This is the story of Ovingdean resident Sally White, who lived in Paris for three decades and was for many years a bouquiniste – the first foreign-born person to get a licence to sell books on the banks of the Seine.
Sally – a name she adopted at an early age – was born Sheila Ward in 1928 and grew up in Hampton Hill, Middlesex. She was the second of four children. Her father was a scientist who wanted his children to follow in his footsteps; however, Sally wanted to study art, but this was frowned on by her father. It was not a happy home; her father was strict while her mother was “a terrible snob” and they had little in common. There was little incentive for their children to stay at home; her elder sister had escaped to become a Land Girl in 1939 by lying about her age, and then when Sally reached 17 she decided to go into nursing, something her father at least tolerated.
Initially Sally spent four years as a nurse, at a children’s convalescent home in Oxfordshire, then at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. After briefly being evacuated to Somerset at the end of the war, she had acquired a taste for the countryside, and spent her holidays on Volunteer Agricultural Camps, doing farm labour and living in tents. Students from all over Europe attended these camps, and Sally had several liaisons with French boys, mostly short-lived; however, one of them, Michel Ragon, was more persistent, and kept in touch after returning to France. When Sally wrote to him to say that she was going to the Côte d’Azur on holiday, he borrowed money for the fare from friends, tracked her down, and proposed to her.
Michel was four years older than Sally. “I thought … Do I really love this man? But … I’d rather like to live in Paris!” So in 1950 they married, and she went to live with him on the left bank. Her parents disapproved, and did not allow her to visit them for two years.
They lived in an attic (a chambre de bonne or maids’ room) on the 6th floor of a beautiful 18th century house in Rue des Saints-Pères, opposite the Louvre. Saint-Germain-des-Prés was nearby; it was a “top place to live” in the 1950s and 60s. Juliette Greco lived nearby, and was often seen out walking with a leopard. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir also lived nearby, and patronised local cafés such as the Café des Fleurs and the Deux Magots – places which have become famous largely due to their patronage. Sally recalls that “it was like living in Chelsea, surrounded by writers, poets and artists”. Quite a few had bookstalls on the Seine, including Michel.
Michel was a struggling writer who did house painting to earn money. Sally became the breadwinner: when her French was strong enough she got a nursing job, looking after children and babies, and teaching student nurses, at a children’s hospital, the Ecole de Puériculture, near Porte de Vanves in the south of the city. In those pre-EU days professional qualifications did not necessarily transcend borders, so she was paid at a lower grade than she was entitled to.
While Sally worked at the hospital, Michel divided his time between his writing and his bookstall. After a while, he began to earn more from writing, so Sally gave up her nursing job and took over the bookstall, which was on the Quai Malaquais, near Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She became the first foreign bouquiniste and was quite a celebrity – she was profiled by French and Belgian magazines, and by the Sunday Express. In an article published in the magazine Femmes d’Aujourd’hui in 1958, she described herself as “une femme heureuse, qui n’a pas l’impression de travailler, simplement d’occuper agréablement son temps, en compagnie des livres …” [A happy woman who doesn’t feel as if she is working, just using her time agreeably in the company of books.]
Her daily routine was first of all to check the weather forecast, and if it was not likely to rain she would open the bookstall at about 11am. She sold books and other items such as prints, which would be left overnight in the locked and weatherproof stall. She was often approached on the stall by people selling books, so she did not have to travel far to acquire stock. She would keep an eye on the weather, and developed a talent for predicting rain, so that she could warn the other bouquinistes to get their valuable stock under cover. Theft was an occupational hazard, especially when the quai was crowded. Once she was reported to the gendarmes for displaying a picture of a half-naked Brigitte Bardot; she had no idea it might be considered pornographic, and had to attend court and pay a fine.
In an article for Elle magazine in 1956, Sally said her biggest worry, after the weather, concerned the lovers who would habitually rendezvous outside her stall. She made a direct appeal to them in the article:
N’avez-vous pas pensé, petite amoureuse qui prenez rendez-vous devant mes boîtes, qu’il serait aussi pratique d’attendre tranquillement le long du parapet, plutôt que de feuilleter distraitement un à un mes livres et de les replacer à l’envers, dans une autre boîte, ou de les laisser carrément tomber, lorsqu’ « il » arrive. Je vous pardonne votre émoi, mais si vous, Monsieur, vous pouviez être à l’heure, je vous en serais reconnaissante.
