I'M WRITING THIS BECAUSE I JUST FOUND out that my favorite bookseller in the world, Michel Roethel, is dead. He was mysterious and his bookstore obscure. It was on the Rue Lagrange in Paris. It sold the works of only one author. And its proprietor didn't like selling books at all: M. Roethel always seemed unhappy when a book managed to leave his shop.
Some years ago — it might have been in 1984 — I told a friend of my growing delight in Jules Verne, and how I'd so much like to own one of his books in its original format. Verne's novels were first published in the middle of the century before the one before this one. The series was called Voyages Extraordinaires. The publisher and editor was Verne's dear friend Pierre-Jules Hetzel. The bindings were intaglio'd with globes and alembics, elephants and balloons, harpoons and astrolabes. Though they were tooled leather, they gave the sense of dark wood, of hand-turned brass. They seemed not just of another era but of another world. To run your fingers over the cover of a Hetzel octavo was to go on an extraordinary voyage, a Braille of wonder.
I was told that if I wanted to purchase a Voyage Extraordinaire, the place to go was the Librairie Jules Verne, called l'Île Mysterieuse. I was told they specialized in the author. I was not told that they sold nothing else.
One late-autumn afternoon I walked from the 7th down the Blvd. St.-Germain to the Librairie in the 5th, on the other side of the Boul Mich', in the old Latin Quarter, at the foot of Notre Dame. The windows were dusty, the interior dark, there was no indication that the store was open.
But the door was unlocked.
I was greeted by an older man in a tweed jacket and a knit scarf. "Greeted," perhaps, is not the right word. He acknowledged my presence with a small nod while I gazed — in rapture, in wonderment — at book after book after book. There were hundreds of them. All extraordinary. All by Jules Verne. At length I found a lovely red-and-gold Hetzel edition of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. And in my best French, I told the proprietor that I wished to buy it.
In response, he held that book cover-to-cover against an octavo edition of l'Ïle mystérieuse and asked me, what is the passage between the two? I thought a bit, and said, Captain Nemo. He then kept his grip on l'Ïle mystérieuse while holding up to its other side a third book, Les Enfants du capitaine Grant. And this passage, he asked. I said Captain Grant. He nodded and sat back down, as if our business were concluded.
I then asked if I might purchase the 20,000 Leagues. No, he said, I will not sell it to you. I wondered if I'd given the wrong answers, failed the test. These editions, he then said, these are for rich men. For interior decorators. For people who don't know what these books are. You — and here he looked at me for the first time — you are a reader. Wait here. And with that he opened a small door at the rear of the shop that led to a narrow set of downward stairs. Descended. Disappeared.
I stood among the extraordinary voyages for perhaps twenty minutes, at once enraptured by the surroundings and deeply afraid to leave. What if he never came back?
But come back he did, holding an 1870s edition of the novel, identical in every ...