It was a bright Sunday afternoon with a bitterly cold wind sweeping the streets. Not many people about, not even in the lively university neighbourhood. The local second hand book store was open though, as always a comforting haven on cold & bored Sunday afternoons.
Half of the shop window now was plastered over with the gaudy signs of spectacular price promotions “minus 20% on top of all discounts!”. But no dopamine-shot of potential gain for me, only the sinking feeling of loss, because it also read “ liquidation totale avant fermeture définitive”. “Total” selling out! “Final” closing! No appeal possible against those adjectives.
I’d always loved this book shop – it had the typical French university flavour of longwinded verbose humanities, but also sections that testified to the idiosyncrasies of its managers (or owners). Such as a DVD section filled with classical ‘golden age’ Hollywood films - the man running the DVD section boasted an absolute memory of all film titles & editions. I myself was mostly drawn to the art history section, well stuffed with late antique & byzantine art books. Once I willingly let the manager convince me to acquire one of those door stopping art books ( this one about Christian art from Late Antiquity) weighing over 10 kilos (L:35,W: 20, H: 8 cm ), if only because it contained the close-up of a particularly dignified angel, from an obscure mosaic high up on the wall of Santa Maria Maggiora in Rome (to which I once peered up in situ without however seeing anything).
They also had an intriguing Middle East section with a merrily diverse offer of books, covering Pagan, Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, ancient & modern history, rationalist, religious and esoteric thinkers. While browsing the Middle East shelves I overheard the student worker who manned the shop on Sundays, explaining to his friends that with the lease of the shop coming up for renewal, the owners had had to face a steep increase in the rent . He briskly summed up the shop’s financial situation “revenues down because of the likes of Amazon or Netflix etc – rent up - so no way to turn a profit any longer. The owners have 2 more second hand book shops in Brussels, also nearing the end of their leases. So now they are re-thinking the entire concept. They might go for ephemeral stores only”.
Well in fact he said “magazins éphémères” – endearingly lyrical French for “pop-up store” (I assume). The young man and his friends, all 20 somethings, did bemoan the unrelenting market pressures chasing out bookshops at the benefit of yet another café or restaurant -- but they also sounded curiously upbeat. Somehow excited about the change, welcoming perhaps the arrival of a new trendy, concept.
Meanwhile, squatting in front of the book-shelves, I had spotted an interesting book cover – with a picture of antique arches and capitals, bathing in golden sunlight and a title in pseudo old fashioned lettering “Syrie - carrefour des civilisations” (“Syria – crossroads of civilisations”). A lavishly illustrated book : full of glossy pictures of glorious ancient buildings, undulating landscapes, cityscapes full of unsuspecting people leisurely going about their business (selling tea in the streets, lurking at water pipes, kneeling in mosquees and churches). At the back of the book I found the publishing date : October 2011.
When I handed my find at the young man at the counter, we also chatted briefly about the closing of this shop. He tried to cheer me up: “I’m sure they’ll open up some new venue in the neighbourhood”. He was routinely handling the transaction, but then stopped and started leafing pensively through the book. He looked up at me – “beautiful pictures. So much has been destroyed. My father is from the region.” From his expression I gathered that he himself had never been there, only knew ‘the region’ through pictures.
For a moment we gazed together at the sunlit glorious images – muttering something about “human folly” and morosely agreeing that “at least it’s all still there in books”. But then he perked up and enthusiastically started telling about how scholars are painstakingly reconstructing all ancient buildings with 3D computer models. “They will rebuild everything!” he stated with all the endearing confidence of youth.
And that’s of course how humanity keeps carrying on despite all the catastrophes – with always new generations beginning anew, not yet dragged down by too much knowledge of ever recurring human folly.