I have a home in every land but I don't know where it is... Rabindranath Tagore
Many years ago when the Indian poet Tagore gave a reading in Paris at Shakespeare and Company bookstore this line was in their Left Bank window. If you take the meaning of 'home' as a bookstore, which I do, it's great news that Brentano's, at one time I think the oldest English language bookstore in Paris, will re-open this year. In the same store on Boulevard de l"Opera which during the war, the German army installed a photography processing service in the basement - go figure, I've heard conflicting stories about that. But if you didn't know, the French government subsidies keep independent bookstores going in Paris. Especially in the Latin Quarter, still the intellectual center and site of parts of the Sorbonne and the Grand Ecoles.
Now if Paris can do this, why can't we do this around the world?
For more than 30 years, Marie-Jo Grandjean has spent her days and many of her nights amid the organized clutter of her tiny Left Bank shop where art books crowd every available surface and shelf right up to the high ceiling.
Infused with that distinctive smell of fragile paper and old bindings, the store has been her life. But she always worried, she said, whether it would live on without her. In the past decade, five other independent booksellers within blocks of her shop have shut their doors, victims of rising rents and rapid gentrification.
The story is the same across the historic Latin Quarter, with its zigzag streets, medieval university buildings and, increasingly, big brand-name clothing stores. In 2000, according to a survey by the city of Paris, the district boasted 300 independent bookstores, many of them quirky specialty shops. Now, there are just 170.
To reverse the trend and revive the small bookseller tradition, Paris has taken on the role of landlord – but a landlord with a one-track mind. Through one of its redevelopment agencies, the city has been buying up property and commercial leases in the Latin Quarter and renting them to bookstores.
Ms. Grandjean, who opened Courant d'Art in the late 1970s after abandoning her dream of being a flamenco dancer, is one of the first to benefit from the project. Last year, she decided she needed cash to help care for her elderly mother. But she feared that if she sold the store, a new landlord would ultimately convert it into a high-rent boutique. Instead, the city bought the shop and now rents it back to her at a below-market rate.
More important, in her eyes and that of the city, the terms of the sale specified that the space will never be used for anything other than a bookstore, no matter who leases it.
“It's extraordinary, what they're doing, isn't it?” said Ms. Grandjean, who presides over an inventory of about 100,000 rare and old art and photography books. “It allows people to stay in touch with culture, and culture to be transmitted to people.”
The quasi-governmental agency that runs the bookstore rescue program is called Semaest, created 17 years ago to redesign neighbourhoods in transition. Elsewhere in Paris, it buys up leases and storefronts to counter what it calls “mono-activity,” installing a mix of small businesses in areas dominated by a single trade such as wholesale garment manufacturers. In the Latin Quarter, the aim is to bring in and preserve only book-related commercial activity.
Unlike in many countries, the problems of independent bookshops do not appear to be related to competition from big chains or online vendors. French bookstores' sales have remained steady over the years and even grew by about 1.5 per cent in 2009, with Internet purchases representing just 7 per cent of the total.
New book prices, unlike in this country, are fixed at the publishers' price and Internet vendors cannot discount books by more than 5 per cent off the cover price. The National Book Centre, another government agency, provides no-interest loans and subsidies to independent bookshops as well as publishing houses.
The gentleman in the photo above runs his second hand bookshop - a few blocks from the Catacombs - in the 14th arrrondissement. He's open rain or shine and if you talk with him nicely he'll sell you books by the pound.