Guardian Of Times Past: Preserver of Books, Letters

The letter arrived, sheltered between sheaves of parchment and protective cardboard. Up against the light, the imperial crest glowed faintly within the creamy vellum. Down on the desk, it was undetectable under the loving words the Emperor Napoleon had written to his wife, Josephine.

But to Jacques-Henri Pinault, something didn't feel right. Sitting in his small antiquarian bookstore, he puzzled over the document. It wasn't the handwriting or the ink - a fading, bitter-chocolate brown. But doubt had taken root, and before long, he'd proved his instincts right.

"It was the work of an artist," he says, praising the forger, whose only mistake had been to "send" the letter from a place Napoleon was nowhere near at the time.

Antique books and letters are Mr. Pinault's passion - and his business. His two stores on the rue Bonaparte are a vestige of the Left Bank's literary and intellectual history, as is Pinault himself. Born and raised here, he has watched the area evolve over the last 70 years and knew many of its major players. Today, those artists and writers no longer throng the neighborhood.

Instead, Pinault sells their letters alongside missives from other bygone eras. While the end of the Left Bank's golden age of intellectual creativity saddens him, he sees it as part of a larger trend that's not limited to the neighborhood, Paris, or even France.

"People don't read much anymore," he says with a rueful smile, "let alone write letters. They come home ... turn on the TV, and turn off their minds."

Success came through hard work that began with Pinault's mother, who left the war-torn northern French city of Dieppe in 1918 to open a secondhand bookstore here. As a young boy he'd find one of the neighborhood luminaries lost in a book. Jean-Paul Sartre would spend hours reading, refusing the offer of a chair, claiming he was just on his way out.

"It was a culture casserole," Pinault says of the neighborhood at the time. "The world's most dynamic, creative people came. All the artists and poets and painters were here."

As World War II raged through Europe, Pinault buried himself in a bookbinding apprenticeship and eventually joined the military. On his return, he set up a studio at the back of his mother's shop where he could restore books and start building a career.

Fifty years later, he's become the man French and foreign museums turn to to authenticate a letter or appraise a book. "Selling is sometimes bittersweet," he says. "I hate to see some things go."

But go they do, and for hefty prices. A love letter from Napoleon to Josephine can cost $20,000 - hence the incentive to forge. But there are more affordable and equally fascinating letters in his catalog - from writers such as Henry Miller, Victor Hugo, and Marcel Proust to kings including Britain's Henry IV, and artists such as Renoir and Rodin.

The irony of his growing success coinciding with the Left Bank's steady decline as an intellectual center isn't lost on Pinault.

But even as he mourns the area's loss of "soul," he sees continuity in the change. Customers still spend hours browsing and reading, refusing the offer of a chair, and his daughter's young son already shows strong interest in the books that line his grandfather's walls.

"If God grants me life," Pinault says with a little laugh, "there'll be time to train him yet."

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