Vive le livre!

Illustration from the wonderful children’s book “This is Paris” by Miroslav Sasek (1959)

You’ve got to love the French. Nothing, not an economic downturn, not big business and not even e-books, can dampen their love of books and bookstores (“la librairie”). In fact, these pressures all seem to be fanning the flames of their literary passion.

This passion is underscored by government legislation, including price fixing and subsidies for bookstores, designed to protect their more than 2500 bookstores. Any perceived attack, including a recently proposed increase to a sales tax (which is being scrapped by the new French President Hollande), is loudly denounced.

The article France: Austerity tax could ‘kill off’ bookstores by Myriam Chaplain-Riou (Agence France-Presse, May 2, 2012) explains the book-loving culture in France:

“Since 1981, the French state has set the price of books, largely to support independent bookstores which are seen as vital assets to local communities.”

She continues:

“Unlike the United States for instance, where bookselling has become the preserve of big business, France has one of the densest networks of small bookstores in the world.”

Image courtesy: La librairie Compagnie (Paris) – Crédit photo © Hélène Bamberger

When their local bookstore is threatened, French citizens fight back. In “French town cannot let bookstore die” by Edward Cody (Washington Post Foreign Service, November 2009) describes how the residents of Poligny raised $70,000 to save their 150-year-old bookstore:

“Over the generations, residents said, it has become part of the landscape, a place where children tarry on the way home from school and their parents duck in to pick up the latest novel.”

In France, the bookstore is more than a place to buy books: It is a cultural and community centre, and an important part of their history and heritage.

Poligny bookstore (photo courtesy: Edward Cody, Washington Post)

The main-street bookstore is also recognized as a vital part of the local economy:

“It was something we did not want to see die,” said Frédérique Brelot, who runs a delicatessen across the street. “If this business were to die off, then pretty soon we’re nothing, too.”

New York Times writer Elaine Sciolino recently reported on the cultural importance of the bookstore in France in the article, “The French Still Flock to Bookstores (June 20, 2012).

“E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.”

Even with on-line book sales increasing in France, book lovers find creative ways to resist: Once a month, volunteers run a free book-sharing library (take a book, leave a book) in the streets of Paris in a project called “Circul’livre“.

“Books are living things. They need to be respected, to be loved. We are giving them many lives,” says volunteer organizer Andrée Le Faou (as quoted by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times)

Image courtesy: http://circul-livre.blogspirit.com/

Of course, there are many naysayers who argue that the French are only delaying the inevitable decline of the smaller bookstores and the paper book.

We’ve already seen it here it in North America. In the past decade, Canada has lost 300 indie bookstores, leaving 1500 to struggle for survival. If you look around the retail landscape in my town (Ottawa), you see that big box stores are winning over our wallets (if not our hearts and minds). Like an aggressive weed, these big stores are strangling our small book sellers who can’t compete with high rents, deep discounting and the current trend towards one-stop shopping. (I wrote about the closure of Nicholas Hoare Books here.)

Nicholas Hoare Books closed in Spring 2012, leaving only a few indie bookstores for Ottawa book lovers.

It comes down to this: where do we want to buy our books? From a big box store selling massive quantities of underwear and toilet paper? Or from experts in the field of literature who carefully curate their selections and offer a soulful shopping environment? Small businesses are also major drivers of our economic engine by providing jobs in our communities and keeping our main streets alive.

Big box books are cheap. But at what cost to our culture and our communities? (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

In the absence of government intervention in most parts of the world, we have to support our independent booksellers. Or we’ll lose them.

Critics, then, are partly right. Government intervention can’t keep something alive without support of the people. The French love their books. And (so far) they support their booksellers. Government intervention is simply an extension of this.

When it comes to the war on books, I say:

Vive la France!

Vive le livre!

4 comments

  1. Lovely post! I agree with so much of what you have said. I am guilty of looking on amazon for cheaper copies of books BUT I do love independent bookshops and will buy when I am in one to support them. Our local one unfortunately isn’t a good example of what an indie can be – the people aren’t particularly friendly (no ‘hello’) as you walk in the door, no offer of help. But at their best, this is what indies are all about – service, knowledge and promotion of little gems that the larger chains might ignore in favour of the financial assurance of bestsellers. We’ve got the Susak book and it’s marvellous. Have also seen those book vendors on the Seine. I wonder if in Europe (and I don’t count the UK in this) there is more reverence as you say towards books. In Barcelona, for example, on St George’s Day (San Jordi) there is a tradition to give your love a book and a rose (to celebrate Cervantes’ and Shakespeare’s birthdays). Giant bookstalls line the streets and throngs of people browse. I can’t see that happening here, though you never know…

    • Oh, I too buy books on Amazon and at chain stores…my goal is to try and buy some books at indie bookstores when I can…sort of a mixed bag approach. I wonder why some countries have such strong literary cultures…I think Canada does, but not to the same extent as France. But what’s really interesting to me is the differing retails cultures in North America and Europe (including the UK) — we have been taken over by big box stores, it’s really depressing. I think, I hope, Europeans maintain their (your) small businesses and markets. Bigger is not always better.

  2. I remember the Paris bookstores well and the booksellers (and artists) that set up along the Seine. Such a literary culture.

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