Romance in Paris: Why Do French Bookstores Continue to Thrive?


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An article in the New York Times called “The French Still Flock to Bookstores” explores why, at a time when independent bookstores struggle in other parts of the world, they still flourish in France.

Reading the article transported me to a café in Paris where, by the way, I have never been. I could hear accordion music playing softly in the background as I read. And the topic of the article, the French romance with books, fit the theme.

I can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia and romance for what appears to be a dying breed, the written word on the page. I’ll admit that I have succumbed to the lure of the e-book for its convenience, especially when travelling; the ability to carry an entire library, which is lighter than a magazine, certainly has its appeal, but there is nothing like a book.

Just the smell of books, be they in the library or in a used book store or even brand new – there is something both hopeful and weighty about that smell. What will this book tell me? Will I be transported to another land? Or learn something new about places I inhabit every day? Books provide us with a cheap form of escape from daily life.

This article is about a love affair with books, and really, where better to have a love affair than Paris?  But it also explains the practical reasons that bookstores still thrive in France.

The French government has taken a special interest in preserving bookstores, providing grants to bookstore owners and subsidies for shopkeepers.

Most importantly, perhaps, they passed a law to prohibit electronic books from being sold dramatically below the publisher’s list price. This has likely done more to prop up bookstores than anything.

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My heart and my mind appear to be at war on this particular subject. In my heart, I am delighted to read that there is at least one place in the world where I can still wander from bookstore to bookstore in search of hidden treasures and ideas yet to be shared. I would buy a ticket to Paris today to do just that.

On a pragmatic level, however, I understand that e-books help reduce the environmental impact of books, as long as people don’t constantly upgrade their e-readers and create more electronic waste. If someone can tell me that physical books are more green than e-books, I would gladly change my perspective on this.

One green alternative is the model described in the article where once a month, on weekends, in Rue de Martyrs south of Montmartre, people bring old books and are welcome to take away books for free as long as they do not sell them.

Baltimore has a thriving organization called The Book Thing that allows people to do this every weekend. It was in the basement of an old Baltimore row house, but outgrew that space and had to find a bigger location. Who knew Baltimore was so chic?!

What do you think? How do you feel about the French government’s active role in preserving bookstores? What do you see as the future of books? If you are considering writing a book, or already have, did you print hard copies or just an e-book? Do you think that old bookstores will survive, but that they will become like vintage record stores or do you think there will always be a market for books? What will this mean for libraries?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks so much for reading.


Filed under Books, Culture, Economy, Education, International, Poetry, Policy, Politcs, Role of Government, Technology, travel

67 responses to “Romance in Paris: Why Do French Bookstores Continue to Thrive?

  1. I am certainly a fan of physical books and refuse to get sucked into the e-world on this front. I think the French passion for bookstores is one more aspect of their often commendable prioritization of quality of life and immediate sensations (food, art, sensuality) over efficiency. But France is not the only place with thriving bookstores – Montpelier, Vermont (population 8000) has no fewer than three wonderful used bookstores downtown!

    So much of the pleasure of reading comes from things other than the words themselves – from the feel of the pages to the social aspects of choosing books and then discussing them – that it would be a shame to be too taken by the convenience aspects of new technologies.

    • Good for you. And I completely agree. I need to visit France -and Montpelier! 🙂 Or at the very least start prioritizing quality of life and immediate sensations over efficiency! Thanks for reading and for taking time to comment!!

  2. I love the idea that the French Government is helping to preserve bookstores. I also like the idea of the book exchange. Here we have lots of used book sales where the money goes to charity. It’s amazing just how popular they are. I doubt that the physical book will disappear anytime soon. Print-on-demand might become more popular as writers decide it’s easier to self-publish this way. (I think I mentioned about the machines in some bookstores where books can actually be printed while you wait) This still results in physical books, but there is less wasted as the books are only printed as they are wanted. As for my books, they are not available in e-format yet. Maybe once the physical books have all been sold and the publisher relinquishes their rights, I will go the on-demand route. I hesitate to make them available in e-format, although that might yet happen. 🙂

    • I like your solution. I wrote about the instant publishers at community bookstores a few weeks ago and think that may be part of the answer. You optimism is contagious! 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  3. i think the irish flock too as you seldomly see them without a book on the bus

  4. Dear News,
    My heart and mind are at war, too!!!

  5. I wonder if part of the issue has been the proliferation of “big box” book stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble in the United States, so people feel much less connected to the owners and the store has much less of a community focus…just a thought.

  6. I love book stores and certainly prefer turing pages over flipping screens, but times are moving forward and I guess we all have to cave at some point, however I will go kicking and screaming as I clutch onto my paperback! Maybe I’ll just move to France…..

