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.
I 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…
Jean 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.
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.
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