Tag Archives: Paris

London: We Need to talk about Paris

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Readers, have you been to Paris? And? Isn’t it amazing?

Yes, I know. Everyone loves Paris. Everyone agrees that it’s one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Everyone who didn’t run away to Paris at eighteen feels a pang of regret every time someone quotes Hemingway’s statement that ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ You don’t need me to drive the point home. Well, I apologise, but I’m going to have to put in my two Euro cents.

My favourite thing about visiting Paris – the thing even more dear to me than IMG_1499eating brioche with every meal or walking along the Seine at twilight – is being in a city that looks after its bookshops. Walking around the centre of Paris, I cry out ‘Librairie!’ like a joyful child at least once every sixty seconds, because in parts of Paris, bookshops are everywhere you look.

What astounds me even more than the sheer number of bookshops is that they are all independent. Each and every one of them looks different, feels different and has its own unique character. I’m sorry but DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW IMG_1085WONDERFUL THIS IS? It means that a book-hunter has the whole world at his or her feet and access to all of the world’s languages, literature, knowledge, art and poetry. Whatever you are looking for you’ll find it in Paris because you can spend your whole life looking for it in new bookshops, secondhand bookshops, English bookshops, Polish bookshops, African Studies bookshops, Philosophy, Law and Science bookshops, Art bookshops, Alpine skiing bookshops (honestly), bookshops attached to a tiny little publishing house and bookshops filled with cats. Paris gives the human race what it deserves: options, adventures, new experiences and mountains of books.

But this didn’t just happen. The French government has very actively made sure that independent bookshops, which thrive in the rest of the country as well as Paris, are able to survive in increasingly uncertain times. They have done IMG_1086this with a couple of brilliant bits of legislation. Firstly, in 1981, French lawmakers fixed book prices, which means that the discounting that makes Amazon so successful is effectively banned. Then, in 2013, MPs passed what many called the Anti-Amazon bill. Despite the fact that Amazon later called this ‘discrimination’ against online retailers (cry me a river, Goliath), it was really more about preserving the independents and ensuring that they weren’t bullied out of the market by the online giant. Now, I know that my evidence is largely anecdotal, but I think it’s working because I spent for days in Paris last month and I really did sing out ‘Librairie’ every time I saw a bookshop and I really did do it about 30 times a day. My travelling companion was very annoyed.

So, London, my question is: why aren’t we doing this? And the only good answer I can come up with is that we should be, but I’m not holding my breath. See, Amazon doesn’t even pay its tax in the UK and no one in power seems to be doing anything to keep it in line, let alone to support the character-filled, community-gathering bookshops it’s oh-so-casually threatening.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as people power and as long as you, loyal readers, continue supporting your local independents, we might just be able to IMG_1455turn the tide. Keep going to Skoob for your secondhand books and the London Review Bookshop for new ones… and for cake. If you live in Stoke Newington, go to Stoke Newington Bookshop and Church Street Books. If you live in Dulwich, it’s time to meet Dulwich Books. Next time you’re at Camden Market, check out the Blackgull Bookshop. If you’re up in NW3, try Keith Fawkes. If you’re looking for a Christmas present, go to Hatchards for choice or Persephone for something special. But enough about London. This is a tale of two cities.

IMG_1462I clearly don’t have the time to tell you about all the bookshops I visited in Paris; you’ll have to go and see them for yourselves. But I did take a few photos of a lovely bookshops called Tschann Librairie in Montparnasse. We came across it quite by accident as we wandered through the area vaguely making our way back to the Latin Quarter from the Fondation Cartier. It is a beautiful bookshop full of French books only. Tschann is quiet and warm and in the early evening, gave off a warm and welcoming glow, enticing passersby in to browse through the books and visit the attached children’s bookshop. I made my way through the bookshop, trying to decide whether or not I could justify buying yet IMG_1453another book on holiday when I’ve got such a large pile of ‘to be reads’ sitting at home. Of course, I decided I could. The shop had a great selection of history, biography, poetry and philosophy books but naturally I gravitated towards the novels. I bought Dans la café de la jeunesse perdue by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I had been meaning to read one of his novels and buying one in French in Paris seemed the perfect way to start. It also seemed perfect because the two books I’d brought with me on holiday were The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing and Dear Life by Alice Munro. I figured you can never go wrong when you’ve got three Nobel Prize winners in your rucksack.

Oh, Paris. I love you. I love Shakespeare and Co, I love the Abbey Bookshop, I love Gibert Joseph and Red Wheelbarrow and all the independents that line your beautiful Haussman-ised boulevards. Long may they live on. Vive la librairie!

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The French Bookshop

IMG_2142The French Bookshop, 28 Bute Street, London, SW7 3EX

I spent some time yesterday wandering around South Kensington, through the slick wet streets, which were dark already by half past four, a sure sign that winter is upon us. As my umbrella struggled valiantly against the wind and the rain soaked through my boots, I had one of those London moments when you feel like you’re walking through a film set.  The Christmas lights at Harrod’s were already up, twinkling in the cold dusk while tourists and locals alike popped in and out of those lovely boutiques and cafés that fill the area.

