1 The Stock
Mr. Gab didn’t have that gift, though his assistant, who was supposed to be stupid but only looked so, would mutter beneath his breath, when annoyed by his tasks, “he had the gift, he did, did Gab.” Mr. Gab spoke seldom, and then it was to shout at the steel shutters of the shop that were always reluctant to alter their position, whatever it was, and needed to be cajoled, flattered, then threatened. Or sometimes he spoke to the steam pipes, complaining of the knocking, complaining of the excessive heat they gave off when they had to be heated and of the odor that the steam brought to the nose through layers of paint resembling aluminum. Curls the graphs, he said with as close to a curse as he came.
Mr. Gab’s shop was in a part of town so drably uninteresting robbers wouldn’t visit even to case its joints, something Mr. Gab fairly certainly knew, and treasured, but he had these steel shutters left over from a former, more frequented, more luxuriant time, and felt obliged to use them. One could have guessed Mr. Gab’s age from these small facts: that he thought of possible intruders as “robbers,” and worried about being “glommed”—terms which have no present employment. The shutters, window-wide slats of steel in Venetian style, creaked as they descended, and no longer fit firmly together or overlay one another as they had been designed to do in some far-off factory; consequently, streetlights—lit to illuminate an empty avenue whose venerable storefronts were a menace even during the glare of sunny afternoons—would streak into the shop at night where Mr. Gab might still be sitting, long after closing, long after nodding bye-bye to his stupid assistant, staring at his prints in the darkness, prints that covered the pockmarked walls of the shop, displayed there like dead things hung from nails, as if slain while other prey were being hunted: while picking up fallen apples maybe (though he lived so far from the country), or rather if a brace of grouse were to fling themselves into the apple bag, or while gathering pignuts (models ago he’d sold his car) a pair of pigeons might creep into a handy box—that unlikely—while sorting buckeyes to find the feathers of a turkey, or, while pulling loganberries out of their briaries (though he wore no woolen sleeves), flushing a covey of quail instead—anyway—prizes inadvertently taken, mistakenly developed, proudly framed.
Mr. Gab certainly had his favorites. These were images he knew so intimately they were—well, not quite etched on the balls of his eyes. He needed only the least light to see them down to their last shades of gray: an Atget was frequently imagined to be the state of his street outside—Atget, the documentarian. Perhaps he’d decide on the Atget of an intersection, of Angle de la rue L’homond et de la rue Rataud, its cobbles moist, in late light, sky like sour milk, taken in the quartier du Val-de-Grâce, where on one wall a poster was papered to say un million, un million, a dozen times in a voice not ever husky. “Forever,” Mr. Gab would allow himself sometimes to murmur: cours de danse givre . . . forever . . . though the “cours” is gone, “danse” is gone, even before the War arrived in a taxi, they were gone, gone, cobbles gone too, now, probably, building likely, gone, the lamp most certainly, gone, and the teeth of steel, like those of a large rake, that crossed the rue high above every head—sure, sure—that crossed the top of the image straight through the sour-milk sky and over the tree at rue’s end—oh yes—gone, quite gone, even the tree whose feet were hid behind a low wall, deep in the shot where the road disappeared into a vee as though down a drain—ah well—cut by now, blown over, hauled off, firewooded, gone. Dear me.
“What a curb,” Mr. Gab permitted himself to exclaim. At the Louvre . . . what did the advert advise and proclaim? Who could say? With the wall retreating, the posters defaced. What a glisten though! Still . . . the curb, the glisten, the deep recession of the street remained. Right outside there, beyond that barred door, beyond the shuttered window, lay Atget’s modest little street still. Still . . . made of wavering lines of glis and shales of shine. The walk protected by posts. Mr. Gab did not dare to say aloud what he succinctly thought, as he looked out through his engraved eyes: I am Atget—the world is mine.
Only during the evening following work—Mr. Gab thought that way of it, thought of it as work—shortly after he had—well—dined, but before he went slowly to bed, unbuttoning the buttons down his shirt—well, his vest first—seeing the street or some other scene all the while the buttons went as buttons do, loose from their hole, not like released birds because it was shirt that was freed, the vest that flew loose, even if it clung to his slender frame like a woman in a romance to her equally handmade lover—no—the buttons like sentries would stay sewn in their useful line perhaps for an entire shirt life, vest time. In photographs, shirts do not get much attention.
