The great paper trail

Off an unassuming street in central Paris, near the Louvre, is La Galcante, a unique treasure trove of ephemeral publications, all of which are for sale. Christian House delves into its dizzyingly diverse stock of printed material

‘We have tickets, envelopes, bills. We are interested in every type of paper.’ Pierre Aribaud leans over the counter, smiles and starts rolling a cigarette. Aribaud is a seasoned documentaliste at La Galcante, a unique Parisian emporium offering papiers anciens — newspapers, magazines, postcards, photographs, maps, journals — to curious collectors. It’s like Google, just with dust motes and silverfish.

La Galcante — the name is a compression of galerie and brocante (flea market) — is hidden behind the 18th-century arches at 52 Rue de l’Arbre Sec. It’s a Russian doll of a shop: a cosy set of storerooms at the back of a cobbled courtyard at the end of an alley leading off a side street. It’s practically a tourist queue away from the Louvre, but you would never know. Inside are archives of French and international dailies (Le Monde, Le Figaro, New York Herald Tribune), art and society magazines (Paris Match, The New Yorker, Derrière le Miroir) and peculiar periodicals (Paris Flirt, Le Nouveau Détective).

At the heart of La Galcante is a stack of box files with material related to writers ranging from Camus to Conan Doyle, Sartre to Simenon
At the heart of La Galcante is a stack of box files with material related to writers ranging from Camus to Conan Doyle, Sartre to Simenon

There are teetering towers of box files, all full of printed material, from fanzines and foldouts to exhibition posters and programmes, each relating to a specific topic: artistic movements, political parties, a world of cuisines. And everything is for sale. Items date from the 18th century to the present day, and vary in price from a few euros for a foxed newspaper to €4,000 for a first edition of Émile Zola’s J’Accuse. Want a flyer from an obscure Dalí show? A period press clipping on Lautrec? La Galcante is your place.

The shop was opened in 1975 by Christian Bailly, a wealthy journalist, broadcaster and historian. Bailly began collecting publications as a teenager in the 1940s. ‘All areas, all themes,’ says Aribaud. ‘It was his passion.’ He gradually formed a huge collection to which he added a second cache of material that he had inherited from a friend. ‘Bailly was a philanthropist and bon vivant, a big guy with his heart in his hand,’ Aribaud notes. ‘He was maybe a little crazy, but a good man.’ His dream was to found a museum to house the collection, and for a while in the late 1970s it looked as if he might succeed. 

Sofia Coppola used the shop to acquire props for ‘Marie Antoinette’. Martin Scorsese was another customer: ‘In the film ‘Hugo’, there is a kiosk of newspapers. They’re originals’

He staged exhibitions of exceptional publications at the Hôtel de Ville and gained the support of prominent figures. ‘He had some promises from Jacques Chirac, who was mayor of Paris at the time,’ Aribaud recalls. ‘And they said, “OK, OK, we can support you to do that.” But in fact he never succeeded.’

La Galcante was to be an outlet for duplicates from the collection and is still rather melancholically called ‘La Boutique du Musée de la Presse’. Bailly died in 2002 with his hopes unfulfilled, although a society of friends still fights his cause. For now, his legacy is the shop. It is one that its present owner, Jacek Kuzma, has maintained with care. Kuzma came to work here as a student during his summer holidays 29 years ago, and never left.

The history of the building is as unusual as its contents. In the 18th century it was the Hôtel de Trudon, home to King Louis XV’s sommelier, who dispatched vintages from three layers of cellars to the royal palaces. The sommelier branched out into candle-making and subsequently used the premises as a warehouse. ‘I thought it was a legend, but I’ve had confirmation that there was a tunnel and there were deliveries of candles from here to the Louvre,’ says Aribaud. ‘One thousand candles per day.’

La Galcante’s stock ranges from fanzines to first editions
La Galcante’s stock ranges from fanzines to first editions
Items date from the 18th century to the present day
Items date from the 18th century to the present day

In the mid-19th century the building was turned into a printworks for the bookseller and publisher Léon Techener. It was here, in 1869, that Techener printed the first edition of the Revue international de l’art et de la curiosité, a critical paper bankrolled by Paul Durand-Ruel, famed picture dealer and champion of the Impressionists. Its mission, wrote Durand-Ruel in his memoirs, was to support ‘healthy doctrines and particularly our great painters, who were the sole true masters of the modern French school’. The publication soon folded (you might find a rare copy at La Galcante). By the turn of the 20th century, a religious order had turned 52 Rue de l’Arbre Sec into a refuge for young women, with a chapel where the shop now stands: a fin de siècle photograph shows rows of pews under the skylights.

Today, commerce has returned, and the cellars, once full of Bordeaux and Burgundy, wax and wicks, are now stacked with carefully ordered boxes of Paris Match, Vogue and Elle. Roaming the dusty vaulted space, one is immersed in history’s paper trail. Items are arranged by title, theme and date. Buyers are varied, but loosely fit into browsers — often looking for a newspaper from the day they were born — collectors and researchers. Museum curators, gallery owners, set designers and film directors have rented ephemera from La Galcante to add verisimilitude to a project. Sofia Coppola used its services to acquire props for Marie Antoinette.

Martin Scorsese was another customer. ‘If you watch his film Hugo, there is, in the train station of Saint-Lazare, a kiosk of newspapers. All the papers you see there, I chose them,’ Aribaud notes with pride. ‘They’re originals.’

A section of the shop devoted to movie stars features such names as Deneuve, Garbo, Brando and Bacall
A section of the shop devoted to movie stars features such names as Deneuve, Garbo, Brando and Bacall
Cardboard boxes contain material from 1969. The building was once a candle warehouse, with a tunnel running to the Louvre
Cardboard boxes contain material from 1969. The building was once a candle warehouse, with a tunnel running to the Louvre

The oddest thing he has sold is a copy of Plages, an anarchic, limited-edition contemporary art magazine from the 1970s. This issue, however, possessed an extra sensory element. ‘It had an illustration with dogs, and you had dog faeces actually on the paper,’ says Aribaud. ‘Totally weird, but it didn’t smell.’ He sold it to an avant-garde gallerist from north Paris.

In fact there is an array of art magazines on offer, from Art et Industrie, a journal focused on luxury goods and applied arts, to the surrealist review Minotaure. A central wall houses two columns of boxes providing arcane information on European painters — Bernard Buffet, Alphonse Mucha, Paul César Helleu — along with graphic artists such as Goscinny and Uderzo (creators of Asterix). A dip into one of several boxes dedicated to Picasso uncovers old interviews in Playboy and Connaissance des Arts.

An open copy of Gazette du Bon Ton, a couture magazine from the 1920s hailed by documentaliste Pierre Aribaud as ‘the best thing ever printed’
An open copy of Gazette du Bon Ton, a couture magazine from the 1920s hailed by documentaliste Pierre Aribaud as ‘the best thing ever printed’

There are also items in La Galcante that are works of art in their own right. Aribaud darts around the aisles, trailing smoke, looking for beautiful things to show me. ‘This is the best thing ever printed,’ he beams, passing me a copy of Gazette du Bon Ton, a couture magazine from the 1920s (tagline: Art-Modes & Frivolités). A sequence of startling fashion plates in glorious primary colours emerges from between its covers. ‘Nothing can compare to these in terms of the quality of the printing and the drawing,’ observes Aribaud. ‘I say to you it is the best ever. You can find things on the internet, but you won’t find a shop with such a stock. We are the last.’