Fun Friday: Looking for Surreal Babies in the Paris Arcades Edition


For today’s edition of Fun Friday, a Benjaminian story:

image from Last week Rick Poynor found himself with some time to kill before he delivered a talk about Surrealism and graphic design. Luckily for him he happened to be in Paris, so he wandered into the arcades. Recalling that the arcades were a favorite space of the Surrealists, Poyner hoped to find a surreal babies postcard in one of the postcard shops in the Passage des Panoramas. He discovered that all of the postcard shops but one had disappeared. (I remember the postcard shops during my trip there in 2009, but I didn’t find any surreal babies cards, unfortunately.) However, a bookstore Poyner remembered was still there, the Librairie Paul Vulin. He inquired about the availability of Yves Tanguy and Surrealism, a book he’s been seeking for a long time. Then he had an experience that only the Paris arcades could offer:

The bookseller led me out of the shop and along the arcade, past the windows and shelves piled with books, until we came to a second, windowless door, which he unlocked.

I assumed that we were about to enter another fully operational section of the shop, or a reserve collection only opened up when required. The space turned out to be not a normally proportioned room, but a long, narrow passage, itself a kind of mini-arcade, just a few feet wide. Inside this mysterious hidden gallery, invisible from the public thoroughfare outside, loomed an enormous bank of shelves loaded with art books about every conceivable subject; this wall of wonders ran the entire length of the premises. At the far end of the secret bibliographic sanctum, in the bottommost corner, the bookseller located what he had evidently expected to find there all along — copies of two big hardback monographs about Tanguy, including the volume in English that I was after. The price was a bargain and perhaps that is just as well. The little sequence of events that had led to the volume’s discovery was so perfect that I’m not sure pecuniary sense would have prevailed.

Poyner’s little moment of irrationality is perfectly understandable. First, the Paris arcades are an entrancing place. They’re my favorite public space. The magical quality of the arcades becomes even more potent when combined with book collecting, as Walter Benjamin noted in “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting”:

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for the true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magical encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.

A note about the images above: The surreal babies postcard is from an earlier Rick Poyner blog post. I took the photograph of the interior of the arcades. Poyner has some excellent photographs of the arcades in this post.


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