He could of course have chosen to recall the elegant details of Le Restaurant Procope’s façade, the café’s name like a decoration running along in front of the building’s second-floor windows, each letter as bold as an escutcheon affixed to a wrought-iron balcony railing: grand restaurant procope, and then, under the overhang, discreet as a meeting, the name again: Grand Restaurant Procope, no doubt no longer in business though one sign said verte du vins pour ville—oh the hanging lamps were like crowned heads, the walk lined with tables and paired chairs, the hour early, each empty—not the hours but the chairs—a busy day ahead of them, waiting to accommodate customers no longer alive.
Mr. Gab lived as many shopkeepers once did, both at the rear and above his establishment. He slept in a small loft a good size for bats that he reached by climbing the short stair that rose unsteadily from a corner of his kitchen, a kitchen of sorts, in whose foreshortened center Mr. Gab kept a card table and a ceramic cat. Breakfast might be an apple and an egg. Lunch—he frequently passed on lunch, though his stupid assistant ate lunch like a lion, growling over some sandwich distantly fixed. A sip of tea, a chewy biscuit maybe. Memories going back a long way. Mostly, though, he passed on lunch.
Days were dreary—oh yes—especially in a shop stuffed with gray-white gray-black photographs in cellophane sheets that had been loosely sidefiled in cardboard boxes, tag attached, maybe french xx or countryside british or railroads usa. He had three for trees: bare, leafed, chopped. On the walls, clipped to wire hangers that were then hung from nails, were his prizes, displayed so as to discourage buyers. Successfully. So far. For a decade.
Mr. Gab would have six or seven customers on a good day, which is what he would almost audibly say to them when they entered, making the door ring—well it was a rattle really. His stupid assistant would answer most questions, show them the labels on the boxes, wave at the walls hung with hangers, open a filing cabinet or a case for those who fancied the pricier ones, explain the proper technique for sliding a photograph out of its sheathing, demonstrate the underhanded manner of holding it, or, with palms gently placed at edges as if it were a rare recording, explain how one could be safely examined.
The boxes were mostly of a conventional cardboard. They sat on tables or beside tables or under tables as if they’d sat there already a long time: the ink on the labels had faded; the paper of the labels had yellowed; the corners of the labels were munched. Covers were kept closed against dust and light and idle eyes by beanbags, forever in the family, inertly weighing on the boxes’ cardboard flaps. The nails Mr. Gab had driven into the walls were zinc’d, which made them suitable for fastening shingles, but you couldn’t have drawn one out without pulling, along with the shank, large chunks of plaster. The wire hangers themselves were in weary shape. So the pictures hung askew. As if holding on with one hand.
Mr. Gab stocked several versions of the same photograph sometimes. A round red sticker affixed to the wrap signaled a superior print, a green circle indicated one produced from the original negative, but late in its life, whereas a yellow warned the customer that the sheath enclosed a mere reproduction, however excellent it might often be. His red version of rue Rataud was as fine as the one conserved at the Carnavalet, but on the white rectangles with their softly rounded corners which Mr. Gab had pasted to the bottom of each envelope and where he identified the subject, the photographer, the method, and the negative’s likely residence, he had written about the less genuine image, below a yellow ball that suggested caution, the words “trop mauvais état,” a little joke only scholars might understand and enjoy.
Mr. Gab’s provenances were detailed and precise; however, years earlier an envious dealer had accused his rival (for Mr. Gab was then in a dinky shop across from him on another street) (and whom the envious dealer called “Grab,” somehow sensing Mr. Gab’s sensitivity about his name, though unaware that Mr. Gab had become silent in order to avoid being addressed by anyone as “Gabby”) of accepting or otherwise acquiring (during midnight visits and stealthy trips) stolen property. How otherwise, the envious dealer complained, could one account for the presence, in prime condition, of so many rare and important photographs in such shabby shoebox circumstances. “Shoebox” was slanderous, certainly, though nothing had come of these allegations except a shady reputation, thought actually to be desirable in some circles.