  7. I certainly didn’t know Baltimore was that chic! It must be something new! But I am of one mind when it comes to books: there is no substitute for a book that you can write in and argue with. You can’t do that with electronic books! And the environmental problem is solved if you recycle the books themselves (with friends or in used book stores) or, if all else fails, recycle the paper they are printed on. No?? 🙂

  8. I understand the practicality of e-books, and my husband finally broke down and got his first Kindle last week, but my walls are covered with books. To me they are beautiful, a promise for the future (not kidding!), and insurance that I will have entertainment after the electronic infrastructure is destroyed in the apocalypse (just kidding!).

  9. I agree with Naomi and my husband and I were just discussing the tech fallout possibilities. I get the “feeling” that it’s going to crash, too. For years before the real estate market crashed, I repeated over and over, to the point of being annoying, “Something’s going to give…” And here, it will, too.
    Books will never die. I’m reminded of that old Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith wanted nothing more than to read books.He locked himself into a vault just before the world was about to come to an end, so to speak, outside of the vault. He exited, found himself alone, and onto the steps of a massive library. Heaven on earth. Unfortunately, he broke his needed glasses…. Even with that, the books stood the test of time.
    Science fiction or truth?
    I only have a few electronic devices and no Kindle and probably never will. On my last flight to visit family, I notice a kindle reader sitting diagonally from me. The light shone just right so that I could see the smudges and oils and who knows what, on the screen. That was enough to turn me off forever. Ah, perhaps it’s just an excuse. I like my books, they give me comfort, and when I get published, it’s going on real paper.

  10. stickyquote

    I love reading and I love to have that book on my shelf in my home available when I want to read it there’s nothing like a physical book… Thank you very much for sharing this…

    • I couldn’t agree more. Especially for my very favorite books. I dated a guy with a one book in one book out policy – wonder why we didn’t last?!? 😉 Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  11. stickyquote

    I would love to Reblog this

  12. I like curling up with a book!

  13. I’ve been thinking about this topic a fair bit also. I’ve resisted going electronic, because finding my way around a printed book seems so much easier. I also love a full looking bookshelf and rereading old books. I would definitely reccomend reading a book (either electronic or paper) in a Parisian cafe. It’s reading in style! Sadly, I think printed books are headed the way of the dinosaur, the price deifferential is too great.

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  15. I absolutely love books! The feeling that they give you when you’re curled up reading a really good one. It’s a homey feeling and I love idea of this article. Great post!

  16. So glad to hear books are thriving somewhere. I love them. The smell of them, the feel of them, the soft whisper the page makes as I turn. To me curling up for a cozy read and electronics are oxymorons. I take them out from the library which I think addresses the eco angle nicely while still making some good sales for authors. One day I imagine I’ll get some sort of reader for the travel perks-yes, the idea of taking thousands of books while reducing the weight in my carry-on has appeal… But all the rest of the time give me the sensuality of a book in my hands.

  17. I have e-Readers (Kindle, iPad), but I still spend an hour or so in the bookstore … to browse the shelves, pick up a book in my hand, open the book and smell the new pages and ink. I mourned the closure of the branches of the big bookstores close to me – but in the process got good sale prices on books. e-Readers are great, and now I travel with a selection of books for whatever fits my mood – my suitcases, carry-on and back and shoulders (as well as the luggage handlers, I suspect) thank me for that. But nothing beats a day on the beach with a good, thick book (which I just did yesterday!). I suspect that e-Readers will be the norm here, but not in the third-world and under-developed countries. For those, the physical books are still the prize. So I know that my books will still live on, even if only in the villages and jungles.

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  19. I was going to write a post on this but you have done an excellent job! I will stick with my books but I agree e-books make sense for some. Glad to know about Baltimore. The romantic in me wants to read a real book in Paris!

  20. I have mixed feelings. I love books, but they are a huge waste of trees that we desperately need. They also take up too much space and are difficult when traveling. I haven’t switched to a kindle yet, but it will be my next present to myself. Living and traveling abroad and buying books…its just not practical in this day and age. I’m constantly buying and then getting rid of them. Its a waste.

    That being said….god I love books. I love the smell of them and everything else. And I hate the idea of the reliance on technology where we are getting to the point nothing can be done without electronics.

    • I always take my old books to the local library. That helps assuage the guilt about the trees that were lost in their production. I just can’t get used to the idea of reading something I can’t write on — to note special passages for future reference!

    • I hear you loud and clear. I have kind of gotten to a place where I download lots of books and only buy hard copies of my very favorites. The good thing about the kindle/e-reader is that it helps me read more. Thanks so much for your comment!

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