andrew burke





Montolieu: Village of Books

Posted on: 2015-02-28

The town of Montolieu was the first place on our trip where we stayed more than one night. We needed the rest, of course, but Montolieu is a beautiful and interesting town that deserved more than just an evening of attention.

Since the 1990s, Montolieu has been "the village of books", a home to booksellers and a magnet to bibliophiles. It is home to a number of used and antiquarian bookshops as well as a printing museum.

I love books, and especially enjoyed the required half-course in old books and book-making that I took during my M.A. in English at the University of Toronto. But my relationship to used book shops is like that of an alcoholic who can never enter a bar. If I let myself go, I could spend hours poring over yellowed old paperbacks and faded coffee-table books, buying stuff every day. I already have more books than I can ever hope to read in my lifetime, and the last thing I need is more of them filling up my already overflowing shelves - even the virtual ones. I used to live and work less than a block away from excellent used book stores in Halifax - and I had only been in either of them once.

Bookshop Window in Montolieu

I managed to stay on the (book) wagon in Montolieu - partially because we were trying to travel light and anything I bought I would have to carry the rest of the way or pay to ship home, but also because years of not doing very well in French Immersion classes have led to a more adversarial relationship between me and French books.

Without the twitches of addiction, I was able to window shop and browse happily without being too concerned about blowing my budget.

I wondered what the future might hold (or even the present) for bookshops in this age of ebooks and the internet. The shops seemed lively enough - and certainly there is no such thing as a digital antiquarian first edition. I did notice, though, that many of the shops had large graphic novel and manga sections. This is partly because France has a tradition of more artful graphic novels as distinct from historically more pulpy "comic books" in North America. I finally gave in and got a 70s-vintage "Schtroumpfs" book I remembered from grade school (yeah, I was into smurfs before they were cool) and Jodorowski / Moebius's "Apr├Ęs L'Incal. These had the advantage of being thin and light and the bookseller was able to ship them to Canada for us without a lot of extra charges.

Yes they just barely fit on our overstuffed bookshelves (they're thin, thankfully) and no I haven't read them yet.

Besides the bookshops, the real treat for bibliophiles in Montolieu is the Museum of Book Arts and Crafts. It contains a history of publishing, from Egyptian scribes through to digital printing, and has great collection of printing tools and presses.

Letter Racks

Ready For Layout

Printing Frame

(You know how your word processor has a "leading" setting for the space between lines? Turns out it's because they used to put actual strips of lead in between the text. Now you know how to pronounce it properly, too!)

They had presses and typesetting machines from across the centuries, each listing the number of pages that they could print per hour (from 15 or so to 40,000 or more):

Vintage Mobile Printing Press

Printing Press

Each machine had a little plaque explaining it. It was interesting to see how typesetting evolved from manually placing letter forms into a frame to making new letters from mould-injected hot lead as you typed - including some that simply encoded your typing onto a paper tape which was later fed into proper typesetting machines, sort of like loading software into a computer.

Typesetting Machine

There were some exotic-looking vintage printing devices, like this one that looks a bit like a mutant typewriter:

Complicated Exotic Printing Machine

I loved all the Victorian and Jazz-Age industrial steel machinery - and especially all the amazing dials, levers, and controls everywhere:

Best Control Panel Ever

One wall was taken up by a giant metal cylinder, which is used in making high-quality paper. Have you ever wondered where that subtle grid pattern comes from? Well, it's this:

Paper Frame

The upstairs of the museum had a gallery of etchings, lithographs, and fine-art prints, as well as explanations of all the different kinds of techniques used by artists in print-making. If you're ever in south-west France, especially if you're of a bookish disposition, Montolieu is worth the quick trip from Carcassonne.

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