U bent hier

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is located in Brussels. And while Brussels is, among many other things, the capital of Europe and houses the headquarters of NATO, it is also a city bursting with life and consisting of many hidden corners that makes it a wonderful place to live and study. In the B-spot series, VUB’s professors and personnel share what they like about the fascinating city that is home to their university. First off is Serge Gutwirth, professor of Human Rights, Comparative law, Legal Theory and Methodology. 



 “It may sound classical and not all that original, but it is what it is.” Serge Gutwirth sounds apologetic while he takes us along to his favourite place in the Brussels Galeries des Princes. There is no need for apologies though. Tropismes is without a doubt one of the most beautiful bookstores of Belgium.


Jumping on his motorbike, leaving the academic world of the campus and heading for the inner city: Gutwirth calls this “a typical Tropismes moment”. The drive takes only 10 minutes, but takes us to another dimension of time and space, to another universe altogether. “Picking up the books, thumbing through them, caressing and smelling them” as an antidote to the virtualisation to which our world - the world of books included - has succumbed. In the wink of an eye we have lost our guide. Glittering eyes avidly scan titles, eager hands slide over covers, nostrils quiver with the joy of the hunt.


Jazz for the mind
Of course, the impressive interior of the bookshop plays a large part in the experience. Tropismes is located in the Galeries Saint-Hubert, which immediately after their construction became the place to be for romantics of all varieties. Its premises moreover used to house the Belgian headquarters of the famous record label Blue Note. The impressive ballroom with its mirrored walls, the backdrop for many a 1960’s jazz happening, is still intact and now provides the stunning decor for hundreds of books exposed on tables. Yet, there is more to Tropismes than just the exclusiveness of its glamorous interior, as witnessed by our subsequent search for the lost Gutwirth, who turns out to have disappeared down a staircase into a basement with naked, unadorned walls - the very negation, as it were, of its upstairs counterpart.


Form and content
As it turns out, it is not just the form that counts for Tropismes. Content is equally important. The shop is famed internationally for its collection of literature and works on the social sciences and the arts. This is the place to look for rare editions that are difficult to get hold of elsewhere. Professor Gutwirth also appreciates the fact that the booksellers at Tropismes are true bibliophiles: “They are bibliomaniacs in the most literal sense of the word and are damn choosy in what they put on display on the tables and in the windows. Whether it is literature, social sciences or humanities, I always find a book that I want to read - or is it the other way around? Do I want to read it just because it is displayed here? In any case, it is a liberating experience to find that the selection of Tropismes focuses on quality and not on whatever Amazon would recommend or on what Thomson Reuters decides I should read.”


The Francophile in the cosmopolitan
Most books in Tropismes are in French, which does not deter Serge Gutwirth, although originally Dutch speaking. “It just goes to show that the French language is still alive and kicking and in no way inferior, despite global anglicisation and local Flemish pressure.” What happens next, of course, is what we knew to be inevitable: we find ourselves enjoying a nice coffee outdoors of the famous café Mokka near Tropismes. There, the professor with his unruly shock of hair takes time out to thumb, smell and caress his newest purchase. “These are moments of sheer happiness,” he says absent-mindedly, as if to apologise for already letting us and the rest of the world slip from his consciousness.