Marie Antoinette Wasn’t Here

Heather Hartley


At the bookstore bar La Belle Hortense, books and drinks literally go hand in hand. One of a kind in a city of book and wine enthusiasts, the bar is tucked away in the Marais district where 17th-century buildings and mansions lean into one another and slant light hits small streets. Brigitte, bookseller and bartender for over a decade, advises on poetry and Pommery champagne with equal aplomb. Above the zinc bar, books range from Henry James to the Marquis de Sade; Salvador Dali and Jack Daniels share a shelf. It is rumored that Catherine Millet launched her succès de scandale memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. here not long after the bar opened.

Most books are in French (you can find anyone from Haruki Murakami to Montesquieu to José Saramago), though there is a small, thoughtful English-language fiction section. Even the bathroom is bookish, with the floor-to-ceiling azure blue tiles inspired by Georges Bataille’s erotic novella Le Bleu du Ciel (Blue of Noon). Come for one of the regular readings, check out monthly art exhibits, or just become a regular. Although the Marais is expensive, drinks are not: a glass of wine is about 5 euros ($ 6.50), a great deal in the City of Pricey Light.

A cozy neighborhood spot where everybody knows your name and no one can remember it after an hour, you find more books than bottles—at least from what I could see. La Belle Hortense is also a wine cellar: order a bottle at the bar, ask Brigitte to open it, and take it away with you.

And who is Hortense? She’s the heroine of a cycle of novels by Jacques Roubaud and the bar is named after the first one (Our Beautiful Heroine in English). Before Hortense took up residence in the building, it was a candy factory. And before the bonbons, Marie Antoinette could have visited the Marais if she hadn’t been out at Versailles with the king and his courtiers. Her presence is potent here through myth, her left breast allegedly the inspiration behind the shape of the Champagne coupe (of which there are many at La Belle Hortense.) Legends, like books and liquor, can be dizzying, sometimes dangerous and often addictive.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems have appeared in Post Road, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She’s a Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.