Each morning when Erik Tonen enters his more than elegant antiquarian bookshop on the Kloosterstraat in Antwerp, he seldom refrains from greeting his books with a “Good morning, books.” He tells me this over a cup of coffee, and I believe him instantly, since he has told me only moments before that there is no profession like his and that he would not know what to do with his life for want of it. Still, like many others, he entered the book profession purely by chance. “I had just begun my second trip around the world,” he says somewhat coyly, “and I became stranded in Antwerp as early as the second day. I became fascinated by this city and went on to read as much about it as possible. Soon I was the owner a comprehensive collection of Antwerpiana that I intended to sell some day. And suddenly I found that I was a trader in old books.” Old books. The combination of those words will crop up time and again this afternoon, and they are also painted in elegant letters above Erik Tonen’s handsome shop window. Has he ever considered providing his shop with a more mysterious name than simply “ Erik Tonen”? He shrugs. “ Why should I? I like my name, so I use it. I put old books on display here and people are free to purchase them.” Even so, occasionally his heart will break when one of his customers makes off with a book that he would have preferred to keep. Most antiquarian booksellers suffer from this ailment to a greater or lesser extent. His conclusion, though, is very down-to-earth: “Once you have chosen to sell your books, you should not bemoan the sale. The term book trade is made up of the word book as well as the word trade.” And after all, in order to trade well, something needs to be sold once in a while. And indeed, business seems to be booming. Erik Tonen has built up a loyal, erudite and, judging from his words, sizable customer base. An English-speaking girl enters the shop and says she won't be buying any books. She just would like to mention that she finds Antiquariaat Erik Tonen “such a lovely shop”. Shortly after, an Antwerp youth enters the shop and spontaneously presents yours truly with a book to which he adds the motto “From Matthijs, with affection” in neat handwriting. I am flabbergasted as much as I am touched. The bookseller comes to my rescue. “People who buy books are almost always nice people”, he says. I reply by saying this may well be true, since I haven't heard of any bookshop hooligans yet. Bar the one Anglo-Saxon visitor, I have only noticed male visitors entering the shop today. The only female presence is the voice of Edith Piaf on the radio, even though it may be drifting in from the cosy Francophone bistro located in the adjacent premises. Aren’t women interested in old books? “They are,” Tonen laughs. “But in general they are more aware of what they want, so they tend to spend less time in the shop. They enter the shop and ask for a title straight away. If I do not have it, they will leave without a moment’s hesitation. If I do have the book, they pay for it at once and off they go. Some men seem to keep hanging around here for hours on end. Not that I mind!” And this treasure trove of a bookstore does offer a lot to browse through. If you visit www.erik-tonen-books.be and use the search feature, you will find that the books located on the shelves are a mere fraction of the titles stored in the vaults of this individual who set out as a dilettante, but ended up as a more than professional bookseller - and an eminent member of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers to boot. As a bookseller, does he have a dream? Is there any title that he simply cannot do without? A silence settles on the shop. Then Tonen confesses: “My dream is located here”. Another silence. “But it will have to leave the shop someday.” The gem he is referring to is a fifteenth-century book of hours and prayer of French origin, presumably originating from the archdiocese of Rouen. It looks impressive, and the price may be exceptional as well, even though experts agree that in this country the prices for antique books can still be called reasonable. My question as to whether the discovery of this amazing object evoked a small dance of joy is answered with an affirmative nod. Does he consider himself to be an expert after all those years? No, but nowadays he does consider himself to be a connoisseur. And will he ever finish his second trip around the world, is my final question. Here comes that smile again. He gazes at his books and comments, sagely, “I make trips around the world journeys on a daily basis – in my head.” Published in De Standaard, May 2, 2003 by Marc Didden.
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