A print’s quality depended almost entirely upon its preservation of details, its respect for values. The fog-white sky of rue Rataud, in the version under its cautionary yellow dot, smeared the end of the street so you could not see how or where it turned, walls were muffled, and a hard light made the outlines of the cobbles disappear; while the red-tagged rue Rataud allowed the eye to count windows far away and discern a distant huddle of buildings. In the latter, the spiky rod, whose use he could not fathom, crossed the street in the guise of a determinate dark line; in the former it was dim and insubstantial, as if obscured by smoke. On red’s verbose information label, Mr. Gab had written that his photograph had come to the United States in the luggage of Berenice Abbott from whom he had received a few prime prints of other subjects. If interested, please ask. About the history of yellow, Mr. Gab offered nothing.
The stupid assistant was not sufficiently steeped, so when, as occasionally happened, a customer wished a little history, Mr. Gab would have to hold forth, not reluctantly with regard to the information, which he believed every cultivated person should possess, but reluctantly regards speaking—making noises, choosing words, determining the line of march for a complex chronology. From the box marked decorative elements, for instance, another Atget might be withdrawn, and Mr. Gab could inform his customer that this view of some paneling at the Hôtel Roquelaure had been purchased from Atget by Georges Hoentschel—did he know?—the designer of the Union Centrale pavilion for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris; and subsequently in an archive of great richness and variety that Hoentschel had catalogued and published in 1908 before it was sold to J. P. Morgan who later donated the entire shebang to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Someone had dismembered a 1908 catalogue and this image—which you should please hold at its tender edges—is a limb from one of those dismemberments.
Mr. Gab did not usually remark the fact (since some found the fact disturbing) that the door was no doubt long gone, though the photograph was evidence of fine wood and careful workmanship; but because Atget had taken a portion of the decoration’s portrait, the surviving image had increased in value at each exchange and become what Mr. Gab, in a rare moment of eloquence, called “a ghost worth gold.” Nothing touched by this man’s lens was lost, he said, each was elevated by its semblance to sublimity, even the dubious ladies of the XIXe arrondissement, three of them (two leaning one peeking) from the traditional doorway, appetizing if you ate mud, an example of which (not the mud but the unsavory subjects) he, Mr. Gab, had in a box at the back of the shop marked nues, even though the women were decently dressed.
The light in the store, Mr. Gab’s stupid assistant persisted in judging, “was lousy.” With the shutters closed, you could see how dust-covered the front windows had become, while most of the lamps were simply bulbs housed in coffee cans hung from wires punched through their bottoms. A proper tungsten lamp throwing the appropriately well-wiped light could be found at the rear of the store—“don’t call it a store,” Mr. Gab always protested—where anyone who wore serious eyes could contemplate in quiet a possible purchase. The assistant believed that the entire furnishings of the store: the old oak desk where Mr. Gab presided, the swivel chair, alike in oak, the rose-colored puff upon which he sat when he was seated, the smeary windows, a door which uttered a needless warning, the faded façade from former days, which incorporated a large dim sign spelling P H O T O G R A P H Y in letters that looked as if they wanted nothing to do with one another, the scuffed and cracked linoleum floor, the pocked walls with their swaying trophies, the trestle tables upon which the cardboard boxes stood, or under which they hid, or beside which they huddled, the dumb homely handmade lamps that filled the room with the rattle of tinlight, the tall stool in a back corner where the stupid assistant perched, the rug, instead of a door, which hung over the entrance to Mr. Gab’s private quarters: they were all meant to deceive detectives and most untrained and idle inspection. For the truth was—since the assistant harbored the same opinion as Mr. Gab’s once-a-time rival—the stock was stupendous, of varied kind and exquisite quality, a condition which was quite unaccountable unless the prints had, at one time or other, by someone or other, been pinched.
The assistant, whose apparent stupidity was an effect of his seeming a suitable subject for Diane Arbus, knew, to cite one outré instance, that in a box at the back of the store, and in two Mr. Gab kept in a cleaning closet in his kitchen, were several beautiful pictures set in Sicily and shot in the early fifties by, of all people for Mr. Gab
Copyright © 2015 by William Gass. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.