Monday August 27, 2010 – I had just arrived in Geneva and dropped my bags off in Carouge, a small connected suburb of Geneva where I was staying in a friend’s flat. I had no agenda that day and so I made my way to Old Town, where I wandered up and down and around the narrow alleys and cobblestone streets, getting thoroughly lost and loving every minute of it. I stopped at an antiquarian bookstore I happened upon and browsed for a while, but found that most of the books were what I’d call “used” instead of antiquarian. I lunched at a café in the Place du Bourg-de-Four: a milkshake that needed some guidance from Shake Shack and a cheese sandwich that was mostly bread. The food wasn’t great but sitting in that medieval square in that strange Swiss-French city so far from home was magnificent.
When I finished lunch I walked around some more and meandered down the Grand’ Rue, where I came upon the oh-so-picturesque La Librairie Ancienne shop of Alexandre Illi. It was probably the most beautiful bookshop I’ve seen, inside and out, and my simple words couldn’t justly describe it so you’ll have to look at the photo, or remember it if you are me. I spent hours inside, carefully browsing through the stacks and shelves and more stacks of old and rare books. This was really a great shop, full almost entirely of very old and rare books, mostly well-categorized into sections. I even found a copy of The Compleat Angler there, though a later edition and of course very expensive. I was considering trying to haggle on a great late-17th-century medical text with some cool illustrations, although it was written in French which left me on the fence a bit about the 480CHF price tag. On the way in I had seen a beautiful thin vellum piece that I had fallen in love with. It was a slim, worn creature with a flowing French script in faded brown ink covering both inside and outside of the vellum binding, which was none too securely attached. Upon closer inspection the outer wrap revealed itself to be a French legal document repurposed as a cover. Inside the book the first ten pages were missing, and the next 40 or so depicted European coins. Following that were a couple dozen pages written in a fine and elegant hand, different from that which graced both covers. It was indecipherable to me for the most part but I did recognize an area of Astrology, and another area that seemed to list prices or values for various goods. I hadn’t seen a price on it and since it was in a case with a lot of very expensive books I had tried to put it out of my head and my heart. But it was glorious, and before I started bargaining on the medical text I had to ask the price on this one. The woman in the shop showed me where I had overlooked the price on the back of the description card: six hundred francs. I bit my lip as the wheels turned in my head; I could almost afford that. I mulled it over a few moments, then took the book up to the man whom I believed to be Alexandre Illi. “Would you take 500 francs for this book?” He looked at the book, and then at me. “If you pay me cash.”
Thus began my journey down the street to UBS bank, where the ATM denied my request for 600CHF. Across the street to Credit Suisse, where my 500CHF request was also denied. Back to UBS, who I was vaguely familiar with from their NPR sponsorship (“You and us. UBS.”); this time I talked to a human being who personally tried to put it through the ATM network. No dice. They referred me to the back of the building, where a shadowy corner hid a door which led to a row of individual chambers with tellers isolated behind a screen. It was a weird experience and felt very much like I suspect a confessional feels like when I asked this person trapped in the room with me to get me some money with my ATM card. And that was also denied. I knew I had the money and was at my wit’s end (not that far, really) when I decided to make a pricey phone call to my bank. It turns out there is a 500USD limit per day on ATM transactions. As CHF are worth slightly more than USD, 500CHF was also forbidden. However, my banker was easily able to bypass this with my simple phone call, and while the lady waited on the line I successfully withdrew 600CHF.
That done I decided to get some more American cash, which I’d also had with me, converted to francs and, with my pockets now bulging with something like 900CHF, headed back to La Librairie Ancienne with a plan. Just before I had left I had spied another thin, completely handwritten manuscript listed at 350CHF. I really coveted it too and decided I would offer 700CHF for the pair. It was low-balling but it was worth a shot.
I went back with my fat pockets and offered Alexandre 700CHF for 950CHF worth of books. He seemed to think it over for a minute, then decided he couldn’t let the second manuscript go for less than 300CHF (for a total of 800 for both). As someone who knows how to keep my avarice more or less in check, I had to walk away. I could’ve tried to haggle with him a bit more but I had set my limit at 700 and that was it. I left with the book of coins and astrology and 200 extra francs in my pocket. Right now I am smiling to think that the book is just in the room behind me, wrapped in a small, unassuming paper bag, and in a couple days it will get on a plane with me and see America for the first time.
Want to do this yourself?
Find the website of La Librairie Ancienne here: http://www.librairie-ancienne.ch (text in French)
Find rare book dealers wherever you are in the world by searching the database of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers: http://www.ilab.org
Information about Geneva: http://www.geneva.info
Information about Carouge: http://www.geneve-tourisme.ch/en/seeing-doing/attractions/file/feed/a-mediterranean-touch-carouge/
And don’t forget to search my own rare book shop, Cosey Rare Books!