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PARIS

Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze

Battered by Covid and online sales, one of Paris's best-known book sellers Gibert Jeune is to shut up shop in the city's historic literary and intellectual heart, a stone's throw from the banks of the Seine where the family-owned firm started out over 130 years ago.

Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze
The Gibert Jeune flagship store in Paris's Place Saint Michel is set to close after struggling to survive during the pandemic. Photo: Hugo Mathy/AFP

The planned demise of the Gibert flagship shop in the Place Saint-Michel, as well as others nearby, follows the loss of the Boulinier shop last year.

On the Left Bank of the Seine, Paris’s Latin quarter houses the Sorbonne.

It has been a haunt of scholars since the middle ages and boasts dozens of
booksellers.

But today with its slew of franchised stores — Levi’s, Celio, Sephora — along the Boulevard Saint Michel running from the banks of the Seine to the Sorbonne, critics charge the area has become just another bland global retail strip.

The iconic Boulinier, a fixture on the same boulevard since the 19th century, was forced to move its main store to smaller premises last June due to rising rents.

Faced with competition from online sales and internet giant Amazon, 43 percent of the quarter’s bookstores have vanished in 20 years, according to figures from the urban planning agency Apur.

The Latin Quarter, the centre of a 1968 student revolt, remains a major university hub, although fewer than 10,000 students are now said to live there.

Gradually, the centre of Paris is becoming gentrified, dominated by tourists while university faculties “decentre”, increasingly gravitating toward the suburbs, says Francois Mohrt, a town planner at Apur.

People look at books at the Gibert Jeune bookstore in Paris in 1951. Photo: AFP

Smallest buck the trend

As France’s first independent bookseller, the Gibert group’s flagship shop has been in the Place Saint-Michel for as long as anyone can remember.

It plans to close four of its six Gibert Jeune shops located not far from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Surrounded by already half empty bookshelves, one of the 69 employees whose jobs are due to disappear told AFP: “It’s brutal, but we didn’t expect to last 10 years.”

In 2020, the pandemic emptied the Place Saint-Michel of tourists. Then Bruno Gibert, a former head of the group, sold the building housing the largest bookshop.

In an attempt to help, the city authorities via their semi-public company Semeast are proposing rents slightly below market rates and relocation with a focus on a model that works — small local bookshops that can also offer refreshments, according to official Olivia Polski.

The initiative is based on the discovery that in Paris, as in the rest of the country, it is local bookshops which are offering the sector a glimmer of hope.

According to the Union of French Bookshops (SLF), independent bookshops have since 2017 returned to growth, despite a slight decline in 2020, down 3.3 percent, due to three months of closures during the Covid lockdowns.

A woman walks past a closed bookstore in Paris on October 30, 2020, on the first day of a second national lockdown. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

Small booksellers, with turnovers of less than 300,000 euros a year, are making the most progress with sales jumping by 15 percent in the past year.

For the SLF’s Guillaume Husson “there is a social aspect which is essential today if you want your bookshop to work”.

And it’s that human relationship between the bookshop and its customers that is one of the most important things book lovers are seeking from “smallscale sellers”, he added.

The same lesson has not been lost on the Gibert group. It will keep its six-floor shop next to the Sorbonne but rules out any new opening in the Latin quarter.

And it is considering opening bookshops of “less than 150 square metres” in outlying Paris districts and possibly in the suburbs, although “the basic question of rents will have to be addressed first”, said general manager Marc Bittore.

Member comments

  1. Before Covid and hopefully after, Paris bookshops are one of the main places I visit on several occasions during my annual two-week visits. I have been coming to France and Paris every year since 1964 and I take the occasion to stock up on my French language books. My main go-to librairie is Ecume Des Pages on Blvd St. Gemain just a door west of the Cafe de Flore. Also there was a new bookstore that defied the tide of closures and opened by two women in the Grands Boulevards that I visited for the first time in 2019 called Ici at 25 Blvd Poissoniere. I can’t imagine any city in any country without its independent bookshops. Our smaller ones here in Toronto are doing better and seem to be surviving so size right now seems to be important. The big chains seem to be having a harder time and are turning more into department stores specializing in books like our Chapters-Indigo chain in Canada. Please hang on. I need you when I come to Paris. I’ll be there as soon as I can to spend my money and support you. Michael Dorman. Toronto.

    1. Your comment mirrors my thoughts. Hopefully, someday soon we will be able to return and enjoy Paris again. Zoe

    2. I feel exactly the same. Every paris visit includes browsing my bookstore itinerary, and gibert is a prominent stop. St Michel is being turned by tourism into the banal set of chain outlets which reek of anonymity. I shall be spending money at whatever remains of Gibert as soon as France allows me to return.

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CULTURE

French plan to rebuild William the Conqueror’s flagship for €20m

The last one was used to lead a successful French invasion of England - but a project to build a replica of William the Conqueror's flagship is purely for historical interest. They say.

French plan to rebuild William the Conqueror’s flagship for €20m

A historical association in the Norman coastal town of Honfleur has set itself the task of recreating the vessel William the Conqueror crossed the Channel in for his invasion of England in 1066.

The build is part of a €20 million project merging historical study and tourism that they hope will attract 200,000 visitors in the pretty coastal resort.

Although no contemporary plans of the ship exist, experts believe they know exactly what the ship, called La Mora, looked like. 

“The aim is to reconstruct as faithfully as possible this Viking-type warship, with its slender profile, which could sail up rivers and run aground on the shore. This 34m long oak ship will have to be able to carry 70 crew members, including 60 rowers. It will also have a square sail rig of 150 square metres,” naval architect Marc Ronet said.

“This is a technical challenge as complex as it is exciting. Our marine carpenters will have to relearn the techniques and work practices of the 11th century,” Olivier Pagezy, president of the La Mora association, added.

“And once the project is completed, the Mora, which should be ready to sail by 2027, will have to find new ways of working. We will have to find technical solutions very quickly to meet current safety regulations.” 

Pagezy is no stranger to naval challenges, having previously coordinated work on the Hermione, the replica of La Fayette’s ship.

As with the Hermione, at Rochefort in the Charente-Maritime, the intention is to make the construction work part of a living history exhibit – organisers expect 200,000 people a year will visit the project. A huge disused industrial site near the quays of Honfleur should be cleared by the end of the year to house the project.

The reconstruction of La Mora will be accompanied by an ambitious exhibition of the maritime history of Normandy.

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