One of the most well-loved institutions in Paris Anglophone community is the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, located on a lovely tree-lined street just across from the Luxembourg Garden. On any given day, owner Penelope Fletcher can be seen walking between the two shop locations – No. 9 and No. 11 – on rue des Médicis in the heart of the French capital. She greets customers and passersby alike with a “yes, we’re open, what book are you looking for?”
For the Red Wheelbarrow, a bookstore named after a poem by William Carlos Williams that expresses the happy coincidence of practicality and chance, the pandemic brought both challenges and opportunities. They managed well through the lockdowns, and recently expanded into their second shop space. Penelope and her team plan to create a double bookshop for Paris. The Red Wheelbarrow, at No. 11, will become the main bookshop, with its beautiful high ceilings, wooden floors, and long-honored literary reputation. The Red Balloon (at No. 9) will be Paris’s first bilingual English-French children’s bookshop.
They have launched a crowdfunding campaign for June 2022 to raise the funds to create and maintain these two integrated, yet independent, spaces for their growing and dedicated community of readers, young and old.
INSPIRELLE caught up with owner Penelope Fletcher, lawyer-turned-bookseller Margaret Gerner, and bestselling author Janet Skeslien Charles to talk about what makes the Red Wheelbarrow such a unique place for them and for the community of booklovers from all over Paris and beyond.
When you reopened the Red Wheelbarrow just across the Luxembourg Garden, did you get many people saying, what a great idea, or you’re crazy to open a bookstore now?
PENELOPE: We reopened the bookshop in September 2018, and people didn’t say it was a great idea or that we were crazy. They did say, “oh you’re back!” My bookshop partner, Danielle Cumbo, was the reason we opened again. She was there on the phone or in emails to me each day until her death in April. So with her, I felt like I was part of a team. And when I thought it was crazy to do this again, Danielle would say it was going to be okay. So it feels right to be back. People thought the location was fabulous. I loved the shops we had in the Marais, and now I really love the one we’ve taken on.
When you think back on the 21 years of the bookstore in Paris, what is a memorable event or moment that really stands out for you?
PENELOPE: Oh, there are many. The memorial service upon the death of Toni Morrison. The Jamika Ajalon event with Malik Crumpler. The day that Sylvie Decaux’s students came to do their advent calendar and I showed them different books from the kid’s shop that they could choose to do their Instagram posts on.
JANET: The first moment that stands out was when I saw my debut novel in her window in 2009. She was the first person in Paris to ask me to present my book. I will always be grateful for all that she does for writers and readers.
The moments of community are what stand out. The conversations when book-loving strangers connect over a favorite novel. Walking into the Red Wheelbarrow and feeling at home.
Looking for a book and discovering one that I didn’t know I needed until I started reading it. As an author and a reader, Penelope’s support has meant the world to me.
MARGARET: One of the most memorable events of the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore was the midnight party for Book 7 of Harry Potter. It was so much fun to wait for the official release of the books along with other fans. Everyone was so excited and in such a happy expectant mood. I remember with great fondness, the sense of camaraderie and shared excitement.
Author Ann Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books, said that the best part of owning a bookstore is that you always get to tell people what to read. What’s special for you?
PENELOPE: I like finding the book that someone wants, people think it is magic – that we know where the books are in the store. I also love recommending books, and then the person comes back and says they loved it. It’s beautifully satisfying. I love of course opening the boxes of new books. I like creating a space that is like a portal place to a million different worlds and possibilities.
JANET: I love giving reading recommendations and especially enjoy helping people who think they aren’t readers to find books that they’ll connect with. I also enjoy receiving book recommendations from Penelope, Meg, and Anne Marsella. Thanks to them, I have discovered everything from Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef to Matrix by Lauren Groff.
MARGARET: I’m a big science fiction/fantasy reader and I love meeting like-minded readers. But it’s really special when I introduce a non-sci-fi/fantasy reader to my favorite titles and they end up loving those same titles!
Janet, you once said that reading is a solitary act, however, there is sociability in going to a bookstore. How does the Red Wheelbarrow bring the community into its space?
JANET: Reading is solitary yet social.
We might be alone with the characters when we read, but through books clubs and bookshops and social media, we can connect with others and share our love of the written word.
My greatest pleasure in Paris is talking to booklovers at the Red Wheelbarrow. I love hearing where they are from, where they are going, what they are reading.
At heart, I’m a hermit, and being with Penelope among the books at the Red Wheelbarrow puts me at ease.
What do you think it takes to sustain a thriving Anglophone bookstore in Paris? How did you keep the bookstore afloat during the pandemic lockdowns?
MARGARET: When we were all in lockdown, people suddenly had much more time at home and this made them realize that they wanted to read books. We were fortunate enough to have customers (both new and old) order lots of books to get them through the lockdowns. After all, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch before you start looking for something more sustaining!
I think to maintain a thriving Anglophone bookstore in Paris, really any bookstore anywhere, you need an expansive selection of books and dedicated readers. One of the strengths of the Red Wheelbarrow is that we carry a wide range of different titles — we have the ones that everyone wants to read (I’m looking at you, Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Beautiful World, Where are You) but we also have the interesting, perhaps more niche titles too (Elena Knows and Sky Papers, to name two). And our customers are discerning and dedicated readers who want both kinds.
What is your favorite book about Paris? Aside from Janet Skeslien Charles’s bestselling book, The Paris Library!
PENELOPE: I love Anne Marsella’s books. My favorite book about Paris is Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
JANET: I love Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys!
MARGARET: Oh, this is a hard one! I love Athenais: The Real Queen of France by Lisa Hilton and The Beautiful Fall by Alicia Drake. Both copies I bought at the first Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in the Marais.