[Has it not occured to you, you little sweetheart, waiting for your date in front of my boxes, that it would be just as practical to wait quietly by the parapet, rather than leafing abstractedly, through my books one by one, and then putting them back upside down in a different box or even just dropping them when “he” arrives. You, sweetheart, I can forgive your excitement, but you Sir, you could at least arrive on time. I would be most grateful.]
In 1962 the couple divorced after Michel had an affair with a destitute young New Zealander whom they had taken into their home in the Rue de la Harpe, in the Latin Quarter. Sally stayed on in the flat, and continued to run the bookstall. Later that year, she shut the stall for three weeks and took herself off to Israel for a holiday, crisscrossing the country by bus and hitch-hiking. She had developed an interest in the country after meeting the artist Emmanuel Mané–Katz, a friend of Michel’s; but by a cruel twist of fate, Mané–Katz died the day before she arrived, and she attended his funeral. On the return trip she met Jacob Aviel, a foreign correspondent for an Israeli newspaper, and began a relationship with him which lasted several years. Jacob took to helping Sally on the bookstall – he was multilingual, so could provide “sales patter” to a wide variety of tourists. From him, Sally picked up an interest in antique books. The couple eventually separated when Sally tired of Jacob’s unfaithfulness.
During the student protests in 1968 Sally had to stay away from the bookstall. She was advised to stay at home because of her dual nationality – if there had been any trouble, she could have been singled out for harsh treatment. Her friends counselled “Don’t get involved – you’ll get sent home!”
George Whitman’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company is a magnet for Paris-based expatriates, especially Americans. Located in the rue de la Bûcherie on the Left Bank, it followed in the footsteps of another Paris bookshop of that name, which operated from 1919 to 1941 and had counted Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway as patrons, among others. Whitman opened his shop in 1951 and renamed it Shakespeare and Company in 1964 in honour of its predecessor and of the Bard’s 400th birthday; he nicknamed it “the rag and bone shop of the heart” and also provided overnight accommodation in the same building, which he dubbed the Tumbleweed Hotel; the cost of an overnight stay was to give George a short biography of oneself and read a book every day! Sally was a regular visitor to the shop, and among the literati she met there was the American beat poet Gregory Corso, with whom she had a brief relationship.
As time went on, the life of a bouquiniste became harder. The increasing amount of traffic on the adjacent road tended to drown out conversation; the attendant rise in petrol fumes was a constant worry, and there were more and more accidents caused by vehicles skidding onto the pavement, including one in which a colleague was severely injured and his customer killed. The slow dying of the trees – no doubt not unrelated to the rise in traffic – also meant less shade for the booksellers in summer. Finally, it seemed to Sally that the quality of goods being sold on many of the stalls was deteriorating: postcards and modern posters were displacing the old books and prints which she loved. So, by 1975, she had decided to close up and return to the UK; she was approaching her 50th birthday, and knew it would be harder for her to get a job if she left it much longer.
In the end, as she recalls, “the decision to close shop was made for me, when I returned to France from a visit to England and found my stall in splinters.” A skidding lorry had demolished her stall one wet night, and the driver left no details. The stall was not insured, and the shock of the accident – which could have been much worse had she been attending the stall – convinced her that it was time to stop. She took one look at the wreckage and thought “Right – I’ve got to go!”
On her return from France, Sally applied for two nursing jobs: one in London and one in Brighton, a place she had familial connections with, as her grandfather had been the Director of Parks & Gardens in the town, and had lived in Preston Lodge, at the entrance to Preston Park, which has since been demolished.
Property was cheaper in Brighton than London so she accepted an offer from the Royal Alexandra children’s hospital and bought a flat in Lansdowne Place, Hove. She was able to retain a pied-à-terre in Paris, however, buying a tiny studio flat in Rue Veron, Montmartre, which she used as a base whenever she returned to Paris on a visit.
Jacob Aviel died several years ago, but Michel Ragon is still alive and is a successful and well-known writer ( http://www.michelragon.fr/ ). Michel and his third wife, Françoise, write to Sally occasionally.
Many thanks to Jim Grozier for writing Sally’s story for this blog. In addition to the article in Elle, Sally still keeps articles about her in an unidentified French magazine and aBelgian magazine. Newly added: an article by Sally herself about her time in Paris: Map Collector