Independent Bookstore

IMG_4408aix-en-provence placemarket aix-en-provenceDo 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? IMG_4410 IMG_4414 IMG_4412 IMG_4409IMG_4411Like 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.

IMG_4428IMG_4430aix-en-provence fountainAix-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?


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!

Toppings books Co. Bath IMG_2497It strikes me as a bit unbalanced that one city should have such an abundance of independent bookstores, while many are lacking even one. But there you have it. Bath is such a city. The incredible thing is, Bath’s bookstores seem not simply to exist but to thrive, and that phenomenon requires a bit of poking and prodding if we’re to understand it — and recreate it.

Topping and Company Booksellers along with Mr. B’s Book Emporium and the High Street chain Waterstone’s make up the triumvirate of Bath’s book empire. Where one might expect rivalry there seems only to be healthy coexistence. Speaking with Lucinda from Mr. B’s last week, I asked how this could be. There’s simply not that much clientele overlap, she indicated. Not between Mr. B’s and Topping, and not even really with Waterstone’s. Each bookstore’s aesthetic, the variety of their stock, and the atmosphere created by the staff all confirm that they are each catering to a different type of reader. The astounding thing to this bookstore blogger is that Bath has enough committed book lovers to support all three. Indeed it was not uncommon when I was studying in Bath to hear students and faculty discuss where they shopped for books. Everyone fell into a camp — Topping, Mr. B’s or Waterstone’s — and we enjoyed discussing the merits and demerits of each one. Most people still visited all three regularly, but ultimately remained loyal to the one favorite. IMG_2498 IMG_2499Topping is a more stretched out version of the traditional English bookstore you might picture tucked into a wall in Covent Garden. It’s wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books, set into caramel wood flooring with matching oak shelves. It’s a bookstore for the Radio 4 listener, the tweed and Argyle wearer, the Boroughs reading hipster. While other bookstores might be greeted with the bestsellers of the hour, in Topping you are unabashedly greeted by an imposing collection of History and hardback nonfiction. But don’t let this Berlin wall of books intimidate the leisurely fiction reader. Keep on walking and you’ll see they’re just as serious about their Cooking, Humor, Religion/Spirituality, Children’s Literature, Arts, and of course, Literary Fiction as the next bookstore. Keep walking still further, up the stairs now and into the back room, and enter Topping’s attic room full of gorgeous coffee table Art books, music anthologies and extensive Poetry section.
IMG_2502 IMG_2500 IMG_2507One thing I love about Topping is how they seem to seek out only the most beautiful editions of a book and present it as merchandise that has both intrinsic and real monetary value. It’s a design geek’s heaven, with an entire wall devoted to special artsy editions of classic essays and short stories. There’s a certain luxury feel to the books sold at Topping, wrapped as many of them are in cellophane and bound with a branded paper wrapper. Those hand written staff reviews certainly help add to the feeling that this collection of books has been lovingly hand curated, and I love even better that I get to take one home if I buy the book. Topping is another one that recognizes the sales value of offering customers a free cup of coffee (and in a dainty porcelain cup no less). They understand the importance of making shopping an event, and speaking of which, they, like Mr. B’s, take their author events very seriously. It’s a sweet deal, actually. The price of each event ticket goes toward a reserved copy of the book being discussed on the evening … plus wine and some nibbles and, oh yeah, getting to actually meet and listen to your favorite author. Topping realizes customers aren’t going to come in and support them with their wallets unless they believe they’re being sold a valuable product. Their business model goes completely against the Amazon one that says books are inherently cheap and worthless, and so you must sell them for pennies. At Topping, books of a certain calibre enhance the quality of ones life, much like buying organic and Fair Trade groceries over cheap GMOs. Some might say they’re a luxury, an unnecessary expense, but the fact is, you’re better off for it.
IMG_2506 IMG_2510Have you been to any of Bath’s bookstores before? I’d love to know what you thought. And if not, have you visited any stand-out bookstores lately? Fill me in, please!


