The Book of Exodus is more physical than Biblical at the Montreal bookstore Librissime. The canvas folio box is a foot and a half by two feet in size, with “Exodus” etched into its cover in gold leaf. Opening it is a delicate matter—steady hands wrapped in cotton gloves—and to do so occupies many senses. You feel the handmade cotton paper, hear it sigh as the pages turn. The smell of silkscreen ink wafts up, and your eyes dazzle at Sam Fink’s meticulous rendering of Moses in all his fury. There are 1,000 copies in the world. Each sells for $1,480.
“A book is humanity’s memory,” says Librissime’s Gilles Tremblay, a shortish fellow who wears gold-accented black suspenders. It might as well be Librissime’s mantra, if not an explanation for the store’s pricing scheme. It carries only a handful of publishers, and deals solely in new, often ornate rarities—“Hyperstylish books from $9 to $999,999” reads the outsized poster in Librissime’s entrance. Librissime—a Latin bastardization meaning “ultimate book”—has been a discreet wonder in Old Montreal, a bibliophile’s fantasy made flesh, a sort of anti-Indigo where reading a book isn’t nearly as important as gazing upon it as one might a Renoir.
“Books are like food—it can’t only be good, it has to look good,” says Tremblay. A former translator, Tremblay and his wife, Judith Marineau, also a former translator, opened the shop in 2006 with their two children—both of whom, yes, are former translators. It’s small, maybe 1,600 sq. feet, and meticulous in its uncluttered display of 12,000 books. Coffee drinkers are politely asked to leave their beverages at the cash.
University students are taught that the written classic is meant to be devoured, physically and mentally, committed to memory and placed on a bookshelf for evermore. Librissime’s aesthetic turns this truism on its ear. The typical collector, Tremblay says, is a businessman or a well-heeled artist—Sting shops here—who has already read the book in question, and wants to honour it by turning it into art.
And art it is. The three-volume version of Dante’s The Comedy, for example, comes bound in buttercream-white calfskin leather, a hand-chiselled brass rendering of the crossing of the River Styx by Italian sculptor Alessandro Kokocinski on its cover. Published by FMR Scripta, the set sells for $36,200 and looks best bathed in indirect halogen light. (FMR and French-based Assouline are the two most prominent publishing houses selling at Librissime.)
Not surprisingly, there are few walk-in customers. Tremblay and his wife spend a good part of their lives on the road delivering books to a far-flung clientele. The pair smiles demurely, in tandem, when asked about their customers; discretion is a bookseller’s best asset, it seems. They will say, though, that they specialize in “corporate gifts,” or the presents that captains of industry give to one another. And in the era of conspicuous belt-tightening, it’s apparently better to spend $1,480 on a book than, say, a comparatively priced bottle of hooch. “It’s better for the giver, the receiver and the accountant who oversees it all,” Tremblay says. “People tell me they are proud to buy this,” he adds, pointing to a limited edition of Don Quixote ($710): “It’s a more intelligent conversation piece than a wine cellar or a garage full of nice cars. It impresses the guests more.”
The store holds exclusivity rights with most of the eight publishers with whom it deals. As such, there are no competitors anywhere in North America. It doesn’t deal only in classics; car books, like FMR’s $620 Divine Bugatti, are popular. So is the $9 children’s book Bisou et chocolat, for that matter.
Walking through Librissime’s doors is like visiting a library’s archival room. You can touch, yes, but only with gloves, and only so much. It is art, after all. This begs the question: how much are these books actually read? “Most people have already read them,” Tremblay says without a hint of irony. They aren’t so much books as artified mementoes.
He tells the story of one company president, he won’t reveal the name, who bought FMR’s illustrated and annotated edition of Story of O, Pauline Réage’s pornographic ode to female submission, for his equivalent at another company. At $7,650, it’s a lot to spend for what amounts to a large, naughty comic book. “Those two guys have some sort of history,” Tremblay says. “This book means something to the both of them.”