A Swede, Jean Skarstedt, just opened an unusual shop, in the centre of Paris, 17 Quai aux Fleurs, filled with antique books and rare objects. During this interview he’ll tell us about his vision of literature’s role in our modern world.
As I walked along the Seine, I passed by flower shops where all colours and fragrances are present. The bookstands aren’t far away either, so the emplacement was well chosen for his boutique that feels more like a private library. I was struck by the decoration: a mixture of contemporary and antiques. A young Japanese was sitting in the classy sofa, reading in one of the antique books. “Everyone is welcome to sit here and read as long as they want to” Jean welcomes me with. The bookshelves are filled with rare editions. Diderot’s enormous encyclopaedia, first edition, takes up an entire wall.
- From where derives your interest in antique books?
- From my home. My father was chief librarian, so I grew up with books. My interest for antique books as the ones you can see here in my shop came later on though. I started this collection some twenty years ago. They’re from the 16th century onwards and are handpicked first or second editions.
- Why just these expensive books?
- I also work with interior decoration so I know the importance of displaying an elegant library. All these books have striking covers. At the same time, they also express an interest in their own right with the contents mirroring true values. It’s incredible that one can still buy a book from 1515 depicting the civil war between Cesar and the Senate for example!
- Do you think there is still a market for these books?
- Yes, I’m selling history! The book I just mentioned for example was binded in Venice in parchment and is sold for 200 €. I’m also aiming a younger public and new collectors interested in our common culture. It seems like many suffer from a lack of identity and therefore are seeking their European roots. Where one wouldn’t flinch to put a fortune on a new sofa, the majority unfortunately thinks several times before buying an old book. However, I believe in a change of fashion! The presentation in a contemporary setting as well as the wholeness is therefore important, but in this profession, one needs to be patient.
pocket flask in the shape of a book
- Why did you choose to open your shop in Paris rather than in Stockholm?
- The clientele is much more narrow in Stockholm and the demand is small. Moreover the majority of my books are in French, English or Latin and not in Swedish. The French scholar-system encourages literature much more than the Swedish schools. The children learn to read early on.
- How is your relationship with France?
- I’ve lived in France since around 25 years and in Paris since 2010. I feel at home here.
- How do you find the books?
- I go to bookstores wherever in the world I travel to, I buy privately, on auctions or in ancient bookstores, sometimes I even buy entire book collections. I’m constantly on the outlooks for more and better books! One example being this first edition of Storia Romana with wonderful illustrations from 1760 or this second pirate edition by the Scott Robert Burns’ poetry. Diderot’s encyclopaedia, first edition
- What about the curious objects on display here?
- Well, most of them are related to the books such as this pocket flask or the antique helmet.
I sit down in one of the armchairs, browsing some well-illustrated works, looking out of the window towards reality and Paris lit town hall. “With this window display, I want to invite passersby, to enter”, Jean explained to me, as I stepped out into the cool autumn again, hoping to soon be able to return. I’ll go through some of his historical books trying to imagine our ancestors’ world, figuring out our own origins, as far away as the scrolls permit me to.
Anne Edelstam, Paris.