Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Project

     When I moved to an ex-artist’s studio in Montmartre, scads of books needed to be re-shelved. But the shelving from my old place wasn’t up to the job in its new appointed place under the 12-foot-long wall-of-window. So I lined the books up, balancing one row on top of another on the wood from the old shelving. Which meant they couldn’t be taken out and read because they were all imprisoned by those above them. A book version of the human pyramid of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders or Basque acrobats.
     A carpenter friend from the Pyrenees visited me early on and designed a lovely bookcase to run the length of the windows. Then left, promising he’d come back and build it.
     That was 7 years ago.

Day 1 of The Project     My friend Jean-Pierre arrives from the south with Aviva, and we start going over details. There are three main sticking points. Each of us voices an opinion, which only serves to bring up even more sticking points. Finally we come to an agreement on them and Jean-Pierre works out what are presumed to be the final details. Whereupon I cook them a light dinner and we retire to our respective beds.

Day 2     Slight delay in the execution of The Project. This morning, tree surgeons come to remove the top two floors’ worth of branches from my tree - which obviously did not get the memo that cherry laurels don’t grow taller than 2 stories, and certainly not four stories.

Jean-Pierre, calculating

Our salesman, with the BHV
logo in the form of the store

     Once that’s over, we take the Métro to the BHV (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville), the Paris department store with an entire basement level solely for hardware and DIY. (Actually, it’s the only Paris department store to have such a section.) I’ve frequented its treasure trove for many years on various quests, but I’m sure I now have an honorary plaque on the wall of the wood department for longevity of attendance: four hours. Four hours while Jean-Pierre measures and calculates. And every time he arrives at a decision, our very kind salesman quashes his figures by bringing up just one more detail. He does that at least three times. By the end of our "visit", I know how many children the man has, how he got his bad back (not lifting wood), and that his daughter is having a difficult adolescence. No, seriously. I head off to pay for it all, and when I return with the receipt so they will actually start sawing the wood into the sections we need, he’s gone to lunch. It was kind of him to wait until we were through, commission or not.
     We retire to a café across from the store because the sawing will take half an hour. We share some cheese and bread, even though my stomach has given up by then. At 3:00, the wood is ready at the pick-up point, tied neatly into four bundles, which we regroup into five, given their excessive weight. Whereupon I make an Executive Decision. We will valiantly carry home the two lightest bundles in the Métro, stairs and all. The rest will be picked up tomorrow morning by me and my friend Ernest in his company van.

An uphill battle
      We barely make it back up the hill, panting and pausing. I’m proud to say I bravely keep up my side of the bargain until a block from the house when those last ten stairs and steep square get the best of me and Jean-Pierre gallantly finishes the long slog with both bundles.
     After a bit of a rest and a glass of water, he sets to building the smallest of the three bookcase sections, because that’s which bundles we carried home. Then disaster strikes. Jean-Pierre breaks the drill bit. No idea on what. There shouldn’t be anything in this beechwood that hard. So he soldiers on, using a smaller bit, and by 7:00 he’s finished and that bookcase looks fine. A bit strange, bookless, but sturdy and of the right proportions. Our reward? As I’m too pooped to cook, dinner at my favorite neighborhood restaurant. And an early night.

Day 3
BHV's rickshaw delivery service
won't deliver heavy wood,
especially uphill
      After breakfast, Jean-Pierre and Aviva trudge off downhill (everything’s downhill) to Castorama, France’s Home Depot, to buy a new drill bit to replace the one that broke last night. I decide to catch a quick shower, but just as I get stark naked my phone chirps that I have a voice mail. It’s from Ernest, about our Wood Run to the BHV. I thought he would come here first; he evidently thought we’d meet there. He says he’s half an hour away from the store. I throw on yesterday’s clothes - no time to be fashion-conscious - and power-walk to the Métro. In all, it’s a 45 minute trip; I do it in 25. As I reach the corner of the store, I see Ernest drive past in his van and park. Better timing - or luck - than that, I couldn’t hope for. We pick up the wood and drive it home. On the way, I confess my state of unreadiness when he called, although he needn’t ever have known. He thinks it’s funny. And he’s right.
     A quick lunch and then the fun begins. The tension, too... at least on my part. Details we hadn’t foreseen arise. They always do. Jean-Pierre spends seven straight hours measuring and drilling and screwing and assembling. He’s amazing.
     While he continues with the last section, I dust off all 32 volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica and line them up on their assigned bottom shelf. They all fit, with not an inch to spare. Brilliant! These poor tomes have been off-limits for seven years because they were holding up the two rows of books above them. (Remember the cheerleader pyramid?) Now they stand smartly at attention, smiling at me for taking the weight of the world off their spines (pun intended).
      Finally, at 8 o’clock, we all stand back, admiring the finished product. The beechwood is darker than I had wanted, but it fits in perfectly with all the furniture. There’s the problem of the pesky electric outlet and especially the phone-plus-internet jack that needs to be resolved before the last of the three sections can fit snugly against the wall. Another Executive Decision: an electrician will move the outlets elsewhere next week. But the bookcases finally exist. Plus, to be fair, the four hours of calculations at the BHV paid off because it all fits together perfectly, and is exactly as long as the wall. Not a centimeter shorter nor longer.
     And the whole project took only seven years, start to finish.

     I will spend several days alone, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, listening to music and dusting off volumes, deciding which ones to bequeath to the local library, then sorting the "keepers" by genre and especially by height, until they’re all tucked neatly away on their various shelves. Jean-Pierre is long gone. And I’m smiling. My own personal library is open for business.


  1. As much as I admire public transportation, I must say I'm very glad I have my own car for such adventures. I miss my full size van and it's hauling capacity...but getting heavy things in my car versus having to haul them on the subway. Oh my. I like being spoiled!

    1. I agree. It's a drag. But I'll tell you, I get back in shape every time I come, thanks to such tom-foolery.

  2. How did you find a tenant that was so thoughtful that he left papier du toilet for you. (I don't know very much French, sorry) That must be an interesting process of elimination before your departure date.
    Good to see you finally have those shelves. Is Jean-Pierre an artist, architect, engineer, or designer? Must be good to have friends like that.

    1. Jean-Pierre is retired, but he was a German teacher... and before that a mechanic. He's the ex-husband of a friend. As for the TP, the tenant was a friend of my son's and he lived here rent-free but took care of the place. Poor as a church-mouse, he didn't usually replace things like TP, but was well-intentioned aside from that. He's now moved on and is flying solo.

  3. From Bob Hedger, an ex-neighbor and yet still a friend: "You're right about the wood cutting at BHV. I had 18 shelves cut there and each were different lengths due to the walls where they were going to be fitted being less then flat surfaces. I gave the guys my measurements and went and had a... coffee. It was really down to mm accuracy. So each shelf was numbered because no 2 were the same and also they each had only one unique position where they could fit.
    "I got them home and the BHV carpenters had labeled everything and everything fit perfectly. I must admit that I was shocked. I thought that there would be one or two mistakes. I was even more shocked to find my design still standing the next morning but that is another story."