Places like the Galerie du Roi, a covered arcade in the centre of Brussels, near the Grand Place, fascinated Walter Benjamin. Lined with chocolate shops, bookshops and cafes, the Galerie du Roi is akin to the arcades of Paris, those magical places which Benjamin alternatively described as ‘Dream Cities’ and ‘Catacombs.’ At times, he praised them as places which fostered browsing, people-watching, flâneur-ism and observation while at other times they were dens of consumerism and commodity fetishism. I can’t enter a place like this without thinking of Benjamin and wondering what he would make of it. Indeed, sometimes when I go into a bookshop, I can’t help but feel a bit of conflict between the commercial aspect of shops (we are, after all, just buying products for consumption) and the intangible quality which creates so much more meaning: the opportunity they provide for us to expand our minds, embrace serendipity and start a journey.
At Tropismes, a large bookshop just off to the side of the Galerie du Roi (on the Galerie des Princes, no less), the balance is struck perfectly. The beautiful displays in the window and the clean, modern interior create a palace filled of wonderful, attractive things to buy. But the books on offer are chosen, curated and presented with so much charm, playfulness and intelligence that it’s hard to see them as just numbers in someone’s inventory or products to push before the Christmas rush. That, I think, is what makes books different from every other thing we buy: they are not just bought, consumed and thrown away. Instead, we as individuals bring each and every one to life in a different way and create a completely unique relationship with it. We carry them through our lives (either on our bookshelves or somewhere at the back of our minds) and we don’t just act on them, but let them act on us. Books are truly magical and Tropismes, which is whimsical and full of hidden possibilities, is a fitting home for them.
Naturally, the majority of the books are in French. I don’t know why (perhaps someone can enlighten me) but books in French always seem to have quite plain white spines, so a wall full of them looks particularly refined and calming. Tropismes has an amazing selection of French fiction, philosophy, poetry and history, as well as a mouth-watering cookery section downstairs which represents cuisines from all over the world, but particularly French and Belgian food. On the ground floor, little nooks just big enough for a few people give the opportunity to get up close and personal with the books even when the shop is busy. In addition to books in French and books translated into French, there is a good collection of English books, which are always oddly reassuring. Tropismes has an admirably international range of novels and you can read where the books come from on the little labels that poke out from the shelves. Tropismes takes you on a tour of world literature from every continent. In one picture alone you can see a selection of Arab, Palestinian, Hebrew, Indian, Russian, Slavic, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Czech, Egyptian, Libyan and Iranian literature. Now, I like to think that I’m quite good at reading books from other parts of the world, but Tropismes puts me (and everyone else I know) to shame. And yet it never feels intimidating or pretentious because the whole atmosphere of the shop is friendly and inclusive, embracing people from all over the world just as it embraces their books.
When I went in, there was a pleasant level of chatter all throughout the bookshop which made it feel warm and inviting. The shop is open, with bright lights illuminating what is in fact a beautiful old building. The sleek and modern mirrors (which reflect the Christmas lights outside) work well against the older decorative features of the building, particularly the ornate columns and the beautiful roof. The combination makes people feel happy, and that’s all there is to it. One of the things I truly love about bookshops (and people) in England is that they understand the value of peace and quiet and know how to be silent and let a person think, but this happy, community bookshop reminded me of how nice it can be to have a chat as well. The booksellers were all lovely and (from what I could understand) very well-informed about everything they had in stock as well as about books from all over the world that they didn’t. On a couple of separate occasions I heard a bookseller talking to a customer about just how they were going to manage to get their hands on that new novel from Burkina-Faso or somewhere equally random. One thing I noticed is that the booksellers here were quite a lot older than the majority of booksellers in the UK. Waterstones and London independents tend to be populated with twenty-something English graduates (like yours truly) and struggling playwrights because there’s some kind of cultural idea that it’s okay to ‘just’ work in a bookshop when you’re twenty-three but by the time you’re forty-five you really ought to have a ‘proper job.’ I may be inferring too much from this, but it seems to suggest that in Brussels, they take their bookselling as seriously as they take their chocolate. (I’m still smarting a bit from being told off by a chocolate seller for getting too close to the merchandise.)
Down in the basement, in addition to the cookery section, you’ll find books on pretty much everything under the sun. There’s psychology, music, cinema, sociology, anthropology, science, nature, art and architecture, all of which are arranged impeccably in beautiful displays on the shelves and tables. Although the basement doesn’t have the same light, airy, open feel as the ground floor, it’s still a place where you could easily spend hours if you had the time. In fact, I think it would take that long just to get your head around the selection.
Finally, there is a large children’s section up on the first floor, which is a balcony looking down over the rest of the shop. Here you’ll find children’s books for all ages and all types of children. What was brilliant about this selection was that they weren’t just French translations of American children’s books, but new and innovative picture books, novels and comics from the country that brought us Tintin. The graphic novels available all looked excellent, which I suppose is to be expected in a city that has a Comic Strip Museum and an apparent love affair with the genre. It also seemed to me that a lot of the children’s books were much edgier than their Anglophone equivalents; I saw a lot of books and graphic novels that dealt with adult themes in understandable ways, rather than sheltering children in fairy-tale worlds. I was particularly happy to see that small Belgian children are being exposed to great literature – there was a A La Recherche du Temps Perdu comic book, which I now really really want. I can’t say whether that’s indicative of a difference between the UK and continental Europe, but it is interesting how much you can learn about a culture just by looking at the books their children read, isn’t it?
Which, in a way, brings me back to where I started, with Walter Benjamin (can you tell that I love him?) and his marvelous exclamation: ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” As I examined books at Tropismes, I thought of him sitting in a new flat unpacking his library of books, picking up each one and letting it flood him with memories of the city where it was bought and the stories it carries on and between its pages. I’m sure that the books I buy in Belgium will serve the same purpose, guarding my memories and my stories until the next time I pick them up again, in whatever city I find myself in. For now, exploring the world at Tropismes has been adventure enough.