Lauren Fleishman for Al Jazeera America

Indie bookstores alive and well in Paris

As independent booksellers across America struggle to stay afloat, their French brethren are thriving


PARIS — The death of books and bookselling has been predicted for years. But this year in particular has witnessed a barrage of newspaper and magazine articles about the decline of the American bookstore. The conversation takes place on many fronts: Americans don’t read, as the World Culture Index suggests, or the bookstore has been undercut by Amazon, or, as The New York Times wrote in March, bookstores aren’t economically viable because of rising rents.

In France, in spite of rent, corporate competition and the economic crisis, large numbers of independent bookstores continue to exist — roughly 3,000, which is double the amount in countries like the U.S., Spain, the U.K. and Germany. Still, things are changing quite rapidly, and according to the voices from within France, the book business here is not as good as the outside world may think.

Like so many things French, much of the media coverage has been in line with the cultural exclusivity that many ascribe to France (women don’t get fat, children don’t throw food, and nobody emails after 6 p.m.). France is misleadingly familiar, and the bookstore is talked about as if it were an economic anomaly — that despite the ongoing disappearance of cultural fabric in cities like New York or London, Paris is somehow immune.

Chain bookstores have faced challenges here, just like in the U.S., and with Virgin, France’s equivalent to Borders, shutting down all of its stores, book buying seems poised to go to one of two extremes: cyber or local. This last year has also witnessed the dissolution of Chapitre, another large chain, which shut down 23 of its 57 stores after it filed for bankruptcy in December 2013. This is good news for the 3,000 independent bookstores of France. (According to a 2012 study, Paris alone has 370 — that’s one bookstore for every 4,000 inhabitants.) These numbers don’t even include all the used-book shops, stationery stores and newsstands, or the ubiquitous emerald-colored “bouquinistes” that have bordered the Seine since the 16th century.

Like France’s national health care, largely financed by taxes, bookstores have a support system to keep them economically and structurally sustainable. (In 2014 alone, Paris plans to invest 9 million euros into the book industry.) But book sales represent 53 percent of cultural products nationwide, and reports say independent bookstores are estimated to account for a 19 percent share of all sales channels in France. Figures such as these are reason enough for the state to continue maintaining a support system for bookstores.


The first major government initiative to help bookstores started in the 1980s, when then cultural minister Jack Lang proposed the Lang Law in an effort to protect independent bookstores from corporate chains. The law, which passed unanimously, introduced a fixed rate for books that prohibited vendors from selling books at more than 5 percent below the cover price. Though the regulation was controversial at the time for obstructing free competition, today it is a big part of what keeps independent bookstores financially stable.

Of course, there’s still the problem of competition with corporations, primarily the growing impact of online retailers such as Amazon (which is accused of dodging taxes, and as a result is under scrutiny by six European countries).

In 2003, online sales made up just 3 percent of sales here, but data shows that now 18 percent of all book purchases are online (compared to 26 percent in the U.S.). To combat this, the French government extended the Lang Law to online sales in 2011. (In the U.S., Amazon offers up to a 40 percent discount off the cover price.) Despite the lower-than-average numbers, online book buying is still considered a threat. So in January of this year, another law to protect the bookstore was passed, banning online services from offering free delivery. It’s known as the “anti-Amazon” law.

Independent booksellers are also aware of the limits of online book buying. In Paris, even specialty bookstores such as Shakespeare and Company, which caters to Anglophone crowds, look for ways to tailor personal relationships with their customers in order to counter the system of online sales.

Customer Yeonmi Park browses books inside Page 189, in the 11th arrondissement. Park came in looking for Korean literature, and is a neighborhood local.
Lauren Fleishman for Al Jazeera America

“Bookstores have the unique situation of being a destination for writers as well as readers. This means, if it's your local bookshop … you get to go and watch world-class writers read and talk. I imagine Amazon could fashion webcam readings, but even if a writer has won every prize going, they can't reach through their screen and into yours to sign a book for you,” says Rosa Rankin-Gee, author of “The Last Kings of Sark.”