Mr B's Emporium

There is an independent bookshop in Bath, England that is doing every right. Everything. They’re called Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, and with a name like that, you can be assured that shopping there will be an event. These days, shopping at a brick-and-mortar, indie bookstore must be an event. Mr. B’s understands this.Mr B's BooksMr B's Books bathtubIMG_2455 Mr B's Books stairsMr B RecommendsMr's B's typewriter

It’s not just the free coffee or the private reading booth or the light and airy rooms that makes it impossible to spend less than an hour browsing here; it’s having a staff that just gets it. Well read, intelligent, approachable and delighted to talk about books all day long, the folks at Mr. B’s understand that what keeps customers coming back to them rather than another bookstore or, heaven forbid, Amazon, is… them. Like me, the Mr B’s Team are makers of lists and the bookstore is filled with shelves labeled “Our Favourites Your Favourites,” “Mr B’s Delightful Lists,” and “What We’re Reading.” However, it’s rare you’ll come across these without first having swapped reading preferences with a staff person when you first arrived. It’s rare, too, you’ll leave empty handed, particularly with a stack of books recommended by a reliable book ambassador who you will leave convinced is your reading soulmate.
IMG_2465Mr B's reading boothFancy an escape? Steal away to Mr. B’s plush private reading booth for an hour of uninterrupted book therapy. And speaking on therapy, did you know the Mr. B’s staff are all trained bibliotherapists and that they offer a number of spa treatments? For fifty-five pounds, forty of which go toward books, you can sit down with a knowledgeable staff person, eat some cake, drink some coffee and discuss your reading preferences in a relaxed environment. It’s the thing to do if you’re in a reading rut. The staff person recommends books you may not have heard of or have never thought to try, and which you will undoubtedly adore.

Mr B's Book EmporiumIMG_2470

Then there’s the practice of constantly innovating, which the folks at Mr. B’s do so as not to fall into their own rut. Such was the case about a year ago when the staff got together and decided they wanted to do their events differently, make them more of an event, as it were. Working with a local Bath-based band, the staff began writing lyrics to songs inspired by the work of authors coming to read. These author events then began with a bit of live music (in addition to mingling, a buffet style dinner and drinks), before sequeing into an altogether more atmospheric author reading. The music was such a hit that the band was happy to make it a regular thing, calling themselves The Bookshop Band and producing the many CDs that can see in the photo above. Their music was playing while I browsed and it sounded quite as professional and polished as any indie folk group coming out of Portland. Think Jose Gonzalez meets The Decemberists. the howling miller

And if your favorite Finnish book happens to be out of print in the UK, why not collaborate with a local artist and a major publishers and print your own Special Edition? Only available at Mr B’s (and only 300 copies in print), The Howling Miller was the first of two Mr B’s Special Edition publications and, judging by customers’ enthusiasm, they will not be the last.IMG_2492So as you can see, I’m smitten. I used to shop here when I was a student in Bath and coming back to it makes my heart swell. Not simply because it marks a chapter in my own life, but because Mr B’s is everything a bookstore ought to be. I began writing this blog as a way to research the market and catalogue my ideas should I ever pluck up the courage to open my own bookstore. If I never do it will be because Mr B’s has already done what I would do and they have done it better. Put simply, it is the best. If you’re in England, go to Bath. If you’re in Bath and must choose between visiting Mr B’s and anything else the city has to offer (Roman Baths included), choose Mr B’s. It’s that good.

Fiction Addiction 1Luke and I have been making the trip between Charlotte and Atlanta for a few years now, and our longstanding joke has been that we pack as if we’re leaving the oases and entering a desert. By that I mean, it used to be the trip up and down I-85 was a bit of a cultural desert (no offense to any South Carolinians).  In the two-hour long absence of any good public radio reception, we’d load up on This American Life podcasts and listen to them one after the other. Luke often reads to me. Sometimes for pure entertainment value we’d flip through the stations and listen to the shocking radio preachers or we count the number of conservative Christian billboards that pepper the road between Anderson and Gaffney. (Patriotic Jesus with red, white and blue lazer beams shooting out of his fingers is our favorite.)

But lately we’ve noticed a shift. A new oasis has sprung up where Greenville, SC used to be. Well, it’s still Greenville, but not the Greenville as I used to know it. This is Greenville with a Whole Foods and a Trader Joes on the same exit. This is Greenville with WEPR 90.1, an NPR broadcast. And as we discovered on our trip last week, this is Greenville with an independent bookstore.

fiction addiction 2fiction addiction 3fiction addiction 4As far as independent bookstores go, Fiction Addiction satisfies all the essential requirements: A thorough and up to date display of Indie Bound and NY Times bestsellers, a complete but non-dominating Classics section, a pleasingly extensive section devoted to Regional and Local authors (Pat Conroy taking up much of the shelf space), and, happily for us, an impressive gardening section.

