What does Paris have that Chicago doesn’t?
Bookstores – dozens and dozens of bookstores. It used to be a joke between Belovedest and me – “Oh look – a bookstore!” when we would walk past one, but it’s sort of lost it’s humor, because bookstores are so common in Paris, and so very uncommon in Chicago.
You might say that it’s because we stayed, this last trip, near the Universities. But that’s a weak explanation – from my apartment window in Chicago, I can see buildings belonging to at least 3 universities – and there are very few bookstores in the entire downtown area… And what’s interesting is that the French don’t spend THAT much more time reading than American do.
The French do indeed care a great deal about literature; one of the big events coming up in France (from a literary perspective) is the 100th birthday of Marguerite Duras, tomorrow, the 4th. The bookstores were fully of posters and commemorative publications.
One of my favorite quotes from Marguerite Duras:
What are you reading? I picked up some style advice books in Paris – you’ll hear about them soon!
There are also all of the book sellers lining the bridges and walkways in France and all over Europe. I asked an Austrian about it once and he shrugged and said, "It's cultural."
Thank you for sharing about the birthday celebration for Marguerite Duras. I read many of her books when I was in college.
Being an intellectual is a point of pride, not shame. An erudite person is looked up to, not made fun of. In Hollywood movies, the villain is often the smart guy, while the hero is the good-for-nothing dunce who rises to the occasion. We do love cheering for an underdog, but on a broader level, it turns into a race to the bottom.
Janice, are the enrollment stats of the universities within the two cities (downtown) similar? The French have history on their side, those universities have been there many hundreds of years, and quite a few of the bookstores in the Quartier Latin cater to specific disciplines, so that too raises the number of stores. US bookstores are often in the university buildings, and French ones external.
If we look only at general-interest independent bookstores, the remaining US ones are hanging on where rent is cheap.
Janice Riggs says
The enrollment statistics are critical – you're right. I've been in the bookstores in a couple of the universities – one has a Barnes & Noble as their bookstore (they stock textbooks too…)
I'm particularly bitter about this, because I used to run a bookstore in the middle of the loop in Chicago, and when our lease was up and our rent was raised, the store closed. Which amuses me a little bit now, because NOTHING has gone into that location. After almost 20 years…sigh…
IMHO, equating reading with brick and mortar bookstores doesn't give a true picture. Almost everyone I know chain-reads (book-to-book), most read more than one at a time. Only a very, very small percentage of those books is paper. Is it my location (central Massachusetts) and our proclivity for hi tech that equates "reading" with "ebook"? E-readers (kindles, nooks, and tablets) are the norm. I even check ebooks out of my library digitally. Most of my son's textbooks are digital as well.
Janice Riggs says
You're right; I think that's why the reading statistics for Americans vs the French are so close – there are still a lot of books being read in the US. But I miss the actual physical bookstore, as well as the amazing assortment of books available. When I browse online I don't encounter the same range of books that I might in a B & M bookstore, because so much of what is shown to me is chosen specifically to appeal to me. So I miss that serendipitous find…
Vivian Jung says
I think the ebook phenomenon has a lot to do with the differences between the U.S. & France (Chicago and Paris). I've looked in vain for many titles in the French ebook stores, and because of VERY restrictive publishing arrangements, and little to no discount for buying an ebook vs. paper copy, France is very behind in the whole ebook culture. Some might say this is all for the good, but as someone who travels – and moves between countries – relatively often, ebooks have saved my suitcase, and lowered my moving costs. Which means I often don't read choose to read the French novels I'd like to because of unavailability.
Vivian Jung says
*"…I often don't choose to read…"
Sorry for the extra words!
I was wandering in a B+N at christmas time and passed by a Mom as she and her "10 yr-old or so" daughter were walking down the aisle. I overhead the Mom saying " honey, this is a bookstore. it's a bookstore. This is where books are sold".
I was dumbfounded to hear that comment. But guess I really shouldn't have been too surprised. A few years ago, the 15 yr old daughter of a co-worker said she had no idea what a library was.
Did she not have a library in her school? I've never heard of that in the US, (but not sure where you live), so that is quite shocking. Our sons also went to the community library every week during the summer. However, in high school their research papers don't begin in the quiet shelves of a library, but with the click of a mouse.
Mr FS and I used to spend many hours perusing the shelves at Powells in Chicago (and before that, we went to the one in Portland). Now we have more than too many books, so we will not be heading there on our next trip.
This goes back 30plus years, so it may not reflect the current situation…Mr FS had a friend when he lived in France whose father was disabled. He ran a small bookshop. Mr FS was under the impression that the whole shebang was subsidized by the government, part of the man's disability benefits.
Janice Riggs says
Powell's is still there – it about 4 miles out of the downtown area, but it's definitely worth a pilgrimage from time to time. Maybe what I'm lamenting is that the bookstores disappeared, and nobody seemed to miss them – they didn't leave the gaping wound in the city that would be left if the bookstores disappeared from Paris. Maybe I'm just behind the times on this one…
I agree, there's something special about browsing through a bookstore. However I must admit that I use the library more often than not. I don't want to spend a lot of money on a book that I'll read once and I keep digital reading for travel, for the sake of my eyes.
As to what I'm reading lately, just finished The Juggler's Children by Carolyn Abraham about a woman's search for her family's history via DNA – fascinating. I'm part way through My Life In Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, which I'm thoroughly enjoying.
