Philippe, the creative proprietor of the bookstore at 25 avenue des Gobelins, decided the quartier could use some additional natural cheerfulness. He was inspired when his own teddybear, a large one he called “Gorille”, asked for his own “doudou” (a soft, fuzzy attachment object); he was convinced everyone can benefit from having cuddly friends. After he located a teddy bear for Gorille, he found three more giant bears, triplets he was certain, and brought them all home for companionship to Gorille. As he explains in a Youtube video describing how the whole teddybear tribe began, he did not have the heart to separate the relatives.
Philippe began naming them and taking them on adventures. When at first the triplets did not return on their own from a visit to Copenhagen, Philippe located more large bears. He saw them all as “cousins” and began naming them. Soon he had dozens of giant teddybears, averaging about 1 meter 35 (4 feet 5 inches) in size and weighing 10 to 12 pounds. Beginning in October of 2018, housing was arranged for them at numerous locations in the 13th arrondissement neighborhood – businesses, restaurants, stores, service establishments.
Then bears from distant lands began appearing mysteriously. Philippe saw them as “citizens of the world”. One of the largest ones, 2 meters 40 (about 7 feet 10 inches), continues to sit in the window of the bookstore where he first arrived, surrounded by literature, smiling broadly at the location where he landed as well as at passers-by like us. (Philippe says that one, the Nounours des Gobelins, prefers philosophy but when we visited #25 avenue des Gobelins, he was surrounded by picture books.) Soon we spotted other bears who inhabit the upper reaches of the building. They were playing on the roof overlooking the avenue or doing gymnastics on the balconies.
I had read about the nounours last winter, when a French newspaper article announced that, following a New Year’s Eve celebration, two bears would wed on January 12th at the Mairie du 13ème. A joyous reception followed. Their hibernation was delayed to allow them to gather for La Chandeleur on February 2, 2019.
Fascinated by Les Nounours des Gobelins, I discovered a major route to information: they host their own page on Facebook. I immediately became a fan of the site and rejoiced when they ended hibernation on April 25, unfortunately just after our early spring Paris visit had ended. I vowed that on our return in September, we would track them down! Happily, I learned they continued their adventures over the summer.
On our last day in Paris in September of 2019, my husband and I embarked on a campaign to track down the nounours. We began by arriving at metro stop, “Gobelins”, on Line 7. Finding ourselves on the wide avenue, we walked downhill, in search of #25, the bookstore. We began spotting the bears slowly at first: one dressed in the back-to-school fashion (and holding its own smaller bear) peered out from the window in a children’s clothing store; another was seated among the sidewalk tables at the cafe next door to the bookstore; the bookstore itself was home to the real giant of the Nounours des Gobelins, who was jammed into the book-filled window.
We encountered a young French couple. They were mystified by the bears and, seeing us talking about and to them as well as taking their photographs, asked us if we knew anything about them. A man walking by understood our collective delight at each new bear. He tipped us off to La Manufacture, a brasserie that he said the bears were particularly fond of. Indeed, according to the posting on the Facebook page, this brasserie had been selected as the site for the wedding celebration last January and was a popular gathering spot for groups of bears throughout the day. He said the fuzzy couple often returned to this favorite community haunt, a bit further up the avenue towards Place d’Italie, at #62.
We spent a happy afternoon in the quartier on our Teddybear hunt. Bears awaited hairstyling at more than one beauty parlor; one studied the benefits in the brochure at an insurance agency; another seemed starry-eyed over the array of fresh fruits and vegetables he guarded. Occasionally the bears were inside establishments – one remains in a bar bathroom throwing up after presumably over-imbibing Beaujolais Nouveau last year when their season began, another dresses up and plays make-believe in the window of a toy store.
Commerçants seemed happy to have us wander by and smile at the bears who sat in chairs, stood in displays, were engaged in their own pursuits like eating or drinking or playing. We were invited to pose with them, photograph them, talk to them. Only one merchant turned down our request for permission to take a photo of his bear. Perhaps he did not want the obviously resting creature, seated in a recliner in his furniture store, to be disturbed.
We ended our hunt with a visit to La Manufacture. The newlyweds were there, greeting and posing with patrons, us among them, while Superbear, suspended from the ceiling and dressed ready to spring into protective action, watched over the proceedings in the cafe. Two more bears in the establishment seemed quite at home, one behind the bar helping out and another at the register, greeting patrons. A clothesline offered photos people had donated of their happy faces posing with the bears.
We noticed the man who had tipped us off about the café as he was on his way out. He left to take the wheel of his truck, a spotless white van filled with giant teddybears awaiting their travels. He first had to dislodge the one sitting authoritatively behind the wheel. He reclaimed his driver’s seat and waved as he headed out to other parts of Paris.
The bears, accompanied by a new group of “cousins” (arriving from many places, according to Philippe), are destined to range further into the Left Bank. An article in Le Figaro said they are bound for Denfert-Rochereau, Saint Germain des Près, Austerlitz, and the Panthéon this fall. Be on the lookout for these charming creatures who inevitably put smiles on faces of residents and tourists, young and old, those who search for them and those who encounter them unexpectedly.
Part of the Paris magic is the City of Light’s commitment to whimsy and pleasure, the delight of surprise bringing an extra soul-filling benefit. What better brightening could a bookstore proprietor have created than to replace the expressions of determined shoppers focused on a mission with spontaneous responses to unexpected encounters with a warm, fuzzy, friendly giant teddybear!
But, no, they are not for sale. One does not lightly separate a close family of these “citoyens du monde” – although it is not yet clear whether a brief rental for a specific purpose might be arranged…