Many would argue that Paris is the literary city par excellence. The city’s bars, bistros, and cafés have famously served as the smoky backdrop and shelter to many writers seeking inspiration, company, and heady conversations. For French readers, with about 700 librairies and 57 public bibliothèques in all the arrondissements in Paris, there is no shortage of places to read or find a book. The English-language literary scene is much more limited, with only eight bookstores and one American Library in Paris to cater to our bibliophile needs.
Now, two women are ready to challenge/enhance the literary scene with their endeavor to create and open COVEN Bookshop & Café, an English-language bookshop dedicated to intersectional feminism, engaged literature, and ethical hospitality. There are only two feminist bookshops in the city, La Librairie des Femmes and Violette & Co., both with a limited selection of books in English.
Pauline Lemasson, a contributing writer for INSPIRELLE, had a chance to catch up with Lucie Camara, a Parisian, and Louise Binns, a UK native, to discuss the vision behind this literary dream project.
How did the idea for COVEN come about?
Lucie: I had just returned from spending a few years abroad and was thinking about what on earth I was going to do with my life! After I admitted to myself that I was not suited to university life, I was back working at what was probably my billionth café. I felt stuck in an industry that I enjoyed but which was leaving me intellectually hungry and I kept dismissing friends when they suggested that I open my own business. Still, what gave me a thrill was seeking out ideas and radical conversations on philosophy and identity, particularly on gender and racial problematics. It slowly started to dawn on me that my actual specialty was, in fact, hospitality, in the first sense of the term: creating a comfortable and safe atmosphere and experience for guests.
With this realization came the idea of combining what I was passionate about with my professional skills. On top of that I noticed a hole in the English-speaking intellectual landscape on the northern side of Paris where, due to a lack of bookstores and other cultural centers, coffee shops and bars were acting as intellectual hubs. That’s how the idea of COVEN as an international feminist Bookshop & Café was born.
Why do you feel now is the moment for Paris to have an English-language feminist bookshop and café?
Lucie: Paris is a funny old city. It has been the scene of so many social and cultural movements, and home to so many different people and cultures, but it still has very cold feet when anything new, or hybrid, and especially not necessarily exclusively French, comes into being. So I do believe the international community here is quite hungry for this kind of project. It is my hometown, so I have a strong network here and an understanding of how the city works, but most importantly there is definitely a strong international and progressive audience here that radiates over the borders and is connected to other big cities.
Louise: I’ve lived in Paris for just over 10 years now and in terms of specialty spaces, the city has opened up so much – but there’s also room for more. Paris is home to tens of thousands of Anglophones, yet there are just a handful of English-speaking places which are all located close together. From our combined communities, we know that there is a craving for more feminist conversations and a need for more venues that cater to them. Just across the Channel, in the UK there is so much great stuff happening, which inspires and motivates us endlessly – we’re of the opinion that COVEN is long overdue!
COVEN just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds that will get them closer to opening a bookshop and café in Paris.
What is the vision/philosophy of COVEN? How does that translate to an actual place?
Lucie: Many people ask me how a “café” can be feminist. A bookstore, that’s pretty clear, but a café isn’t necessarily as obvious. However, the idea of a feminist restaurant, bar, or coffee shop isn’t new. At the peak of the women’s rights movement in the 60s and 70s, businesses that committed to creating a respectful environment for their staff and customers – especially for marginalized communities, people of color, queer folks – flourished across the U.S. (mostly) and internationally. They infused their ethics into their workflow and organization, but also in the food and drinks they offered, using suppliers that respected the producers and the planet. That way they challenged the status quo and proved that another way was possible. Even though today many of these places have closed down, we intend for COVEN to follow the trail blazed by these inspiring leaders.
Louise: Something we’re conscious of creating with COVEN is a safe haven for people who may feel vulnerable or unwelcome in certain spaces, for a whole plethora of reasons. We’re conscious that it’s not just Lucie and me that get to define how exactly COVEN will be a safe space for its community – that’s something we see evolving once we have a physical space and can receive feedback from the people who spend time at COVEN.
What value do actual brick-and-mortar bookstores (or spaces) offer in the age of online everything?
Lucie: I think a love for literature is a love for ideas and imagination, which makes it one of the most powerful tools for social change. This is why we can’t really imagine a space dedicated to radical books that wouldn’t also allocate a physical room to practice, exchange, and go beyond the ideas we get from them.
Louise: Nothing beats friendly human interaction. It can make all the difference in someone’s day. I think that people love brick and mortar bookshops because they’re magical spaces with endless possibilities!
The Internet is incessant so who wouldn’t enjoy the opportunity to take a step back from that and spend time browsing their local bookshop, asking for advice, seeking out something special for a friend… and it’s not a one-off encounter.
You can repeat the experience as much as you like and invest long-term in meaningful human relationships that connect you to a community.
What are your favorite bookshops/cafés and what makes them special?
Lucie: For bookshops, Shakespeare and Company and The Red Wheelbarrow are definitely some of my favorite places in Paris for English language books. I’ll have to add L’Impromptu, a French bookshop on rue Sedaine in the 11th arrondissement. It does a great job bringing its neighborhood together and takes a strong stand in its selection of books. As for cafes, Ten Belles (on Canal St Martin) is an all-time favorite and is now joint first with the more recently opened Homade (also in the 10th) as well as Grounded (in the 11th).
Louise: I’m going to second Shakespeare and Company as this is where my feminist book club and podcast (The FBC Paris) meets every month to have book-based feminist discussions. Gay’s the Word and Pages of Cheshire Street in London are such welcoming spaces that you want to move in. We met the fantastic people behind Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh over the summer. We absolutely love what they do and are a great example of creating safe spaces, as well as Category is Books in Glasgow who inspire us with their pay it forward mentality.
What books would you select that embody what COVEN represents/means? (if that’s possible in a selection!)
Lucie: “Well-Read Black Girl” because it highlights the power that literature, and especially representation, can have on people and women in particular. “Protest Kitchen” and “The Sexual Politics of Meat” are two very good in-depth reflections on the correlation of the way we eat and racial and gender-based oppression.
Louise: “It’s Not About the Burqa” anthology of essays represents COVEN quite well because it shows a whole range of women’s experiences – in this case, Muslim women – even though they’re all based in the UK. And this for me is something that needs to be remembered – feminism is layered and complex. There is no one size fits all. We must stand united and not leave people behind.
“Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi is another one that feels close to COVEN for me. Akwaeke is so gutsy and so unapologetic, as a person and as a writer, and the book was a life-changing moment for me when I read it earlier this year. It has elements of magic to it – the book is rooted in Igbo cosmology – whilst exploring the multiplicity of one’s self, something that requires multiple structures in order to be understood. I imagine the COVEN Bookshop & Café hosting a multitude of events and welcoming all sorts of wonderful people. And what we’re going to get back from that is more understanding and more empathy, which we can feed into the space to the benefit of our community, both near and far!