Unlike America, which has just one organization that acts as a collective for independent bookstores (the American Booksellers Association), France has several organizations that act as important support systems (and watchdogs), whether it’s the Region Ile-de-France, which offers support for independent bookstores, or ADELC, the association that subsidizes bookstores (though this organization offers aid more in the form of zero-interest loans). But the source of the most important funding is the Centre National du Livre (CNL), which has a multimillion-euro budget to give out grants for bookstore development. And yes, there are even unions.

Just as the French prize good food and wine, they award special status to bookstores. In 2012, the CNL took their labeling obsession to bookstores by starting the Librairie Independante de Reference (Recommended Independent Bookstore) project, where bookstores can qualify for a LIR label, which indicates a high-quality bookstore. Among other advantages, if a bookstore wins the LIR label its owners can receive tax breaks from the government and special subsidies from the CNL, such as interest-free loans for store improvement or money to support events.

In addition to France’s 9 million-euro plan to support independent bookshops, CNL has also raised its direct grant budget from 4 million to 6 million euros a year.

In the U.S. the e-book market represents a billion-dollar industry, but the digital book remains marginal in France, where it accounts for a mere 1 percent of annual book sales. Still, in 2011, the government decided to extend the Lang Law to impose restrictions on e-books as well.

Customers look at books inside "bouquinistes" across from Quai Voltaire.
Lauren Fleishman for Al Jazeera America

While it’s true that the French are not sold on the e-book (according to a 2012 study, only 5 percent said they had read an e-book, and 90 percent said they didn’t intend to read digital books in the future), some leaders of the industry worry that the country can’t sustain the battle for much longer.

“Some people believe France could resist the digital technology on a long-term basis. I don’t think so. The digital technology implies such a speeding process worldwide that no country will be able to stand aside and watch the train pass by. In France, the book [on paper] industry won't collapse and the two markets can coexist for a long time. For it is true there is a strong attachment to paper,” Vincent Monade, president of CNL, said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the publishing world isn’t waiting. Hachette Livres, France’s largest publishing group, sought help from Google to digitize its catalog of 50,000 titles, and public libraries are now getting more government funding for digital projects than they are for anything else.  

With all the caveats of uncertainty, of government support and the timid arrival of the e-book, the bookstore here, like everywhere in the world, is indeed facing its share of problems. The overall French book market has been in a slow, continuous decline, with sales shrinking each year.

Bookstore owner Dominique Mazuet in his store Tropiques, located in the 14th arrondissement.
Lauren Fleishman for Al Jazeera America

Dominique Mazuet, owner of Librairie Tropiques in the 14th arrondissement, who introduces himself as a Marxist, has one of the more radical perspectives on France’s book industry. In 2011, he wrote a letter announcing a proposed bill that would promote and strengthen the independent bookstore. A letter was also sent to the former CNL president saying France was in need of reforming its publishing industry, a sort of top-down change.

According to Mazuet, the real threat isn’t the e-book but the publishing industry. He’s recently spearheaded a project, along with the syndicate FILPAC-CGT (a workers’ book and communication federation), called Plan Livre, which aims to remedy the problem that small bookshops are facing by pushing for new regulations within the book industry. The project also includes an economic cooperative to support bookstore employees (who typically make minimum wage) and a complete transformation of all the intertwined sectors involved in the book trade, from distribution to printing. 

“Bookstores are hardly staying alive because they don’t imagine doing anything else. The issue isn’t with customers or a declining readership. It’s the deteriorating working conditions in the sectors of the book chain and unequal distribution of wealth within the larger publishing groups [like Hachette and Gallimard],” he says.

In Ivry, just on the Peripherique of Paris, the lone bookstore, Envie de Lire, has been open for 15 years. The store is run as a cooperative and rarely makes a profit. Much of the co-op board’s complaints weren’t about the e-book or the financial crisis, but about problems way beyond bookselling (such as why book delivery takes so long). After a brief lecture on the anthropology of bookselling, which included wry commentary on America, the board insisted that the question of survival was unimportant; for them, bookselling is more intimate.

Raul Mora, one of the store’s four co-op members, warns, “The whole industry will collapse. If there are no bookstores, there are no places for meetings and readings. We’re moving toward a cultural monopoly… Slowly, independent bookshops, critical bookshops, will disappear, and when that happens we will enter a cultural monopoly that will destroy other ways of thinking and the cultural specificity in France.”