Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Michel Saporta

Michel Saporta


In 2007 I had one of those moments when the bus hits you. It’s a French expression to describe an extreme wake-up call. It was a terrible year in which six of my closest friends passed away one after the other. It made me realise that it was time for me to become a bookseller – something I had wanted to do since the age of five when I started buying old books with my father. Although I grew up in a home full of books, and my family has a publishing business, my parents wanted their children to go into financially secure professions. They had both suffered times of great hardship and uncertainty in their early lives, and wanted to spare us the same experience.

My father was born in Salonica, and spoke Judeo-Spanish as his first language. He wanted to become a doctor, but life turned out differently, and he went into the textile industry. He was always dearly attached to England, and worked for nearly 50 years as an agent for Scraggs of Macclesfield, and other manufacturers of textile machinery. In 1980 my father was awarded the OBE for services to British industry. Our family home was in Versailles, where I grew up and still live. For relaxation my father would read his favourite Greek literature in sixteenth-century editions. The sight of him in his armchair with his books influenced my early interest, and I learnt from him that accumulating is not the goal of collecting. You should experience the same pleasure from a single item as from the collection as a whole. Unfortunately I was bad at Greek when I was at school. My father would insist on looking at my homework. I translated the Greek text word by word in the hope that it would make some kind of sense. It never did, and he would despair and ask if I was stupid or just plain lazy.

In 1985, I graduated as a naval architect, hoping to find work as a ship designer. I’ve always been fascinated by wind. It isn’t material, but if you know how to catch it, you can make the whole world move. As it was difficult to find a job, I started working on water treatment plants all over the world. After several years as a civil engineer, I went back to school and did an MBA at INSEAD. I met my wife Caroline there, and both my sisters are also MBA graduates. I spent the next seven years working in mergers and acquisitions for large French companies. Life was good, and then the bus hit me.

Losing six friends in a short period of time made me realise that I had spent my working life fulfilling other people’s dreams. Financial security and pleasure in life had become confused in my mind. I’m not motivated by money or power; the real luxury in life is to be able to afford to change your occupation. Our aspirations are not stable at different stages in life.  I wanted to experience the pleasure of starting each day with something new to discover, and the world of books provided me with the perfect opportunity.

I was working at the time for Renault, and decided to go part-time, which gave me the afternoons to do my bookselling. It was a convenient arrangement, as we had three children to support, which would have been a headache without some regular income. Incidentally Caroline had already experienced a similar change of occupation. She had been earning a lot of money in venture capital, but dropped everything to fulfil her dream to become a garden designer. Every day she sets off on her bicycle to visit clients. She earns much less money, but she is happy in her work.

Librairie Ancienne Ormara opened in 2007, and is named after the last two letters of our daughters’ names – Flor, Paloma and Barbara. I later discovered Ormara is a city in Pakistan. The shop is in rue Monsieur le Prince near the Sorbonne, and there are lots of people around who have good collections. When they or their descendants decide to sell books, my shop is conveniently in the neighbourhood. Although I’m self-taught as a bookseller, I took classes in leather and paper restoration with Olivier Maupin, who founded the Centre de Formation en Restauration du Patrimoine Ecrit.  I wanted to be accurate in describing different types of leather, and to be able to date a sheet of paper from the method of its manufacture. When you read some dealers’ catalogues, you realise that all booksellers are not equal in the way that they describe their books.  For example, chagrin maroquine is sometimes described as goatskin. In fact it was often made from donkey skin, which was machine-embossed to give it a grain. It was widely used in the early nineteenth century for bookbinding, but is an inferior product that doesn’t age well.

I publish two printed catalogues a year, and send them to around 1,500 people on my mailing list. The book trade is in the business of paper, and physical catalogues are particularly efficient for us. Sometimes customers contact me a year or more after receiving a catalogue, and say that they have re-read it and hope that such-and-such is still available. If it’s already sold, I have the opportunity to offer them something else.  I’ve read most of the books in the shop and all the architectural material, and I know what’s interesting about them. This enables me to give good advice to customers who have a particular interest in mind. Although I have a website, I haven’t refreshed it for years, and I don’t put books online. Of course the internet is wonderful for quick access to information, but it’s far removed from the pleasure of a book in your hands.

I specialise in architecture, garden arts, furniture, Paris, and ancient bindings. If a dealer’s catalogue descriptions only give a basic collation of a book, their added value is zero. You need to be capable of explaining why the book is important, regardless of its commercial value. My next catalogue will include a book printed in Bordeaux in 1817, which happens to be the first book in which I’ve found a discussion about urban forests and the need to destroy part of the city to plant trees in order to purify the air and provide shade. It’s considered a contemporary issue, but actually it’s been around for a long time.

