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Paris Bookstores Are Designated Essential — But These Landmarks Struggle To Survive

Gibert Jeune bookstore has held a prominent place on Paris' Place Saint Michel for decades, its yellow awnings nearly as iconic as the plaza's fountain statue of Saint Michael slaying a dragon.

Here, generations of students, intellectuals, bibliophiles and tourists have perused outdoor book stacks before heading to one of the surrounding cafes in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

But in a blow to the left bank neighborhood, the iconic store shuttered its doors this spring. Teacher Pascale Nédélec says Gibert Jeune meant something to generations of students.

"When I was a kid, I came here every year at the beginning of the school year to get my textbooks," she says. "So I remember that time and think it's sad. Because this is the Quartier Latin and it's supposed to be a place where you have those old movie theaters and all those bookstores."

Many people are now worried about the pandemic's toll in this literary city where independent booksellers have long flourished. Bookshops are considered an essential business, and have been allowed to stay open during France's third lockdown, which is set to end on Wednesday.

Paris' Gibert Jeune bookstore in 1956.
/ Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Paris' Gibert Jeune bookstore in 1956.

As it turns out, the pandemic was just the most recent blow in a series of setbacks for Gibert Jeune. The first was when school textbooks began to be provided for free in the early aughts. Then the Sorbonne and other schools began to open campuses away from the traditional student quarter in Paris' 5th arrondissement. Then there was the disruption caused by transport strikes and protests such as the yellow vest movement. And the fire at nearby Notre Dame two years ago. And of course, there is the perennial threat of Amazon.

"Our profession is being turned upside down, and Amazon plays a preponderant role in the decline of our activity," Marc Bittoré, head of Gibert Jeune, in an interview in his office above the store.

More accurately, Bittoré is the general director of Gibert Joseph, which acquired the failing Gibert Jeune chain in 2017. The two separate businesses were founded by competing brothers, who took over their father's original book shop established here on the banks of the Seine in 1886. Still family owned, Gibert Joseph is doing fine, says Bittoré, because it knew how to adapt.

"Many neighborhood bookstores still play an important role and are surviving this Amazon wave pretty well," he said. "They're an anchor in a neighborhood and play a central role in its life."

As proof, Bittoré takes me for a stroll along Boulevard Saint-Michel, showing me three Gibert Joseph stores in a row. There's the massive, six-story bookstore with more than 400,000 titles, then a smaller writing-paper and card shop, and the Gibert Joseph record store, which Bittoré says is the largest in Europe.

He says another key to their survival is expertise. "You need teams that are passionate and real connoisseurs of the books and music they're selling," he says. That describes Dorian Sarrus, who heads the soul, funk and rap aisle at Gibert Joseph musique.

"Whatever the genre, our specialty is having a diverse choice and large selection," says Sarrus. "And with digitization and the crisis in the music industry, we are now able to buy directly from the labels and even the artists."

Marc Bittoré is general director of Gibert Joseph, which acquired the failing Gibert Jeune chain in 2017. He says they have found ways to survive the pressure of Amazon.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
Marc Bittoré is general director of Gibert Joseph, which acquired the failing Gibert Jeune chain in 2017. He says they have found ways to survive the pressure of Amazon.

Paris has always protected its booksellers. Small shops qualify for subsidies. And rents are stabilized in pricey areas of the city. To keep book prices from dropping too low, the French parliament passed a law restricting Amazon from offering free delivery and a 5% discount across France.

Despite such safeguards, this literary city has lost nearly 30% of its hundreds of bookshops in the last two decades, according to one French survey.

Gibert is the largest independent bookstore in France, with 25 stores in 13 cities, and a website. Historically known for its expertise in school and university textbooks, today Gibert specializes in all genres, from literature to travel to foreign titles.

And Gibert Joseph has something Amazon doesn't, says Bittoré.

He pulls out his smart phone and opens up an app with a big capital G. It allows anybody to scan their used books and know exactly how much they can get for them at Gibert.

Bittoré says used books have been a core part of their business since 1929, and today, thanks to digitization and the app, used books represent 30% of their online and in-store business.

Outside the bookstore people line up with bags of books. Teacher Pascale Nédélec is selling back some text books and a complete DVD set of the series Madmen. She says even though she won't earn that much for them, she could never throw a book away.

"It's the idea that there's going to be a second life for this book and someone else will be happy to have a cheaper one," she says. "And I'm making money. So really it's a win-win situation."

Nédélec says she loves Gibert Joseph and will always come here before shopping on Amazon. Bittoré is counting on it.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.