If someone had told me a year ago that a trip to the French supermarket would be an existential experience, I would have been dubious. Yet there I was last week at my local Monoprix contemplating the meaning of lockdown life as I looked at whole sections of items deemed nonessential – including books, clothes, toys, and dishware – all roped off like a crime scene. If this were an episode on the Family Feud game show, how many of these items would have made a “survey says” lineup of items considered essential during a global pandemic? I would have put my money on books.
Almost immediately after France entered into its second national confinement on October 30, unions, bookshops, and cultural critics were outraged that books were among the list of nonessential items.
Books offer a lifeline
The Union of French Booksellers and the National Union of Editors issued a solemn joint statement appealing to the French government to allow bookshops to remain open like in Belgium, Austria, and Germany. They emphasized the essential activity of books and reading in French people’s lives to “satisfy our need for understanding, for reflection, escape, distraction, but also sharing and communication, even in isolation.”
François Busnel, a prominent French journalist and host of the literary show La Grande Librairie, sent around a petition that positioned books as not just another product, but a “good that must be defended by the nation” and bookshops are “one of the most effective bulwarks against ignorance and intolerance.”
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo outright urged Parisians to not buy books from Amazon.
“Do not buy from Amazon. Amazon is the death of our bookshops and of neighborhood life.” – Mayor Anne Hidalgo
How to heal if bookshops are suffering?
It is an extraordinary spectacle to see the concerted effort to defend both the act of bookselling and the reading of books. As Albert Wu, associate professor of history at the American University in Paris, added, “it’s a true testament to the centrality of books and bookshops in France.”
Indeed, France is a country whose citizens read, and quite a lot, and mostly in paper format. Four out of five French people say that they are readers, with the youth topping the list, followed by women and people over 65.
Literary critics and authors have long written about how reading books can offer a reprieve, a mirror onto ourselves, and a look into others’ lives. C. S. Lewis eloquently wrote, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” The author believed books change us and make us even more ourselves.
James Baldwin read through all the books in two public libraries in Harlem to find that he was not alone.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” – James Baldwin
Even with all the political fervor and public outcry, French bookshops remained closed for the month-long confinement in November to fight against the spread of Covid-19. Big chains like Fnac, Monoprix, and Carrefour were allowed to stay open, with the condition that they partitioned off non-essential items.
French booksellers had to pivot to a click and collect model.
How to stay connected with books
“We needed to continuously adapt,” says Christian Rutherford, a bookseller at Librairie Galignani, “it’s a compromise, we were grateful during the second lockdown to stay connected with our patrons with online orders and pickups.”
Yannick Poirier, co-owner of Tschann Librairie in the 6ème arrondissement, says, “the click and collect model is all logistics. I want to be a bookseller and make recommendations or talk about books with my patrons, many of whom discover new titles while browsing.”
It is true that we no longer really need to go to where books are physically being sold. However, we go to those places so we can find fellow bibliophiles and booksellers who can move us forward, help us learn and cope, and spread joy.
This is precisely what a patron will encounter when entering The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, near the Jardin du Luxembourg, and meeting owner Penelope Fletcher. Her typical response to a “how are you doing today” greeting is to hand over a book that reflects her thoughts on the current moment.
Saving our bookshops
It is the hope of every independent bookshop that when times get difficult, they can appeal to their readers for support. On October 30, Shakespeare & Company on Paris’ Left Bank sent a sobering message: “We are struggling, trying to see a way forward during this time when we’ve been operating at a loss, with our sales down almost 80% since March.”
The response that poured forth from supporters around the world was overwhelming. Adam Biles, events manager, says they went from a dozen daily online orders to 1,000 in one day. “It was very touching, such an affirmation of what bookshops mean to people, even when they can’t come and visit us.” Almost overnight, Shakespeare & Company brought their staff back to work from furlough to fulfill the orders, which topped 7,000 in two weeks, and prompted a temporary shutdown of their online bookstore to catch up.
The gift of giving books
However, the drastic economic downturn caused by the pandemic may still mean an uncertain future for independent bookstores in France, many of whom survived the 70% decrease in sales by switching to online and curbside ordering and receiving French government assistance.
“We buy from local bookshops because we want them to be around,” says Francis Geffard, publisher at Albin Michel and founder of Festival America.
“Books are vital to our world, we live a thousand lives in them that are not our own. How can they be not essential?” – Francis Geffard, Albin Michel
France lifted some restrictions as part of a multi-part deconfinement strategy beginning on Saturday, November 28. Shops, including bookstores, have now reopened for in-store browsing and purchases.
As the holiday season arrives, there is a collective sigh of relief mixed with trepidation in planning for the fêtes. I feel lucky to live in a country where a book is still one of the most popular gifts to offer. With its constellation of 3,000 independent bookstores, France has a literary heartbeat like nowhere else. I can think of no better way to seek a more emotionally expansive future after a devastating year than walking into a bookshop and meeting booksellers who, as poet Ocean Vuong described, are mapmakers of possibilities. Happy browsing!