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Thanks to modern technology, we received the list of the kids’ school needs before we even left America. We knew which books were needed for each child, and how many binders, what kind of paper, and what colour ink for the fountain pens would be necessary.
We waited to get it all till we got here, which was a logical choice. The kind of papers and specific books wouldn’t even be available in Portland. But we’d still been in America long enough to picture ourselves going to a bookstore, handing over the list, and buying all the books.
I’ll pause here while you laugh heartily. I don’t know why I thought that. Surely I’m a bit old for such dewy-eyed naivety?
Donn and I have spent literally hours of our lives tramping around Agdal, the section where the bookstores are, looking for these books. We have found most of them. In fact, we’re really only missing two; one for Elliot, one for Abel. But those two books are nowhere to be found, and the teachers are getting surly.
Most bookstores are typical. You walk in, there’s a counter. You speak to someone behind the counter, or you hand them your list, and they go off and look through their merchandise and bring what they have to you. You pay, you leave. But Donn and I right off wandered into a used bookstore, a bouquiniste, where we seemed to enter another world.
It looked nothing from the outside, just a normal, house-sized door opening into a building on a busy street full of shops selling imported French clothing and shoes and tantalizingly-named restaurants*, closed for Ramadan.

We turned and entered, and gasped in amazement.
I have a picture for you, but first I have to describe it in words, so that you will look at the picture properly. Book were piled haphazardly from floor to ceiling. The walls were lined with shelves which were all crammed with books, and then in front of the shelves were more piles with more books. It was amazing. I have never seen so many books in such a small area before. We joined a straggly queue without having a choice; the narrow walkway between the stacks only allowed for passage of one person at a time.
The books were an unusual mix. They had everything; politics, religion, travel, biographies of obscure people, novels ancient and modern, and lots of lots of schoolbooks. I was absolutely fascinated. How on earth could it work? What if you spotted a book you wanted at the bottom of a 7-foot high stack? Would you just have to live with the slight satisfaction of knowing the book you wanted existed in the city and was safe and sound at the bouquiniste? Or what?
Donn claimed to be worried for his health. “One day, people will die here,” he warned darkly, imagining stacks of books starting to slide, people buried under the weight of other men’s words and gasping for breath. But I was unperturbed. “What a way to go!” I replied.
Scattered here and there were even a few books in English, although I didn’t really see any that appealed. I saw “Mood Poetry For Everyone in an Age of Rap”, which while I’m sure would be very inspiring, somehow didn’t really grab me. I saw “Human Development: Is There An Alternative?” and a lot of jokes sprang instantly to mind. (Feel free to make your own in comments) There was an outdated version of “Lonely Planet: Morocco,” and a paperback version, 70s era, of a knock-off Nancy Drew series. There were French versions of books by people like Ken Follett (likely) and Shirley MacLaine (unlikely).

The owner stood on a sort of raised platform, which was filled with its own piles of paperbacks, and we stood on tiptoe to pass him our list. He disappeared like a rabbit and returned some time later, with some but not all of the books, which he handed down for us to inspect. Used they certainly were; some were even torn. I wondered again at the mystery of the system. Why were the books we wanted hidden in the back, instead of out front? How could he know where they were? Did he know? Could he possibly have scanned all the shelves in the back in a relatively short time? Are there elves back there, helping?
Truly, I have much to learn about my new home.

*tantalizingly named restaurant. Don’t you want to try it?

September 2008

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