Shopping in Paris: My great glassine caper

[Alyson Kuhn] My friend Jean Trabant introduced me to the Société Philatélique Languedocienne many years ago. I happen to like to say Société Philatélique Languedocienne, but you can just think of it as the SPL (which the French pronounce ess-pay-elle). It is my source for French glassine envelopes, and I was in acute need of replenishing my reserves. Things could not have turned out better had I planned ahead, which I emphatically had not.

Outgoing parcels, fabulously franked. Photo by moi.

Well, I spontaneously decided on Saturday afternoon, January 5, that I should head over to the SPL. As I set out from Palais Royal, I was sans the shop’s exact address, sans cell phone, sans phone card, but armed with my arrondissement guidebook. I knew the SPL was on the Rue La Fayette, and I thought I’d be able to find it. Well, this part of Paris is pretty deserted on the weekend, and as I walked along, it occurred to me that the shop might not be open on Saturday. Or worse, the shop might usually be open on Saturday, but closed the first Saturday after New Year’s. Or, the shop might have been open on Saturday morning…but would be closed by the time I got there. Or, it might have been closed the entire week, like the Mokuba ribbon store, for inventory. Why hadn’t I called ahead? And, since I was sinking into self-kuhntempt, why hadn’t I brought samples of the divine pale blue open-end glassine envelopes (in three sizes) that I had bought at the SPL eleven years earlier?

This is the largest size I bought. It holds a postcard beautifully. The Imprimerie Camis card (lower left) is a reproduction of a poster by Henri-Gustave Jossot (1897), announcing that the printer has the largest lithography presses in the world, capable of printing the biggest posters ever produced in a single piece. The original poster measures 3 ft. x 8-1/2 ft.

Fortunately, the SPL was open, and it was not crowded. I thought that the French for glassine envelope was sac en cristal, so that’s what I asked for, but Madame presented me with…glassine bags, without a flap. “Ah, non,” said I, “I would like envelopes with flaps.” “Ah,” observed Madame, “but you asked for bags.” “My mistake,” said I. “Well,” said she, “we don’t stock glassine envelopes any more, because they have become very expensive and people don’t like to pay so much, so they use these glassine bags.” Hmm, I wondered whether using the ultra-theoretical subjunctive might advance my cause. It turned out I could order glassine envelopes, but I would need to pay a deposit, and the envelopes would arrive by the end of the week. Non, Madame could not tell me whether the glassine would be pale blue. Well, as it happened, I was leaving for Provence at the creak of dawn on Monday, returning to Paris on Thursday afternoon, and then flying home on Sunday morning. So, if the shop hadn’t been open on Saturday, I would have been up the Seine without a paddle.

It would have been suave to have a ruler with me, to decode the centimeter measurements in the philatelic catalog.

“Excellent,” I exclaimed, “I would like to order several sizes.” So, Madame brought over the catalogue and showed me the table of sizes. Uh-oh, why hadn’t I thought to bring a ruler with inches and centimeters on it? Zut alors. I apologized, not for the first time, and asked if I might borrow a ruler so that I could actually understand the sizes. Well, these bijoux were worth their weight in dark chocolate with hazelnuts. I decided I would buy four of the six sizes (They are sold by the 100) for a total of 47 €, about $60. An order was duly entered, with my address et tout.

Then, my eye wandered to a shelf upon which rested a tidy stack of slim, elegant, desirable dark green stock books. Exactly like the ones you see in the photo below, but there were about two dozen in the stack. Hélàs, they were all sold to another customer. But I could look at one—which sufficed to convince me that I needed one, or two, or a few. What to do? As I was rallying my verb tenses to inquire whether it might be possible for the SPL to order stock books on my behalf on Monday and whether, were it in fact possible, the books would arrive by the end of the week…Madame crossed the shop and called down the stairs. And someone answered. A conversational volley ensued.

This handsome little stock book measures 4-5/8 x 6-5/8 x 3/8-in.

The upshot is that I could purchase as many of the stock books as I liked, and the shop would re-order on Monday. Quel bonheur! I bought five. My little books were installed in one of the de rigueur huge plastic bags that all stamp dealers use. I was just about to leave when it occurred to me to ask if the shop sold postage stamps for collectors. Bien sur! Madame ushered me into her office, where I explained that I did not know the catalog numbers of any of the stamps I wanted, but that I was interested in engraved French stamps from the 1960s, particularly reproductions of Impressionist masterpieces. I think I can say that Madame beamed as she lifted out a massive black binder.

The stock book has eight pages, each with five strips of incredibly taut glassine to hold the stamps in position. I would love to watch a page being assembled.

Earlier in the week, I had been to the Musée d’Orsay to see the exhibition Impressionnisme et la mode. It was magnificent, and I bought a mysteriously inexpensive magalog with several excellent essays. I wanted to buy some “companion postage” as a souvenir. Claude Monet’s painting Femmes au jardin (1866) measures 80 x 100-in. The postage stamp of the painting measures 1-5/8 x 2-in.

After I’d selected my Impressionist stamps, Madame graciously kept turning pages, and then moved on to a second big black binder, containing more recent stamps. I jumped for joy when I saw this Sempé birthday stamp. And Babar bearing a birthday cake—the crowning glory!

The name of the artist (De Brunhoff and Sempé) appears in small type at the very lower left of the stamp. I did not buy enough of these.

I went back to the SPL on Friday afternoon, just as Madame Lilyane Py was leaving for the weekend. I retrieved my exquisite glassine envelopes, whose flaps are not folded down, or even scored. You do it yourself, by gently rolling the flap down until it catches on the two upper corners of the envelope. I don’t know if I am slower than average at this, but I usually have to adjust one corner—and am amazed by the difference that a zillimètre makes in having an envelope look out-of-square. Anyway, I presented Madame with some philatelic bonbons as a token of my appreciation: a sheet of cinderella stamps from the Alphabetilately exhibition at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum (until Jan. 31, 2014) and a set of companion bookmarks. She was wonderfully surprised—and may frame the sheet of cinderellas.

After all that, I didn’t manage to send any mail at all from Paris, much as I had hoped to make my first visit to the post office in the Eiffel Tower. The very existence of this post office had come as a total surprise to me, via post, in 1998. Oh, well, next time!

My friend Ward Williams, on his first trip to Paris, discovered the post office in the Eiffel Tower. His French at the time was limited to Oui, Non, S’il vous plaît, Merci, and Chocolat.

The Sociéte Philatélique Languedocienne is located at 22 Rue La Fayette, 75009 Paris. Telephone (from the U.S.): 011-33-1-42-46-99-30. Fax: 011-33-1-47-70-03-61.

Photos, except as noted, © 2013 StudioAlex.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Maureen on 02.25.13 at 6:25 pm

    Mon Dieu, Sacre Bleu! I can feel my pocketbook lightening already and I don’t even have my next trip to Paris planned yet. Great write up and I have to say je suis un petit peu jalouse.

  2. Posted by Diane Tompkins on 03.1.13 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for another vicarious bit of travel and inspiration, dear Alyson. Lovely to see and hear about.

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