Of Shoes, and Ships, and Sealing Wax, Of Cabbages, and Kings

I am supposed to be saving up for my trip to Italy this July. Ha ha, isn’t that a joke!

There I was yesterday, minding my own business, reading Lytton Strachey’s Biographical Essays and finishing up my lunch, when I was assailed by an ungovernable urge to splash out on luxury stationery (see, that’s what comes of writing letters early in the day). Conscience tussled briefly with desire, and lost: for “The only way to get rid of temptation”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “is to yield to it.” Well, if Oscar said it, then it must be true, so off I trotted to Paris, where I just happened to know of a wonderful stationer’s shop – a veritable Aladdin’s cave! – in the sixth arrondissement.

Get off the metro at “Odéon” and you find yourself plunged in Revolutionary Paris. The huge bronze statue of Danton, which was erected on the site of the house where the lawyer and Revolutionary politician used to live, is a popular meeting place for students, who mill about and perch on the plinth, smoking and talking loudly. Just down the road is one of the oldest café-restaurants in Paris, the Procope, where Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists used to argue over coffee, and later on, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre. And across the street yawns a tall archway, leading down one of the few remaining pre-Haussmann – pre-Revolutionary! – covered passages in Paris: the Cour du Commerce St André.

Narrow, cobblestoned, and cambered, this passage is one of the most difficult Parisian streets to negotiate in heels. Actually, it’s difficult to walk down, period. But it is so picturesque that it is well worth the risk of spraining an ankle. If you walk past the cafés, the chocolate factories, and the back entrance of the Procope (where Robespierre curls his lip at you from his portrait in the window), you reach a pair of black wrought-iron grilles, which used to close off the street at night from nocturnal wanderers of ill-repute or ill-intent (a necessary precaution, when you think of what happened to Marat). Just beyond those gates is the façade of Grim’Art, an old-fashioned stationer’s shop held by a quiet Italian gentleman and (I presume) his wife.

façade Grim'Art

vitrine Grim'ArtI make it a rule not to come too often to this part of Paris. The temptation to step into Grim’Art is simply too great, else. It’s not as if my banker liked me (I have this slight problem with buying books). There’s no need to give him excuses to call me up and yell at me.

The smell of leather is the first thing you notice when you push open the door and step inside. At the far end of the shop, the floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with tooled Florentine leather-bound journals of all shapes and sizes. All around the other walls, notebooks, letter paper sets, vintage postcards, luxury wrapping paper, and ornate brass bookmarks are attractively displayed. Near the till lies the greatest danger: a selection of goose quills, coloured inks, and sticks of sealing wax that has had me reaching for my purse many a time before! And Jean Herbin is the biggest culprit…

encres et stylosJean Herbin was an enterprising seventeenth-century sailor who, in 1670, founded a company that manufactured ink and sealing wax, thanks to formulas he brought back from his trips to India. Such was Herbin’s success that he counted the Sun King himself among his customers. Later on, the company was able to add Victor Hugo and Coco Chanel to its list of illustrious clients. As for me, I bought cartridges for my fountain pen in three different colours (“Poussière de Lune”, “Lierre Sauvage”, and “Larmes de Cassis” – “Moondust”, “Wild Ivy”, and “Blackcurrant Tears” respectively) as well as a bottle of “Rouille d’Ancre” (meaning “Anchor Rust”), which, I confess, I chose as much for the name as for the colour. The Victorian naturalist within me also fell prey to a couple of pretty lepidoptera-themed postcards.encre et papiers

It could all have ended there. But it was such a beautiful afternoon that I decided to walk down the Boulevard St Germain – and that’s where I came across a large art supplies store that sealed my fate. A bottle of ink, I reasoned, necessitated a pen of some sort, or it was useless. But all my quills and wooden pen-holders were seven hundred kilometres away, in the attic of my parents’ house. Therefore (kindly admire my infallible logic) I was perfectly justified in buying new ones. Half an hour later, I emerged with a scarlet pen-holder, a glass vial containing two new steel nibs, a bottle of turquoise ink, a mint green card and envelope set, and – for a touch of whimsy – a small green frog-shaped paper puncher. Ahem.

encre Sennelier

Well, there was no need to hang around for cabbages and shoes. I went home, took Doggy for a walk before dinner, and smiled a smile of pure contentment when I heard the fluting of the frogs from a nearby pond.