Anyone who has been in South Kensington in the last couple of years might have noticed that walking around the museums or sitting in the up-scale coffeehouses, you hear more French than English being spoken.  The area is home to a huge population of French ex-pats as well as the French Institute and French schools, cinemas, cafes and, yes bookshops.  One day I’ll return for Au Fil Des Mots and Librarie La Page, but last night, The French Bookshop stole the show.

IMG_2139Bute Street, just a few minutes away from the tube station (which is seconds away from the wonderful South Kensington Books) is a quiet street that is home to several small independent businesses, the loveliest of which is The French Bookshop, where warm wooden shelves (there’s just something about wooden shelves, isn’t there?) hold an impeccably organised, tidy and straight selection of books from every genre and for every age written in, or translated into, French.  I always love going into other language bookshops because you get a glimpse into another culture, expressed in terms of the different publishers, authors and categories define the reading experiences of another culture.  And being in this bookshop in particular made me want to go to Paris, a city full of beautiful independents in a country which recognises their importance, tries to keep them viable and gives them the love they deserve.

The shop has a large selection of French books, classic and contemporary in many genres, including fiction, history, philosophy, biography and poetry.  ThereIMG_2136 are also children’s books and books for learners of French, so there really is something for every reader at every level of French, which only served to make me feel more guilty about the fact that I’ve neglected my French in the past few years and gone from being quite nearly fluent to awkwardly forgetting the words for things like ‘keys’ or ‘cup.’  So when the booksellers at The French Bookshop started talking to me in French and I could barely string together a sentence, I was rather embarrassed, but if there is any place in the world where hope springs eternal,it’s in a bookshop, where behind every corner another story is about to start and beckons you to come along.  So one of these days, I promised myself, I’ll pick up a book in French (though perhaps I’ll start with a children’s book) and let the adventure begin anew.

But there are many forms that adventure can take!  Of course you can seek out a classic French novel, your essential Zola or Hugo or Proust if you fancy a long haul, but you can also find out about the best in contemporary French literature, which is always refreshing.  Alternatively, there are titles originally written in English (IMG_2138in the top left corner there you’ll see a translation of Joyce Carol Oates) and other languages ranging from Arabic to Swedish, if you felt like re-reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or, Les Hommes qui n’aimaient pas les femmes, a translation that’s quite a bit closer to the (depressing) original Swedish.  And, for those who are more into cold hard facts than escapism, there’s also a better selection of high-quality newspapers and magazines in French than you’re going to find anywhere else in London.  Go on, look, I dare you.

As you enter the shop, there’s a poster on the wall next to the fiction section which I just have to share.  It sets the tone for the rest of the shop and makes any reader, regardless of native language, feel right at home.  It’s Daniel Pennac’s ‘Les Droits du Lecteur’ or ‘Rights of the Reader,’ which are:

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1. The right not to read

2. The right to skip pages

3. The right not to finish a book

4. The right to re-read

5. The right to read whatever you want

6. The right to ‘Bovarysme’ (the error of identifying too much with the book)

7. The right to read wherever you want

8. The right to dip in and out

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to silence!

I had never seen this before but I just love it, and a friend has told me that Quentin Blake (Roald Dahl’s illustrator, who I had the good fortune to hear speaking at The Hay Festival) has an excellent poster of the rights, which sounds like it would make a perfect Christmas gift for your favourite book-loving child.  And if you can track down a copy in an independent shop, all the better! Just a helpful hint from The Matilda Project!

IMG_2137The French Bookshop offers so many new ideas and opportunities to discover that you may never want to return to boring old English again. If that’s the case you can buy your travel guides and maps of all of France’s regions on the spot and ride off into the sunset with Flaubert under one arm and your pocket map of Paris close to hand.

That very fantasy got me thinking about cultural exchange, and how books are a huge part of the way that different cultures learn about each other, particularly here in England, where Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens are more loved at home and abroad than many living celebrities.  I’ve always felt that when traveling you should go to a bookshop or a library, since the insight they give into  a new place is always interesting and one you might not otherwise get.  I also try to read books about the places I’m going or written by people who call those places home.  But it’s IMG_2140only recently that I’ve started reflecting on the importance of carrying books and writers and special words with you from the place you come from.  I think we enrich the lives of the people we meet if we can bring some unique line of poetry or some unique, untranslatable word from our language out into the world with us.  But maybe we also enrich our own lives, by carrying a piece of home with us.

The French Bookshop, you might say, is a concrete illustration of that principle, a way for ex-pats and émigrés to bring something with them from one home to another, so that they can stay connected to their culture while also bringing it with them as a gift for new neighbours.  And I think there’s something lovely about the thought that when people leave home for unfamiliar shores, the thing they create to remember where they used to be is a bookshop; the things they carry with them to remember who they used to be are words and stories.