On my last day in Paris, a gentle drizzle in the air, we make our way to Librairie Orientale Hrant Samuelian, to meet up with two other friends. “Let’s meet at Samuelian,” we’ve told each other. The four of us–an Armenian friend originally from Beirut who lives in Paris; another friend originally from Istanbul who also lives in Paris; and a French woman whose ancestry is Russian, and whose family includes prominent Orientalists, the four of us–brought together today by a visit to the Librairie Orientale.
It’s always like this with Librairie Orientale, the visit itself larger than the actual walk up Monsieur Le Prince to the bookstore, narrow, with an unassuming, almost self-effacing exterior. This time, I am here at the request of a friend from Los Angeles who wants the two-volume fascimile edition of the first Armenian periodical published in Madras, India, between 1794-96, and reissued in 1970. For all the weight which these details carry, a visit to this legendary bookstore is always a kind of secular pilgrimage–part ritual, part recollection, but above all an occasion for browsing, yes, but also for reflection, conversation, and re-capture of something on the brink of being lost but also of persisting–fragile and enduring at the same time.
Located on a side street in the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter, in close proximity to the Sorbonne, Librairie Orientale is bookstore, institution, repository of knowledge all rolled into one. For Armenians, the Librairie Orientale is also a sort of secular shrine, the kind of place which casts a long, larger-than-life shadow rife with meaning and memory. Founded in 1930 by Hrant Samuelian, a native of Marash and an orphan at four years old, Librairie Orientale is the longest continuously functioning Armenian bookstore (the word bookstore does not do justice to its academic and symbolic function) in the world. It is also a source of hard-to-find publications for scholars and specialists in “Orientalist” disciplines. As the historian Anahide Ter Minassian re-tells it, Samuelian’s life (1891-1977) is the stuff of novels and scholarly studies, so wide and diverse was its span, from the Hamidian massacres which took his father and brother in 1895 through the calamities and major events of Armenian history in the twentieth century.
The Librairie Orientale has no website of its own; makes no effort at publicizing its holdings; has somewhat arbitrary hours of operation; and does not fill out orders by mail. It does not even accept credit card purchases. Yet for all of its limitations–or, rather, because of these limitations perhaps–the Librairie Orientale draws visitors and locals to its stacks and tables, offering much more than a place to buy or browse through old books, periodicals, dictionaries, prayer books in a dozen or so languages. It is a place of encounter–with history, with scholarship and scholars, with a world long gone whose embers spark with a luminosity, faint yet enduring. After Edward Said’s Orientalism, can anyone use the adjective with confidence? Perhaps not, yet for all the Orientalist underpinnings of its name, the Librairie Orientale offers yet another kind of encounter: of Armenian subjects with the cultures and history of neighboring civilizations, a rubbing of histories against one another albeit under an “orientalist” category.
It is a bit misleading, therefore, to speak of Librairie Orientale in only Armenian terms, for its holdings extend far and wide, taking in diverse epochs and civilizations. Perhaps this is another reason for the singular place which the Librairie Orientale holds in the collective consciousness of Armenians, subjected to genocide, expelled from their historic homeland, dispersed, resettled (in the case of Hrant Samuelian, in Paris) but also engaged in a conversation with the world. The Librairie Orientale, is one of the most illustrious stations on the long road of this dispersion. Ter Minassian says that the Librairie Orientale played a pivotal role in the transformation of refugee life into a diaspora community. It was, she says, a place where the newly resettled Armenians could find a particular book, journal or author, where they could seek counsel, an address or meet fellow Armenians. The two other institutions which played a defining role in this transformation were the church on Jean Goujon Street and the daily newspaper Haratch (founded in 1925).
And so we go in on this rainy afternoon, my last in Paris. The current owners, Alice Aslanian and Armen Samuelian, who are the grown children of Hrant Samuelian, operate the bookstore now. They are not young. But, oddly enough, despite the abundance of very old books and the advanced age of the owners, there is not a hint of the stench of old age here. A quiet animation, almost eerie in its impact, fills the space among the visitors who browse for a while, then talk amongst themselves, then browse some more–an aside here, a joke there, the atmosphere light. This is not a bookstore, I tell myself. Nor is it a library. It is really a world, made anew with each visit, with each turn of the page which is so fragile as to be crumbling in my hands. It is a world soaring with light despite the grey outside, despite the slow creasing of time, despite the twilight of the print.
The rain continues; we leave Librairie Orientale and walk slowly to the Luxembourg Gardens, find a café, sit down for an animated conversation. The world–new again.