Instruments for the Elevation of the Soul: The Plight of the Book in Twenty-First Century Paris

Paris conjures up many images. Some visualize the Seine and arching footbridges; others see patisseries shaded by plane trees or a five a.m. street crêpe; others still, think of books. Writers and writing infuse the city’s marrow, from contemporary stars like Muriel Barbery to the 1920s icons Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, and James Joyce, and back even earlier to Victor Hugo and Voltaire. Today on Rue de la Parcheminerie, shelves upon shelves stretch up to the ceiling of Abbey Bookshop, towering above the stacks on the floor. On Quai de Valmy, overlooking hipster-favourite canal Saint-Martin, Artazart’s colourful mash-up of design ranges from Helmut Newton and Patti Smith photography to books on typography and Communist-era graphics, with a few Polaroid cameras on sale for good measure. Mots à la Bouche in the Marais fills the window of its blue storefront with the latest queer fiction, provocative art books, and biographies.

Paris is legendary for its literary scene and bookshops of all descriptions and, whatever your taste in bookishness, it boasts many more flavours to choose from than your average North American metropolis. Yet beneath the romanticism of this scene, the city’s booksellers are confronting a shifting landscape pitting the revered cultural status of literature against new social and economic realities.

“It is worrisome, very worrisome,” says Sébastien Grisez, manager of the French LGBT bookstore, Les Mots à la Bouche. “All the booksellers and the publishers are very anxious not knowing where the situation is taking us. There are a lot of changes going on and people have less and less money; there are many problems converging at the moment.”

Perhaps the most visible of those problems is the VAT crisis of the last few months, which left many French bookstores strewn with protest leaflets explaining that book jacket prices would be different at the cash. When Nicolas Sarkozy’s government raised the VAT tax on books from 5.5 to seven per cent in April of this year as part of austerity measures to combat the country’s deficit, the change became symbolic of a growing malaise within the industry.

“The political situation, or tone, that is given to the country by the president and by the government really has an influence,” explains David Delannet, co-manager of the late George Whitman’s reincarnated Shakespeare and Company bookstore. “You just felt that he was not supporting that industry at all and it weighted on people.”

Screenshot of the Shakespeare and Company website

While Shakespeare and Co. remains a vital force on the Seine, two other prominent English-language bookstores have announced their exits in 2012. The Village Voice Bookshop had been a fixture of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood on the left bank for 30 years before it closed at the end of July. In the Marais, The Red Wheelbarrow has been up for sale for several months. For Métissa André of Abbey Bookshop, the atmosphere at her shop, which sells both new and second-hand books, is one of tenuous fragility; sales are down and more people seem to want to offload books.

Despite this grim ambiance, however, France still has a robust independent book industry.  According to Matthieu De Montchalin, president of the French booksellers association Syndicat de la Librairie Française, there are roughly 2,500 independent booksellers in France, 1,000 of which are in the greater region surrounding the capital, with 200 in the city itself.  The state has enacted several policies prioritizing literature over the last few decades that have protected the independent book market from much of the carnage witnessed in England and North America since the rise of the large chain retailers.

Much of the security these small bookshops have enjoyed results from the 1981 Lang Law, named for the then-culture minister Jack Lang. The law established a fixed price system for French-language books, whereby no retail outlet, including the global players like Amazon and Fnac, could discount a work by more than five per cent below the price set by the publisher. Through this measure, small stores were given a level playing field, as they could not be undercut by deep discounts from the large retailers. In 2011, the law was further extended to cover e-books. The French, however, seem to prefer the tangible flesh of print. E-book sales have remained below two per cent of total book sales for the last two years. In contrast, the National Book Count for 2012 found that e-books accounted for 10 per cent of all English Canada book sales.

The municipal government of Paris has also invested in maintaining the city’s literary scene. Paris launched an interventionist initiative in 2008, spearheaded by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, to preserve small culturally oriented enterprises. “In France we are more attached to small independent businesses, we like things that have a soul,” says André. In conjunction with the development agency Semaest, City Hall purchases real estate in arrondissements throughout the city and then rents it at a discount to cultural operations, in many instances seeking out small bookshops as tenants.  “It is helping bookstores to survive,” says Delannet, “because you can’t compete with H&M and Channel or Dior—these guys make way more money than the book business.”

Paris’s investment in preserving its literary landscape, and indeed the country’s overall esteem for literature, clashed with the VAT increase. During his spring election campaign François Hollande pledged to reverse the increase and this summer, as President, he fulfilled that promise. The VAT on books will return to 5.5 in the new year.

Perhaps a new President with a commitment to old policies can shake off the disquiet felt within the Parisian book community, but even with a shift in political mood and fresh occupants in the Élysée Palace, challenges remain. English and French bookstores may often attract different clientele and English-language books are not bound by the fixed pricing legislation, but they are all subject to the realities of a troubled economy. France may be faring better then its Mediterranean neighbours but it is still feeling the effects of the Euro-crisis with three consecutive quarters of zero growth and an unemployment rate at a 13-year high of 10.2 per cent. People have less money in general and therefore less money for books.

“We know that the years to come will be difficult,” says De Montchalin.  His worries, however, are not just focused on economics. He is concerned about fostering a love of reading within a younger generation raised online, and points out that when you lose the habit of reading books, habits like reading newspapers and thinking critically about the world could be next to go.

“Reading speaks of all subjects,” says De Montchalin. “We need to show children that books open lots of doors, and that it gives as much pleasure as watching a film or playing a video game.”

Perhaps, however, the literary scene in Paris will be its own saviour. The romanticism that enshrines literature within the city attracts countless tourists enamoured with the past and the thought of touching shoulders with literary ghosts. “All the history of writers and the books that were published here—Paris is sort of a myth because of all that,” says André. The reality and the myth of the place are not entirely separate: beneath the clichés, and perhaps in part because of them, lies a culture that reveres the printed word and its industries. For now at least, France still venerates its writers and the idea that Paris should be a safe haven for bookshops.

When the VAT increase was announced, booksellers and their supporters argued that books should be considered vital and classified as goods of first necessity. “Books are not just any kind of merchandise, books are instruments for the elevation of the soul,” says Delannet of the argument behind the Lang Law. “And so you have to have a rule to preserve bookstores for people to have access to that.”

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