Paris, a great literary city, is losing one of its most celebrated bookshops. Gibert Jeune, a popular chain, has announced it will be closing its flagship shop in the Latin Quarter in March – the latest in a series of closures and appeals for help that threaten the future of the city’s booksellers.
Gibert Jeune once attracted long queues of students in search of cheap secondhand books before the start of each academic year; most students who have studied in Paris will have paid a visit to the six-floor shop at some point to find a book for their course. The family-owned company was founded in 1886 and started out as a bookstall on the banks of the Seine, quickly expanding into several shops in the fifth arrondissement, selling a mixture of new and secondhand books. Its bright yellow awnings along the Boulevard St Michel became a familiar landmark of the Latin Quarter, historically Paris’s literary and intellectual neighbourhood, and home to the Sorbonne.
Now, with sales down 60% due to the pandemic, the chain’s most iconic shop – 5 Place Saint-Michel – will be closing as part of a restructuring plan, after the owner of the building decided to sell. It follows the move of Boulinier, another much-loved bookshop, which was forced to leave its historic location due to rising rents (it is now in a different shop on the same street). Meanwhile the centuries-old bouquinistes just across the road on the quays of the Seine are struggling to survive.
The pandemic has emptied the area of people for months. “Covid arrived and suddenly there were no more tourists and no more students,” said Rodolphe Bazin de Caix, marketing manager of Gibert Jeune. “We’re talking about a bookshop whose DNA is 80% textbooks, many of them secondhand. This shop was impacted much more than the others.”
When France was put into a second lockdown in October, there was a huge outcry from booksellers, who asked to be treated as essential services and remain open. Shakespeare and Company, one of Paris’s most famous bookshops and a neighbour of Gibert Jeune, appealed to customers for help as it faced “hard times”: customers and well-wishers around the world piled in with purchases and donations to save the shop.
But it is not just the virus that has weakened Gibert Jeune. Before the pandemic, disruption caused by the gilet jaunes demonstrations and transport strikes reduced footfall in the Place Saint-Michel. Gibert Jeune and its sister company Gibert Joseph have also been slow to react to the threat of Amazon; while the French secondhand book market is booming (book prices are much higher than in the UK, making secondhand books 63% cheaper than new ones on average), trade has mostly been captured by online platforms.
“Gibert Jeune is not dead,” said De Caix, but it’s having to reinvent itself. The first Gibert Jeune bookshop, opposite Notre-Dame, is staying put. The company is currently renovating its shop in the 10th arrondissement, after an independent bookstore owner’s project to buy it and make it into a “co-operative of ideas” failed. There are even plans to open at least four smaller Gibert Jeunes, spread out across the city, by April. In any case, the future lies not in the tourist centre, but in residential neighbourhoods, De Caix said: “What we learned from the lockdown is that people aren’t leaving their areas any more. We realised that the shop, which used to be a destination, no longer serves that purpose. It’s our turn to move to where the customer is.”
But the imminent closure of 5 Place Saint-Michel, which opened 50 years ago in 1971, has led to mourning among book lovers, who find it difficult to imagine what the square and surrounding neighbourhood will look like after it’s gone. “It’s a historic place” says Laure Davidian, who works in the area and visits the shop to buy comic books for her daughter. “It will be much duller without it.”
The Latin Quarter is known for its independent bookshops and for being the home of several publishing houses. But in recent years, the area has been slowly invaded by food retailers and fast fashion brands, which some residents regard as an erosion of its cultural identity. The fifth and sixth arrondissements have around a 100 bookshops each, but the French capital has lost 27% of its bookshops in the past 18 years, according to a study by the Centre for Observation of Commerce, Industry and Services.
“It is catastrophic. It’s like the Champs Elysées without the luxury boutiques. They might as well close the Sorbonne,” said Frédéric, a resident of the neighbourhood since the 1980s who declined to give his last name. He had stopped to browse the books in the stall outside Gibert Jeune, which he often passes on his daily walk. “That used to be a cafe that took up the entire pavement, where customers would sit,” he said, pointing to the branch of beauty products chain Sephora across the street. He’s worried the same will happen with the building in front of him. “Who knows what they will replace it with? I expect the worst,” he said. “Every place where there is a bookshop is a place with one less fast food chain, one less Sephora.”