Do you remember back before the Recession, back before eBooks really went big and before Borders went out of business? Let’s say we’re in the year 2005. Remember when you could go to just about any popular shopping mall in America and find a Borders attached to the mall and just across the street, a Barnes & Noble? Not a great business model for the book industry as it turned out. Now imagine a quaint French Provincial city, full of students, full of light, with peach painted buildings and pastel window shutters. Imagine this city’s cafe-line main street, let’s call it Le Cours Mirabeau, and now imagine two large bookstores neighboring one another on this main street. Imagine that just down a side road to the north of Le Cours Mirabou, not a three minutes walk from the center of down, is another bookstore, and three minutes walk in the other direction, there are two more. And just to open up the thought experiment a little more, imagine that all of these bookstore are independently run. Is your mind blown yet? Like most shops built in these old buildings, Librairie Goulard has the appearance of being a much smaller shop from the outside, until you go in. Then it’s like so many shotgun style buildings that seem to keep going and going, room after room, ad infinitum. Shelves of Francophone literature face off against translated literature in the front room, in that characteristically French style of organizing books by collection. That wall of white you see above is made of all Le Poche books, while the one further up the page with red banding is Gallimard. (Seriously, is that just a French thing?) Things get a little more wild and less linear in the next room, where Design and Fine Art collections are displayed. I guess they’re allowed to step outside the box.
Most likely it reflects my own preference, but I decided back as a student that Goulard is Aix’s introvert hangout. Quiet browsers and serious readers appreciate Goulard’s minimalistic store layout and emphasis on Francophone and experimental literature. Plus, Goulard is one of the few quiet, air-conditioned places you can go in Aix on a busy day in the height of tourist season. Travelers quickly abandon the place when they can’t find the foreign language section (it’s downstairs), and wander over to the more lively Librairie de Provence with it’s larger collection of colorful postcards and books on the region. Which is fine. But for me (and this is a unique exception to my preference generally for booksellers who go out of their way to hand sell books), in a busy place like Aix, give me quiet, give me the peace that comes from minimalism, give me French booksellers who greet me without looking up from the book they’re reading, and give me space to browse, in French, and pretend I can understand what I’m reading.
Aix-en-Provence is known as the “city of a thousand fountains,” which is nice and all (and there are a lot of fountains), but I’m campaigning for them to become the city of a thousand bookstores. If any city can do it, it’s Aix. Whose with me?