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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

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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