Saturday, May 15

Paris’s Latin Quarter booksellers feel the pressure


The planned demise of Gibert’s flagship store on Place Saint-Michel, as well as others nearby, follows the loss of the Boulinier store last year.

On the left bank of the Seine, the Latin Quarter of Paris is home to the Sorbonne.

It has been a place frequented by scholars since the Middle Ages and has dozens of
booksellers.

But today, with its plethora of franchised stores (Levi’s, Celio, Sephora) along Boulevard Saint Michel that runs from the banks of the Seine to the Sorbonne, critics claim the area has become another bland global retail strip. .

The iconic Boulinier, a fixture on the same boulevard since the 19th century, was forced to move its flagship store to smaller venues last June due to rising rents.

Faced with competition from online sales and internet giant Amazon, 43 percent of bookstores in the quarter have disappeared in 20 years, according to figures from the urban planning agency Apur.

The Latin Quarter, the center of a 1968 student revolt, remains a major university center, although fewer than 10,000 students are said to now live there.

Gradually, central Paris is becoming gentrified, dominated by tourists, while university faculties are “off-center,” gravitating more and more towards the suburbs, says Francois Mohrt, an urban planner from Apur.

People look at books in the Gibert Jeune bookstore in Paris in 1951. Photo: AFP

The smallest dollar is the trend

As France’s first independent bookseller, the Gibert group’s flagship store has been on Place Saint-Michel for as long as everyone can remember.

It plans to close four of its six Gibert Jeune stores located not far from Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Surrounded by half-empty shelves, one of the 69 employees whose jobs are about to disappear told AFP: “It’s brutal, but we didn’t expect it to last 10 years.”

In 2020, the pandemic emptied the Place Saint-Michel of tourists. Later, Bruno Gibert, former director of the group, sold the building that housed the largest bookstore.

In an attempt to help, city authorities through their semi-public company Semeast are proposing rents slightly below market rates and relocation with a focus on a model that works: small local bookstores that may also offer refreshments, according to the Officer Olivia Polski.

The initiative stems from the discovery that in Paris, as in the rest of the country, it is the local bookstores that offer the sector a ray of hope.

According to the Union of French Libraries (SLF), independent bookstores have grown again since 2017, despite a slight decline in 2020, by 3.3 percent, due to three months of closures during the Covid shutdowns.

A woman walks past a closed bookstore in Paris on October 30, 2020, the first day of a second national shutdown. Photo: Alain Jocard / AFP

Small bookstores, with a turnover of less than 300,000 euros a year, are the ones that are making the most progress with a 15 percent increase in sales in the last year.

For Guillaume Husson of the SLF “there is a social aspect that today is fundamental if you want your library to work”.

And it is that human relationship between the bookstore and its customers that is one of the most important things book lovers look for from “small-scale sellers,” he added.

The same lesson has not been lost in Gibert’s group. It will keep its six-story store next to the Sorbonne, but rules out any new openings in the Latin Quarter.

And it is considering opening bookstores of “less than 150 square meters” in the peripheral districts of Paris and possibly in the suburbs, although “first the basic issue of rentals will have to be addressed,” said CEO Marc Bittore.


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