The French attitude toward independent bookstores

I’m cautious not to be the francophile that rambles on about how France has it all figured out. They don’t and I’m under no illusions. Trust me. It was with genuine affection that I told Luke that Aix-en-Provence still smelled the same that it did when I was a student there: dog shit and cigarettes. But that was just the top note; the heart notes were still there, too: rosemary, sun-warmed fruit, a feint whiff of the briny Mediterranean carried in on the Mistral. In France, in seems, the pleasant things that make francophiles go all gooey when they talk about it go hand-in-hand with the unpleasant. Yes, the French have figured out the formula for the perfect crusty baguette. But getting people to pick up their dog’s droppings is another matter.

I’m sure you could even catch a whiff of caca in France’s Ministry of Culture office if you sniffed hard enough. The sole mission of this government position is to protect and promote all aspects of French civilization and culture (art, music, museums, monuments), as well as to maintain the French identity (whatever that means). Recently under the leadership of France’s newest Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, independent bookshops were added to the list of cultural landmarks deserving of protection. And try as I might, I can smell nothing foul-smelling in that. Barbara Casassus recently reported in The Bookseller the latest news coming from the Ministry of Culture in France. It’s exciting news for booksellers, I would guess, worldwide, and a complete game-changer in France.

“French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti has unveiled part of the government’s plan to shore up independent booksellers, despite earlier fears that she would be unable to commit any money because of France’s huge budget deficit.”

“She announced that a fund of €5m would be created for loans to booksellers with cashflow problems and that the budget of ADELC, the association that subsidises booksellers, would rise from €4m to €7m to help outlets when they change hands.”

Fillippetti was moved to act”To ensure that France ‘never suffers the same fate as the United States’ with ‘the collapse of several [bookshop] chains’ and the ensuing difficulties for publishers and creation, Filippetti said.”

As with anything, there may well be some downsizes to the proposed government shore up (some excrement and cigarettes, shall we say). Casassus notes that not all publishers are pleased with an additional proposal to appoint a book industry mediator to settle legal disputes. “We can solve problems among ourselves,” said French publisher Hervé de La Martinière from the La Martinière group.

Be that as it may, it’s a big deal that the French Minister is even making bookstores such a priority and taking such ambitious initiative. And for that I am sending Fillippetti so many virtual high-fives. Bravo!

Back in Aix-en-Provence, there are two major independent bookstore sitting a mere five doors down from one another on the central avenue, and a handful more scattered around the city. Likely due to the fact that Aix is a thriving university town and tourist destination, both bookstores are eternally busy. Each offers a noticeably different ambiance and caters to a slightly different clientele. Libraires de Provence is the first and the more colorful of the two. It welcomes tourists and students,  casual readers and families, with two rooms and the entryway paddock dedicated to books on the region and an three building-long first floor featuring coffee table literature, French and foreign best sellers, children’s books and the ubiquitous bandes designes (graphic novels) that the French, old and young, are so crazy about. Things get a bit more serious when you go upstairs and find yourself surrounded wall-to-wall by Petit Poche literature, contemporary and classic, complete works collectors’ editions and an entire wall devoted to crime fiction. The French love their “policiers.” 

One thing that intrigues me is the popularity of uniform book cover designs in France. All Gallimard Collection Blanches look the same, a sleek motif of cream and crimson. All Folios and Poches follow a similar format. So when you walk into a bookstore in France, the bookshelves are all the same color. Does anyone know what that’s all about?

I’d love to share some pics of a the other main indie bookstore in Aix next week, as well as a really rad foreign language bookstore there, too. Would that be of interest? Also, I’d love to hear your impressions of French bookstores and the French attitude toward books. And for any French readers out there, please shed some light!

  1. Editors always made “collections”, and every book of a collection has the same jacket . Editors have always been considered as actors of the writing/reading process, a bit like great Hollywood producers could be an important factor when film making wasn’t just money making . For a writer it was and is a consecration to be accepted in some prestigious collections .
    The reason I want small bookshops to survive is they are the only places where you can find good stuff that is not commercial . Same for independant cinemas, which have vanished in Paris since the awful 80s . Same for everything actually . When I was a teen European countries were really different from each other, I felt delightfully in a foreign place in a neighbouring country . Now …the US steamroller of moneymakers subculture has passed through . it’s always easier to take bad habits and to slide down towards the scurvy part of ourselves, and money makers know it .

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