Some years ago I was asked to do an insurance valuation of a collection of esoterica. I came across a Hebrew book and started reading aloud from it. The owner became very nervous and told me to stop, as I wasn’t  allowed  to say the magic formula. It can be very difficult with esoteric material to understand exactly what you have in your hands. I doubt if many people are aware of the Kabbalistic meaning of George Orwell’s title 1984. The current Hebrew year is 5782, and so 1984 was 5744. The four Hebrew letters used to designate the year 5744, when pronounced as a word, read tashmad,  meaning doom or destruction. I believe that Orwell was aware of the significance of the date – it's hard to imagine that 1984 was chosen at random for the title of a dystopian novel.

When I opened the shop, I didn’t anticipate that it would be a good way to buy books for my own collection. I began collecting French mathematical manuscripts in my late teens.  I was fascinated by the concept of non-decimal systems. It was a revelation to discover that all units of measurement were non-decimal before the French Revolution. In Britain, you had until relatively recently a monetary system of pounds, shillings and pence, but I had experienced nothing comparable in France. Before the introduction of the metre and the kilogram, the complexity of computing science was unbelievable. One Montpellier foot wasn’t equal to one Marseille foot. Tables of comparisons were published to enable merchants, surveyors, navigators and others to do their calculations.

There was a brief period during the Revolution when the authorities tried to introduce decimal time. In 1795 clocks began to be made with ten hours in the day, 100 minutes in an hour and 100 seconds in a minute. As for the republican calendar, the year was divided into twelve months of thirty days each. The five remaining days were declared holidays. Saints’ days, the sabbath – in fact any references to the Church – were abolished. Meanwhile many children born in that period were given extraordinary names commemorating aspects of the Revolution, as their parents were encouraged to choose them in favour of the saints of the old calendar. If you were unlucky, you could be called ‘Lagrenade’ or ‘Travaille’. The innovations didn’t catch on, and the French calendar reverted to the old style on 1 January 1806.

My collection contains around forty manuscripts ranging from 1699 to 1805. I take the adoption of the metric system as my cut-off point, as it’s precisely the variety of units of measurement that makes the pre-Revolution material so interesting. If the subject sounds a little dry, I should say that each of my manuscripts is illuminated and often highly decorative, with the name of the person who wrote it, the location, the date, and often an introductory note explaining the reasons for its composition. The standard of the illumination varies enormously from highly accomplished to rather amateur in the case of authors who lacked the confidence to attempt anything more than the occasional grotesque. I haven’t met any other collectors who are in the same field, and I’m lucky to have good colleagues who call me when they spot items in catalogues that I might have missed.

Each manuscript in my collection was written for the use of a specific student. They are more than teaching aids, and one often learns about the personal circumstances of the teacher and the student.  In one example, written by a father for his son, he has drawn a donkey beside a tough computation, because he knows the kid is going to make a mistake. I go crazy for these details - they ‘smell’ human to me and the personal impact is still vibrant.  I have another manuscript in which the author explains that he had been a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. After he was wounded, he received a small pension, and all he wanted to do was retire to a farm and finish writing his manuscript. 

I have yet to come across a manuscript addressed to or written by a woman. No doubt this is explained by the state of women’s education in the eighteenth century. I would be fascinated to know if manuscript material exists regarding the scientific education of Emilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s lover, who made the first French translation of Newton’s Principia. Was she taught by her father, or did she have a tutor and, if so, are there any manuscripts surviving from that period?

Collectors who become booksellers can be a very positive development for the trade. If you’re passionate about something, there’s always a chance that you will be good at it. I regard Jean-Marc Dechaud as my ‘twin brother’ in the trade; he graduated in engineering at the same time as me, and then turned to bookselling. He now specialises in scientific books, and is currently the President of SLAM, the French association of antiquarian booksellers. Collectors know what is important in their subject, and therefore how to give added value to the books that they sell. Eric Grangeon was a partner in a huge Paris law firm until he decided to become a bookseller. He also understands how to present his books in the most attractive and intelligent way. When dealers are outside their comfort zone, they either dig deeper or make a guestimate. I’ve had some of my best buys at auction when the expert hasn’t realised the significance of something. The future of the antiquarian book trade is going to be Darwinian. I believe that only the fittest will survive, and they will be specialists, confident in their knowledge of a subject.

Interviewed for The Book Collector in Summer 2022















Michel Saporta

A Poland & Steery Co-production