Have you ever bought old books in the street? Then you have met bouquinistes, people who specialize in and sell old and antique books. Their name originated from the French bouquin, (old book) and appeared in the dictionary of the French Academy in 1789. Although the profession is older than that - first vendors of old books appeared along the embankment of the Seine in the 16th century. Now, five centuries later in Tbilisi, Georgia, I have decided to meet some of them.
Mary has been selling old books for the past 21 years. Prior to that she worked in a bookshop, she tells me. It was a huge shop, full of rare editions and queues of booklovers.
“It was hidden away, quite hard to find but customers flooded it anyway."
But eventually the shop was sold and turned into a living block, forcing Mary to collect her books and start selling them in the street. If you give her a list of your old books she will tell you what will sell and what not. Even now a customer is calling her. “I’m busy right now,” she claims and arranges a meeting this evening.
She always loved books and enjoys what she is doing, But admittedly, making profits from street trading is not the easiest task.
“I meet loads of interesting people, would not even be doing this if it weren’t so but when this is the only job that earns you money it gets complicated.”
Mary is right, a lot of books are easily available online and words printed on paper are losing popularity. Dictionaries, for example, rarely ever sell these days.
“Certain warmth accompanies books, or so it seems to me. Contact with books warms you as much as human contact does. Now it’s all virtual. You look at the youth passing by, not even looking up to the sky anymore.”
Mary is not judgmental or bitter. No, to me, she seems genuinely concerned, or maybe a little hurt.
I wish there were queues for books again. ‘Do you have this one?’ ‘Could you lend it to me?’ Oh, I’d love that.
I want to know what young people like me are buying. Works on philosophy, it turns out. Well, it was Plato’s Symposium that I bought at this same spot, I now remember. It makes sense.
“It’s all good, I have nothing against Nietzsche or anyone but some people can’t tell two Georgian authors apart,” May says. Nietzsche’s watching us from the stall in front of me, his moustache as impressive as ever. It’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and will cost you 10 Georgian laris. A young girl approaches us, takes the book and contemplates buying it.
I enquire about Mary’s favorite book, the one she would find hard to part with.
“The most valuable book for me is and will always be 5 volumes of Vazha-Pshavela’s work. I don’t know why but I feel humbled just by looking at them.”
Here they are, five blue hardcovers of possibly the most famous Georgian author bound with a red string. Mary’s phone is buzzing again, so we stop talking. I look around. A couple of tourists take eager looks at stalls.
The young girl makes up her mind and returns the book to its place. Nieztsche’s watching me again, his moustache unmistakably grand. Mary’s been upset and tells me there won’t be any stories for me.
“But you come by, we can talk later.”
She waves as I leave to take a couple of snaps. I hear the last bits of her conversation. Someone wants to buy Faust and I’m desperate to capture the exchange.
I go along the pavement planning to meet the bouquinistes of Tbilisi. I pass by their stalls every day, dig up an occasional book sometimes but have no clue who they are. It’s high time to find out.
Next stop is an underground crossing nearby. Pieces of soviet memorabilia rest on a piece of cloth and a book, to prevent them from flying away in the wind. Taking pictures is not allowed but I’m welcome to converse.
George is 29 years old. His youthfulness is striking - most of the street vendors I encounter have lived and traded in the Soviet times. George’s partner is one of them - he has been in the trade for the past 30 years, I am told.
“He will give you an interview,” George assures me. “He’s so cool. Much cooler than I am.” But the man is not thrilled. He gets up and approaches a chessboard that rests on the side of the underground crossing. It’s obvious he does not want any questions from me. Oddly enough, male bouquinistes are less talkative than their female co-traders. The first elderly man I approached shrugged shily and directed me to Mary - she’d be able to answer my questions.
But I will not let George escape easily. I squat beside him and start a casual conversation. He is weary of dictaphones and challenges me to remember what he says. So I remember: He used to be a footballer, then decided to work with books and ended up here, surrounded by fascinating people.
“Talk to that one, trust me. He’ll give you an interview.” But ‘that one’ is engrossed in chess. I believe he is called Irakli.
George knows Mary as well. Good old Mary, he calls her. Unlike her, George is confident of his profits - bookselling brings good money, he claims.
It is like, in your case, why are you writing this piece?
I think I like writing. It is the same for him, he likes books and they pay his bills. He wants me to write down this sentence, so I do.
He refuses to name one favorite book. All editions have something to them, he claims, but if I tried to surprise him, I would have to go avant-garde and bring him something Georgian from the 20’s.
A customer approaches us while I’m still squatting. The Orthodox Church Calendar of 1987 is what he is interested in. 15 laris? Well, maybe ten?
“You know what this book is. I’m not preaching but you do know it costs even more than 15 Laris.”
The customer backs down, he’ll be back when he has cash on him. I on my part wonder why the book is so special. It turns out it is the only edition containing a full set of rules the Orthodox Church adheres to.
George goes on chatting with me. Maybe I should give up on polite inquiries and approach the men playing chess directly? Talk about a random book and see what I get? I like the idea but the game of chess seems endless. I have no clue about the game so I abandon the plan.
Though young himself, George also maintains that young Georgians do not read enough. Bookselling used to be both fulfilling and profitable, people used to lead heated debates about books and joined book clubs. Now the most frequent customers are occasional tourists.
The chess game goes on and I am forced to leave. I end up at Marjanishvili square where old books are available for as little as one or two laris. I meet Maguli at one of the stalls. She’s 61 but looks younger. Her only regret is not learning English when she had more time. She would still be able to learn it but now free time is so hard to find, there are children to look after and household chores to take care of.
She used to have her own bookshop as well but maintaining it turned out difficult so she closed it. Now she’s just a street vendor, these are not her books. She wears a bright dress and earrings as blue as a clear sea.
“Your eyes are the color of the sea.” She tells me a poem by Konstanine Gamsakhurdia,one of the most influential Georgian writers. “I don’t like his poems that much but this one is still nice.”
But she loves his prose. Boy, she loves it a lot. She names titles and asks me to read them.
“Everyone should read Gamsakhurdia, everyone. Go read it and tell me if he is any less than Remarque or Dostoevsky or anyone else?”
She tells me that both Remarque and Dostoevsky are popular amongst Georgian youngsters, closely followed by Stendhal. Her eyes light up as she recalls their works. Three Comrades? She loves it! But still, she is concerned we do not read enough.
They find a single thing and think it is everything. Lately it is some strange book, How to Become an Idiot or something like that, I’ve been asked about it today as well. Now that is ridiculous. How to become an idiot? The book will be just like the title! How to become an idiot, what nonsense… How do you even become one?
I figure that she is happy to talk. She gains momentum, recounting pieces she remembers by heart.
“I used to go crazy for those poets.”
She barely finds time to read these days. Sunday, her only day off, is usually spent in the church. When she’s free to enjoy herself she wants to read Les Miserables again. She remembers it vividly but still, re-reading seems like a good idea.
A very curious thing interrupts auntie Maguli’s monologue: we are approached by a young man looking for The Orthodox Church Calendar of 1987. It is available for ten laris, he has been told.
“Ah, the set of Church Rules, isn’t it?” They exchange money as I struggle to recognize the guy. Is this the same one I met at Freedom Square? I do not know. Maybe it is a coincidence. Or today is the day for Orthodx Church Rules.You never know.