouillard; one painter quit on me before he got started and another quit after scraping and priming. Upon the recommendation of my UPS driver (and unofficial street concierge), Laurent, I finally hired a Polish man who spoke almost as little French as I did and thus didn't care what anyone thought. I asked Laurent what he thought when the job was done. Laurent looked up and down the street. The painter had not only gotten exactly right the clarion red I wanted, he'd layered what looked to be thirty-six coats of clear lacquer on top. The place shone as if it had been enameled in molten lollipop.
Laurent said I should sell them, lollipops.
I shook my head.
He shook his.
We sell books. Gold letters say this on the window. BOOKSHOP to one side, LIBRAIRIE ANGLOPHONE to the other. In the middle, our name, a debate. It had been named for the street, which is named for Saint Lucy. This confuses people; across town, there is another street named for her. More confusion: Lucy is the patron saint of writers, but Madame Brouillard said the name sometimes brought in religious shoppers, and most times, no one at all. Once upon a time, she insisted to me, the street had been crowded, not just with book buyers but booksellers. One by one, the stores departed, and many left their stock behind with Madame. The English-language volumes, not the French. The dross, not the treasures. And needless to say, the dead, not the living. She had hardly anything by living authors.
I suggested rechristening the store The Late Edition. Late as in we would henceforth specialize in authors who, unlike their books, were dead.
She didn't like it, but she let me proceed, as one of her keenest pleasures is bearing a grudge. I sometimes think it's why she let me, who knew little about bookstores (and even less about French), assume control of a bookshop she'd owned for decades. And it's likely why she watched with interest as the dead-authors angle turned out to be just the sort of Paris quirk travel writers craved (who are quick to note that I make living-authors exceptions for children's books and books of any sort by women).
Madame pays Laurent off the books to bring more stock from storage units outside Paris, where she's piled the leavings of her predecessors. Laurent says there aren't enough customers in the world for all the books waiting there.
And Madame had a very small share of the world's customers. When we took over the store, the running joke was that we were down to three. Two Americans and one New Zealander, who also formed the sum total of my friends in Paris: another joke. And whenever my daughters made it, I would smile to hide the hurt. Not only was it a stretch to call the three "customers," but even more so to call them friends. Still, I was grateful they occasionally bought books.
The truth is, in modern France as in modern elsewhere, Amazon sells books (and snow tires); bookstores sell coffee. Or, the profitable ones do. Those with bookstores that only sell books have a tougher time. It is slightly easier in France, although Amazon's smirk is almost as ubiquitous here as it likely still is in Milwaukee, where my girls and I lived until recently. (Unless two years is not recent? Some days it feels like twenty years. Other days, twenty minutes.) Enlightened France, however, regulates discounting books (or attempts to) and, even more cheering, occasionally provides independent bookstores financial support. Such aid favors the selling of new books, but Madame Brouillard had long ago figured out a way to benefit, by running a second, smaller bookstore that sold new titles in French. It just happened to coexist inside a bookstore that sold used books in English. The French store specialized in children's titles and was in the front half of what looks like the building's second floor but is actually a cramped mezzanine.
The back half of the mezzanine, flimsily walled off, became my daughters' bedroom, which, if they left the door open upon leaving, sometimes became an ersatz English-language children's bookstore: Daphne once complained someone was stealing her old Beverly Cleary books. I'd been selling them without asking buyers just where they'd picked them up.
The kitchen, living area, and my bedroom are on the floor above the girls. With higher ceilings and more elaborate architectural detail, this is the étage noble. But in our building, the resident noble, Madame Brouillard, commands the top two floors, which have much better light. She lives on one and her own private collection of books lives just above, or so she once told me. For the longest time, I'd never ventured farther into her apartment than the small sitting room just inside the door (which, like the building, like so much of Paris, looks just like authors and artists have long led you to think: late-sun yellow, delicate furniture, lace, an old crystal lamp atop a tiny table).
Paris, in other words, like Madame's promises to show me the top floor, is a challenge, an invitation, a city that doesn't distinguish between the two. It may be why my conversations with Madame often ended abruptly. Or it was because she knew, long before I did, that the trap I'd set was not for customers but for my vanished husband-and that it had ensnared me instead.
It is faintly ironic I find myself running a bookstore, because almost twenty years ago I was caught running from one, a stolen item in hand. And ironic that I've ever chased any man anywhere in Paris, because on that long-ago night, my husband was chasing me.
Please change the set. Unroll a new sidewalk, erect a different storefront, lower a fresh backdrop. Gone is the Eiffel Tower, and arriving in its place is—nothing, really. Blue skies, clouds if you like. A simple city skyline. Steeples here and there, some smokestacks, but otherwise, clip-art buildings. After all, we're no longer in Paris, but Milwaukee.
And there, on my left hand, no ring. We're not married yet, my husband and I. Two moon-pale Midwesterners, we don't even know each other, which makes it awkward that he's just accosted me on the street—a series of heys! dopplering ever closer until I had to turn-about something I have clutched in my right hand. A book. I'm not hiding it, mind you. (I'm not hiding it because I couldn't—it was about ten by twelve inches, a children's book, with a bright red balloon on the cover.)
"Hi," he said with half a smile. "I think you forgot to pay?" He now crinkled half his face to go with his half smile, which was good. It gave him some creases, which gave him some years. He was short, fair, slender but athletic. I'd taken him for seventeen. On his high school's cross-country team. Now I added four years. Later he would add four more: twenty-five. Incredible.
"Oh, I pay," I said. "I pay every day." I got ready to rant about men accosting me on the sidewalk, about men everywhere accosting women everywhere on all the sidewalks of the world—but it wasn't true, not for me, not there, not then.
What was true was that I was embarrassed. Embarrassed I'd stolen something—I'd never stolen anything before—and embarrassed that I'd stolen a children's book. And I was embarrassed I was so poor. I was almost twenty-four, and I had exactly that many dollars in my checking account. I would have more on Monday when I received my grad student stipend, but until then, I had twenty-four dollars, two suspended credit cards, and a surplus of anger. The university library had inexplicably closed early, and I'd decided that I needed the book version of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 movie, The Red Balloon, at that very moment to finish my master's thesis on the great (and quite curious) man. Never mind that I knew by heart every frame of this classic Paris film and every page of the companion book—indeed, its every cobblestone and cat (one living, black, another on a building's poster, white).
Many people my age briefly shared my obsession as kids, thanks to rainy-day recess copies of the film that saturated American elementary schools in the 1970s and '80s. I noticed that, as years passed, those children moved on. I knew I had not, and would not. That book was my first love. Like a crush, a companion, a boyfriend of the type I wouldn't really have, ever. That book, that film, understood me. Or so I felt. I knew that I understood it. And moreover, I understood its Paris. For other girls (and the odd boy), Paris meant flowers and romance and accordions wheezing. The Red Balloon has none of this. It's beautiful, but bracing. Some find it sweet, but I didn't like sweet things as a child and I don't much now. I'm surprised more people-like the staff of the Milwaukee bookstore I was stealing from—don't realize the obvious. Red is the color of warning.
Courtesy of the First Look Book Club