"Vive la Bookstore!"
October 9th, 2013
The New Yorker
Everywhere in the world may look more and more like everywhere else, but there are still a few proudly Gallic institutions that you can count on spotting in any city or town in France: cafés that thrive in spite of Starbucks, bakeries with their total indifference to things gluten-free, tabacs that keep hanging on as smokers turn to e-cigarettes. Most pleasing of all, in this age of Amazon, are the independent bookstores—around two thousand five hundred of them, all told. Paris alone has nearly seven hundred, one for every three thousand citizens, though the ratio of bookstores to readers often feels closer to one to one. If you can’t find the Colette novel you’re looking for on Rue de Reuilly, you just go two blocks over to the Rue de Charonne, or to Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where bookstores share the street with Algerian tea shops and furniture makers that predate the Revolution. This isn’t a university neighborhood with an intellectual pedigree. It’s just the way things are there—pretty different from here. In a recent study of the American cities with the most bookstores, and the most per capita, New York didn’t make the top ten in either category. To a New Yorker who spent her formative years witnessing the routing of independent bookstores by Barnes & Noble, and then the gutting of Barnes & Noble by Amazon, the situation in Paris is luxurious beyond belief.
In 1981, France passed the Lang Law, named for then-Minister of Culture Jack Lang. La loi Lang fixed the prices of new books—whatever the publisher wants, the publisher gets—and set the maximum discount booksellers can offer at five per cent. The idea was to keep bookselling local; if they couldn’t slash prices, megastores like the FNAC, France’s answer to Best Buy, would hardly have an advantage over a tiny corner shop.
Now the threat is digital. E-books and books purchased on Amazon are also subject to the five-per-cent law. Nevertheless, at a conference held in June by the national booksellers union, Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti accused Amazon of driving prices down in order to raise them once a monopoly had been secured. The concept is so repellent to national sentiment that an English word has been commandeered to describe it: dumping. “Everybody has had enough of Amazon,” Filippetti, a novelist herself, said. She was right. Last Thursday, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the Lang Law that would bar online booksellers from engaging in “unfair competition” by offering free shipping on reduced-price books.
The Lang Law was the work of a Socialist government. Last week’s amendment, which is expected to glide easily through the Senate, was sponsored by four members of the conservative UMP, and won unanimous backing from both parties. (President François Hollande, once photographed flipping through “French History for Dummies” in his bathing suit, is in favor of it, too.) France has lately been operating at a level of political discord only slightly lower than ours, with heated fights over gay marriage, the rise of neo-Fascism, and headscarves, yet the status of the reader remains one of the few uncontroversial features of le patrimoine français. Nearly three-quarters of the adult French public reads at least one book a year; a fifth reads twenty or more, a statistic that has remained consistent over the past two decades. As online sales rise, Amazon has come to be seen in France as le mastodonte américain, the mammoth capitalist interloper rumbling across the Atlantic to trample on the delicacies of culture.
It’s difficult to imagine that obliging people to pay shipping fees on discounted books will make it much harder to buy books online or seriously dent Amazon’s indisputable competitive edge. The real question at the heart of the debate is how interchangeable “customer” and “citizen” have become in a country largely responsible for the modern idea of citizenship. Is the flâneur just another consumer these days? Books are a commodity, yes, and to the extent that Amazon allows consumers in remote corners to find and buy what they like, it provides a worthy service. When I lived in the town of Uzès—population: 8,500—I was grateful for books shipped from afar. I was even more grateful for Le Parefeuille, the bookstore on the Place aux Herbes, with its surprisingly excellent collections of contemporary fiction and poetry, because a good bookstore is more than a place to shop. It’s a civic space, a place made for run-ins and chance encounters with the kind of people you actually want to encounter. You go there to look at more than just books.
(When it comes to bookstore meetings, New York may be down, but we’re not yet out. I’m thinking of Season 3 of “Louie,” when Louis CK finds the impulsive book clerk played by Parker Posey at Park Slope’s Community Bookstore and has his life turned briefly, crazily upside down. Even though her character is as unstable as they come, she jolts Louie out of his existential funk. Moral of the story: you never know who you might meet while browsing titles. You do know that you wouldn’t meet her surfing Amazon at home in your underwear.)
This summer, I passed through Paris on my way home from a trip. I had just finished “The Flamethrowers” and thought I’d try to find Rachel Kushner’s first novel to take on the plane. I would have liked to go to the Village Voice Bookshop, on Rue Princesse, near the Luxembourg Gardens, which for a long time had one of the city’s best selections of books and magazines in English, but Village Voice had closed down a year before, citing the triple death knells of Amazon, price discounts, and the iPad. So I headed to Shakespeare and Company, where I had spent time as a “tumbleweed” when I arrived in the city years before, helping to shelve books in exchange for a place to sleep on a tiny settee on the shop’s second floor. George Whitman, the shop’s founder, had retired from his job as its helmsman and would descend from his little apartment upstairs only every so often to eat soup and stare at the throngs passing through his territory. Things weren’t as joyfully shabby as they had been in the shop’s halcyon days—the feeling was more of a business than a hostel. Still, there was an alluring sense of disorder and chance. I got to know a number of people at Shakespeare: a graduate student in economics from Naples who showed up at each week’s Monday-night reading to sip wine and pursue a different woman; the English poet who had run out of money in Italy and was crossing the Channel to write a movie based on the Aeneid for a reality-TV star.
When I arrived this time, a line had formed in front of the shop. People waited placidly, snapping iPhone photos to bring back to their bookstore-deficient nations. The doors were closed. I went to reach for the handle just as they opened to emit a pair of nuns, and a dark-haired woman stuck out her head and called, “Next two, please.”
Failing to understand, I tried to move past her. She blocked my way. The shop had too many visitors to fit inside at once, she explained. Would I just stand to the side and wait my turn?
A bookstore that has become a monument to itself, even a wildly popular monument, has lost its living essence. If this is what the French are trying to protect against, good luck to them. Rebuffed by Shakespeare, I did what you do when you have the luxury of choice, and went around the corner to the Abbey Bookshop, on the Rue de la Parcheminerie, where I found Kushner’s book smack in the middle of the shelf, right next to Kundera and Lawrence.