What it lacks in overall charm and location (bookstores in strip malls will never excite me), it makes up for in content, although Luke may disagree. He spent most of his time browsing in the science section, which he pointed out was small, outdated and politically one-sided. But if customers flocking to that section fit that bill, then I’d say the owner is doing her job well by curating accordingly.

They had what I was looking for, in any case. I snatched up a copy of Amber Dermont’s Starboard Sea, as I’ve decided it is next on my reading line-up, as well as the gardening book I mentioned yesterday. And if these purchases aren’t enough to declare the visit a success, the mere discovery of an independent bookstore halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta most certain is.gaffney peach butt

(The iconic Gaffney peach water tower by Holly Bailey)

IMG_1990Heroes Aren't Hard to Find IMG_1978IMG_1982IMG_1983IMG_1985IMG_1988IMG_1995IMG_1999 IMG_2000

In the hip Elizabeth neighborhood in Charlotte, NC resides a quiet truth: not all bookstores are kneeling at death’s door. As one of four comic book stores in the Charlotte area and “the most famous shops in the country,” Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find may have some much needed advice for independent bookstores on the subject of fighting the good fight. In case you’ve yet to register the book industry’s grappling with the dramatic changes in our book culture as a fight of epic proportions, look up. Spider man and Doc Ock are there to remind you.

When I popped in for a quick visit yesterday, all vital signs were good. A customer was plying the pretty bookseller with questions about certain cult classic comics, while his son read peacefully on a bench at the front of the store. That same bookseller looked herself like a comic book character with two-toned hair, knee high black boots and, did I detect large-pupilled Anime style contacts? In any case, she seemed to know her stuff.

But what impressed me more than her encyclopedic knowledge of DC Comics history was what she revealed about the shop’s loyal clientele.

“We get about 500 regular customers coming back to us,” she said, “every week.”

So, have I mentioned I work in retail for my day job? In a central location that gets an healthy amount of foot traffic? 500 customers is an impressive Monday through Friday figure, and that’s customers total: New, return, browsers, the lot. If she’s right and they get 500 regular customers coming in every week, not counting their once-a-monthers or walk-ins, I’d say Heroes won’t have to fight off any of the usual villains of the book industry world any time soon.

Was she worried about comic book readers turning to e-books? My question was answered with a shrug.

“People still prefer the paper,” she said. “It’s not the same following the pictures on a screen.”

What’s more, people come out for the events, she explained, and Heroes organizes an array of them, including the annual Heroes Convention of Charlotte. As long as conventions continue to grow in popularity, fans are going to stay loyal to comic books. It would seem, the two go together like Batman and Robin.

Confession time: I’m not much a comic book reader myself, though I have nothing against the genre. Still, I’m fascinated by comic book fans’ loyalty and by the fact that they have found a niche that seems to have weathered the worst of the e-book storm. Would it could be reproduced in general bookstores! What do you think? Are you a fan of comic books? What keeps you coming back? 

pastel eggWelcome to the weekend, friends! What do you have planned? The weather has warmed up again here (thankfully for us thin-blooded Atlantans!), so Luke and I are looking forward to walking everywhere that our errands permit. The one indoor activity I have planned today is making my grandmother’s famous mac n’ cheese for our family’s Easter meal. Then we’ll be driving up the NC on Sunday for said meal. I’m excited to be bringing up a few growlers of local beer to share with everyone, including one beer brewed by a neighbor I met a couple days ago. I felt like I needed a good pinch when I learned that we had a neighbor in walking distance from us with a garage full of award-winning home brews.

In the meantime, here are a few things for your weekend reading.

The sad news first: Amazon is buying Goodreads. A lot of people in the industry have already closed their accounts. Will you?

On a happier note, Inkwood Books (who I’ve featured before) has a new owner.

My alma mater has needed a famous author on their faculty for a while and now they have one. I’ll be reading her novel first and then her short stories.

While spring has me thinking about gardening, these dried flowers would be lovely in the house all year long.

The show that Jon Stewart says “is so good it makes me angry” is coming to Atlanta! In 2014. Putting it on our calendar anyway.

Enjoy your weekend!

(Image of hand-painted pastel wooden egg from Elizabethan Folk Art)

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