In a secondhand bookshop there’s often a scent of the mysteriousness of life, the different faces that chance can take and that could be awaiting you on a high, dusty shelf. There’s also the enigma of previous hands, of the laps where book spines once lay, the passages that were read and re-read, its pages dog-eared. Browsing can be a form of distraction and mindfulness at the same time, a task that has to be attended to but without fixed expectations on outcome. Then there’s that moment, irreproducible, when the book you’ve been searching for months finally appears on a different shelf because it had been misplaced, and a jolt of pleasure runs through your body like fire.
In Brussels I’ve had that feeling, many times. The bookshop is called Nijinski and is housed in 15, Rue de Page, in Ixelles. A few meters in from the entrance stands the owner, Louis Castel, who behind piles of books and magazines smiles at me despite the news.
“We’re moving out,” he says. “By June 30th we have to be out.” Someone has bought the whole building, he explains. Renovations will take place and the rent will increase. “It doesn’t make sense for me to keep the bookshop here,” Louis says. “I want to stay but it’s just not possible. I simply cannot afford the rent that they’re asking.”
Known as Mr. Nijinski, Louis is an affable, cordial man who’s been the owner of the shop since January 2006. Before him there was Philip Panier, the founder of the bookshop as we know it. “I used to come here since I was a little boy,” says Louis, who grew up in the neighborhood. “This is the only bookshop my parents could afford. Used but wonderful books, I read and read, and Mr. Panier got used to my being here. About 200 Belgian Francs, that’s how much I could spend.” Later he even worked here, from 2004 until 2006, before being offered to take on full responsibility.
The Nijinksi secondhand bookshop was founded and opened for business in 1992. At the time, Panier acquired a shop called Charabia, where one could buy all sorts of trinkets, secondhand clothes, and transformed it into a bookshop. Like Vaslav Nijinski, Panier was also of Polish origin and enjoyed dance; one of Panier’s sons eventually became a professional dancer. Those were some of the reasons why he chose the name. Set on the ground level of the building, the shop has two large beautiful window displays, and is spacious with two main halls and long corridors with high ceilings and wooden floors. Light pours in from both front and back windows, and soft classical music fills the atmosphere with tranquility. The building, Louis tells me, is about a hundred years old.
“I live near Flagey and one day a lady I met on a street near my apartment asked me, ‘What do you do for a living?’ After I explained she said, ‘I grew up in that building!’ She told me about her family and her childhood. She used to play in the yard. After the war, her father became a photographer and he used to develop the pictures in the room over there. It’s funny how life gives you these amazing surprises. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known.”
When Louis speaks he does so in a rapid-fire-like way. He’s excited to tell the story before the bookshop, at least as it’s been known for more than twenty years, ceases to exist. “Last year, when I received the notification, I panicked. I really did. ‘My world is crumbling,’ I thought. But now I see it in a different way. I’ve begun to see the perspectives of building something from scratch. And that can be exciting too.”
Versed in old Greek, Latin, Philosophy and History of Religion, Louis seems determined to bring the magic of this bookshop with him. “It’s a pleasure to talk to you about this process,” he says, then runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “I’m not super rich but I can survive, make a decent living. I’m healthy, live with a person I love, I feel so grateful. And every day I say to myself, ‘You’re doing what you love.’ To tell you the truth, I don’t even have the impression that this is work.”