Thanks for the mention of the Juggler's Children. I do some genealogy in my spare time and have taken a DNA test. This sounds like a fun read.
I miss the independent bookstores too. We had one here in Atlanta called Oxford Books and it was a sad day they closed several years ago. Way more interesting selection than a B&N or Borders. Perhaps in France they aren't quite as profit-driven as we tend to be?
Prices of books are heavily regulated in France, with discounting more-or-less forbidden, which may make it easier from a business standpoint to sustain an independent bookstore. That's certainly the intent of the laws. So even a giant chain like FNAC cannot sell books more cheaply online than your neighborhood libriairie sells them. (Sometimes there's a 5% discount, but no more than that.) This makes for a different competition than between Amazon in the US and independent bookstores.
This must be the answer–and also accounts for the many small boutiques that manage to survive and thrive. Perhaps we should be leery of unregulated discounting USA style. I believe that Walmart was not allowed to open in Germany because of anti-discounting regulations. (This was a while ago–may be different now). Thanks Anon for the reminder.
The Lang Law lets publishers set a book's price, which is printed on it so the retailer can't charge anything else. You can find discounted second-hand books, however.
Publishers and authors aren't getting rich, according to friends in the business. Maybe Musso and Nothomb, but not the lesser known authors.
In my experience, far from Paris, lending libraries are free and quite welcoming, with long hours (even during lunch, when everything else is shut tight from 12 to 14h). You can get a card just by showing your electric bill, which is the favorite proof of residence here. Maybe the fancier libraries with rare editions have more restrictions.
hostess of the humble bungalow says
I love a good bookstore and use one small shop for my purchases. I think it is sad that they are losing business and closing because of huge chains like Chapters and amazon. It is where we get the personal recommendations and can interact with familiar faces…I must be part ludite!
BTW I love the quote.
I loved the quote too. For me, it's the clothing version of "you are what you do." I agree that a uniform might define a person, but I'm not so sure about the "permanent" part. As a retired librarian who worked in a variety of environments, I feel fortunate that I never had to dress "up" and was able to dress in a way that made me approachable for the people who needed my help. That meant that my uniform varied. In my last job in a research facility, if anyone working in that building dressed in what would be considered an "appropriate" business uniform, they were always ribbed and asked if they were going for a job interview. Now I have to say something about the books piece of this post. Even when I finished my MLS way back in 1971 the emphasis was on the book or other printed resource as a carrier of content, not as an object — except for rare books, art books, truly important limited editions — you get the drift. Personally, I prefer the digital world and get almost everything that way. I say almost because there are still some kinds of content that simply work better in print for me, and much can be lost in digital versions of the same content. I embrace the changes in libraries and bemoan the situations where they are inadequately funded. Of course, in my opinion they have never been adequately funded. Unless they are really special in some way, I'm ambivalent about bookstores.
One possible reason why bookstores are more common in France (and probably in a lot of other foreign countries) is because lending libraries are less accessible. In the U.S., we are somewhat unique in that our laws do not require libraries to pay royalties for lending. They pay once, when the book is purchased, and that's that. That is not the case in all countries. Also, it's my understanding that library patrons in France are not allowed to browse the library shelves, i.e., they have "closed stacks". So libraries are not as attractive an option as they are in the U.S. (Of course, this is now changing as budgets are cut, more space is allocated to computers, and libraries are forced to move more of their holdings to off-site storage.)
Blush and Barbells says
I think is right – there's a huge difference in libraries. I like to visit libraries when I travel, and I remember having to pay something like €2 to enter the main library in Paris. If I'd wanted to browse the bookshelves, I would have needed a reason, so I just contented myself with the newspapers.
For those who can read French, please check out "Le Coeur n'a pas de rides" (the heart doesn't have wrinkles, or, as I found on Google, the heart knows no age). It's a collection of true stories about people who found a great love late in life, inspired by her grandmother. It's written with great sensitivity and respect, at times funny and others heart-rending.
My French is OK, but not so great for reading, yet I finished it in a single day. Very doable, even if you struggle with the language.
Bisous à tous,
By Marina Rozenman, I should have added
Mary OK says
I thought about this post all day, pondering many of the cultural differences that must exist.
Has anyone read Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour book store, by Robin Sloan?
I just finished it last week. I need to sit down and reread it without grandchildren hanging off my arms. I would love to have a shop like that in my community! I think another point in the Chicago vs Paris discussion is the huge number of mega-stores (BN as well at the Mart stores) as opposed to the smaller, more intimate shops you see in Europe. There aren't MegaMart grocery stores, there are small, intimate stores. There aren't B&N, there are small store that not only have a wonderful variety but also employees who have actually read the books they sell!
Madame Là-bas says
The Latin Quarter has so many bookstores of all sorts. I even found une Librairie de Québec, specializing in just books from that province. There are always people browsing at the bouquinist's stalls along the Seine. There is an annual book fair held in Paris. In Canada, we have lost so many of our independent bookstores and it is a tragedy. Right now I am reading Toby's Room by Pat Barker.
I read something about this as backstory to the discussion of this law http://www.bbc.com/news/business-24383113
Paris has has laws about the minimum number of bookstores also rent subsidies and tax breaks for store owners (exception culturelle). I would love to import a little of that mindset…