© Florence Berlioz 2014

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About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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19 Responses to Of Shoes, and Ships, and Sealing Wax, Of Cabbages, and Kings

  1. A fascinating article; thank you. I love Paris and you have managed to capture something of it here; well done! A bit too late for the March Hare I fear, but no reason one might not be a “Late-May hare” I suppose!
    That shop looks (and obviously is) dangerously tempting – and then you find a second one. There can be no hope I’m afraid!
    When I win the lottery, I shall remember to book a table at the Procope – it must be said that haute cuisine is preferable – at least to me – to revolutionary politics!

    • High praise! Thank you, Paul!
      My parents treated me to dinner at the Procope about eight years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what on earth we had to eat that night – but the décor has stuck in my memory! One day I shall go back, and revel in history and literature and gastronomy… (I confess I am not unappreciative of haute cuisine myself – on est français ou on ne l’est pas!).

  2. I must never go to Paris. (I am totally going to Paris)

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oh – I shall have to have a lie-down just thinking about that shop! I have a permanent craving for French stationery (something to do with Colette, I think) and it’s just got worse…..

    • Colette and stationery together??? Tell me more!
      I am always on the lookout for attractive stationery: I’m going to Florence for a few days in July and I fully intend to stock up on Florentine writing paper.

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        She writes in French school exercise books and later on beautiful blue paper or notebooks containing blue paper – the latter in particular I’ve craved for years, but all modern notebooks seem to be on plain white boring paper…

        • Now, blue paper sounds like something I could wrap my head around! You’re right about plain boring white paper: how hard is it for a notebook designer to realize that those who buy notebooks are as interested in the pages as in the cover, and that there are infinite creative possibilities in that area? Actually, I’d say the inside of a notebook is MORE important than the outside, just like books. Imagine a deceptively simple cover, opening to reveal untold beauty! Philosophically, it’s surely better than sticking a pretty picture on the cover (however much I love the pretty covers myself!) and stopping there?

          • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

            I *so* agree – I’ve picked up many a notebook, attracted by the lovely cover, and put it straight down again when I’ve seen inside – boring, poor quality white paper which ruins the effect. Some of the loveliest ones I’ve got are from TK Maxx oddly enough which often carries designer notebooks or ones from overseas and some have creamy coloured paper which is lovely. But as an astigmatic who doesn’t do too well with brightness, I long for blue…

          • Funny you should mention coloured paper in notebooks. On Friday I was in my local branch of Sainsbury’s and saw that they had notebooks made from brown Kraft paper – I nearly bought one; now I think I will even if I think I might need white ink!

  4. Jo says:

    ……all the things you mention and notebooks do it for me! Why do I need so many? I write in only a few of them but they just have to be there as a sort of comfort blanket. I still use my fountain pen whenever I have to write something; unfortunately I have been unable to get my favourite brown ink that made everything look sepia toned for years. The colours of your ink sound divine, truly worth buying for the names alone! If you are off to Italy there is only one [ok two] pieces of advice I can offer – you must find your nearest IlPapiro and take a credit card! My partner no longer finds it strange that I make my purchases, [they wrap them beautifully in tissue and lovely paper bags]and I leave them wrapped up for……years! and just gaze admiringly from time to time! Oh I’m going to have to read what you have written again now! Thank you so much for the diversion, I am supposed to be writing school reports, as always you are much more interesting!

    • Jo, have a look at Diamine’s range – it is most likely that they will have something to suit you. I can assure you that the ink is of excellent quality – I have their blue-black, Eclipse (a sort of purpley black) and Grape which I am sure, speaks for itself.

      Best wishes

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Jo!
      I know what you mean about notebooks: I have a whole collection of them on my desk; I look at them periodically and stroke their lovely cream pages and think of all the possibilities those still blank spaces contain… As for Il Papiro – what can I do except sigh and drool in anticipation :) I stopped there all too briefly in September 2010, the last time I was in Florence, and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I think I bought half of my purchases for me rather than my pen pals, because I had the greatest trouble parting with them.

  5. Jo says:

    Thanks Paul, I will take a look.

  6. heavenali says:

    I would so love to go to Paris *sigh* and that shop! it sounds wonderful. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. lepianiste75 says:

    A pure delight to read! I must have walked past that shop so many times without noticing, next time I’ll be sure to look out for it.

  8. Pingback: Literary Notecards | Miss Darcy's Library

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