In October of 2003, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, we flew over to Frankfurt, Germany to attend the annual international book fair (Peggy was employed by a publishing house at the time, handling foreign rights). From there, we boarded a train to Paris to spend a few days living in a small studio apartment on the Isle St. Louis. With parenthood looming, we thought it was high time to get some quality vacation time in, correctly assuming that it would be our last opportunity for a long while. Having only fleetingly visited Paris way back in 1987, I was very excited to once again stroll the streets of the fabled City of Light.
When I informed my friend Sam that I was going to Paris, he made a special request. There was an item that his brother had procured in a curious Parisian shop several years earlier that Sam deeply coveted. Upon hearing that I was going to be spending a week there without any fixed plan, Sam wondered if I could do him a favor and try to attain that same item for him. Of course I said yes.
The item in question was an old educational poster, specifically a biological chart entitled "Squelette du Lapin" ("Skeleton of the Rabbit"). He described it in detail, and it sounded just weird and creepy enough that I almost started to want one for myself. Evidently, Sam's brother had picked it up at a spot called Deyrolle, located at 46 Rue de Bac. That was all Sam knew. I accepted the mission. At the very least, I figured, searching for this enigmatic item at this mysterious address would show me a side of Paris that trumped the usual tourist jaunt. I vowed to Sam that I'd prize the poster for him by hook or by crook.
When we arrived in Paris, it was more dizzyingly beautiful than I'd remembered from my last visit there as a petulant twenty-year old. After getting settled in our new digs, Peg and I set about tracking down this fabled shop to fetch Sam his poster.
Unlike the orderly grid that comprises the map of Manhattan (I have no sympathy for anyone who gets lost here), Paris is a hugely confusing amalgam of passages, alleys, nooks, places, boulevards and ever-widening arrendisments. Even while outfitted with a map, a relatively keen sense of direction and a rudimentary understanding of French, my wife and I had a devil of a time finding this place. After an endless morning of searching, we eventually stumbled upon it, to find it -- well, looking rather dormant.
I peered into the front window, and the ground floor looked worryingly bereft of life or activity, and the door was locked. Were we too late? Were we too early? Did the place no longer exist? With nothing to lose, I rang the doorbell and waited (while Peg snapped the photo above to prove to Sam that at least we'd tried). We were about to walk away when I spotted a matronly woman descending a flight of stairs in the rear of the ground floor. She came to the door with a disgruntled look and a mouthful of food (clearly, I'd interrupted her dejeuner). I stammered out my reasons for disturbing her in my mangled pigeon-French, and she sniffily motioned with her head to the stairs she'd just walked down. Peg and I stepped inside. This was indeed Deyrolle.
As I climbed the stairs, I was greeted by an intimidating menagerie of majestic beasts. Lions, tigers, polar bears, elk, cheetahs and zebra seemed to poke out from every corner in a collection that handily rivaled the statliest museum. As I swiftly deduced, Deyrolle was a taxidermy shop, featuring roomfuls of exotic fauna, lovingly preserved and disarmingly lifelike. It was like wandering around the Adams Family's house. I was surrounded on all sides by antlers, feathers, fur and bones. It was somewhat magical.
After fruitlessly trying to find "Squelette du Lapin" on my own, I sheepishly asked a shop assistant to help me, now feeling very self-conscious about my crappy French. After detailing the poster as best I could, the assistant looked at me blankly and walked away. I wasn't sure if she went to go look for it or that I'd simply bored her to distraction. Feeling like a chump, I went to go look at a wild boar's tusk, wondering what I'd tell Sam when I got home. Moments later, the assistant re-appeared holding a thin tube. She opened the tube and unrolled a large poster. At last, I stood face to face with "Squelette du Lapin" in all its unsettling glory. It was indeed a thing of beauty (although Peggy begged to differ).
"C'est vrai! C'est vrai!" I happily barked. The assistant slipped the poster back in the tube, and we settled up. A more confident traveller might have made arrangements to have the shop mail the poster home, but after all the searching and doubt, I figured that I'd be better off handling the transport myself. As such, "Squelette du Lapin" left Deyrolle with me and sat next to my suitcase for the rest of the trip.
After our lovely week on the Isle St. Louis, Peggy and I packed up our things and left the tiny studio apartment. The trip back to the stunning Paris airport (really, it's a sight see) was arduous. Both Peg and I had typically overpacked, and we'd collectively procured enough new items to make our respective loads heavier. As part of the post-September 11th "new reality," our bags were thoroughly searched before we were allowed to board any planes. I unspooled "Squelette du Lapin" for an indifferent security guard who seemed more distracted by and needlessly suspicious of the antique colander my wife had bought at a tiny shop ("it's a cooking device," I implored). But, they let us go and we flew home.
A couple of weeks later, we had dinner with Sam and his own pregnant wife Christine in their Brooklyn home. Sam was practically teary with gratitude upon the sight of "Squelette du Lapin," and I was honestly sad to part with it. But it felt good to fulfill my good friend's request and tell him the odd story of how I managed to find it for him. Mission accomplished. A few months later, Christine gave birth to a their son Felix, right around the same time that Peggy gave birth to Charlotte. Sam and his little family ended up re-locating to Portland, Oregon. "Squelette du Lapin" now hangs in a frame in their living room, doubtlessly scaring Felix out of his little gourd at every turn.
Five years later, I was paging through the latest copy of Vanity Fair last weekend and stumbled upon an amazing article (written by a captivating individual with the nom de plume, "Olga of Greece") all about Deyrolle. Apparently, this curious shop that still captures my imagination all these years later is considered something of a treasure to the Parisians, and quite rightly so. I was sad to read, however, that Deyrolle actually suffered a serious fire earlier this year, losing much of its gorgeous stock to the flames. Encouragingly, moves are currently afoot to restore Deyrolle to its previous glory. Click here to read the full extraordinary story.
I look forward to the day when I return to Paris with Charlotte and Oliver. I'd love to go back to Deyrolle and show my children its many curious wonders. And if I still can, I'm going to pick up a copy of "Squelette du Lapin" for myself.
Here's a fleeting glimpse of Deyrolle's remarkable second floor as it was.