Archive for July 5th, 2012

Can we get her to change her mind? A Paris landmark disappears.

Thursday, July 5th, 2012
Share

It’s too bad, my French friend lamented, that I won’t be in Paris before the end of the month. I could have had a reading for An Invisible Rope, he said.  I could have, should have…but won’t now.

It’s closing. The bookshop that has been a cultural landmark Saint-Germain-des-Près for three decades is shutting its doors forever on July 31.

For the last dozen years, Village Voice on the tiny Rue Princesse has been ranked the best independent literary bookstore in Europe by the British magazine Bookseller.  The store carries about 18,000 volumes at any time – carefully selected, the size of its collection notwithstanding.  It has been a refuge for Anglo-Americans abroad, and for those who love them. But these facts don’t capture of the spirit of the place.

Livia Manera has by far the best tribute on the New Yorker‘s blog, “Page-Turner.”  According to legendary owner Odile Hellier:

“The last two years have been hell,” she told me. “You can blame Amazon.fr; you can blame competition among publishers forced to discount prices. But I can tell you the precise day when I realized it was over for us: April 3, 2010, when Apple launched the iPad. From that day, more and more of our customers begun reading on the tablet. That did it.” …

Some reports on the closing of the Voice fail to mention an important factor in its demise. French publishers, bookstores, and independent booksellers have been able to resist the encroachments of e-commerce, with its steep discounts, and the slash-and-burn pricing policies of big chains (which themselves are falling prey to e-commerce) thanks to a law that fixes the prices of both printed books and e-books—so long as they are French in origin. But bookstores selling foreign books are unprotected.

Antoine Jaccottet told me much the same about these cutthroat practices over coffee last February, during the worst cold snap since … well, since about the time Village Voice opened its doors.  Now Hellier will be focusing on a website presence.

Naturally, everyone has stories to tell in the wake of the sad news – stories about the authors who read there (Michael Ondaatje was the last to read on June 28, from his latest book The Cat’s Table), or about bumping into Susan Sontag combing the shelves.

According to David Galenson writing in the Huffington Post, manager Michael Neal was the soul of the shop. He describes the Englishman’s arrival at Rue Princesse:

Michael Neal was working as an antiquarian bookseller when he came into the Village Voice one day in 1993, and saw a large pile of parcels sitting under the front table. He told Hellier she should move the parcels upstairs, and she replied, “Do it yourself.” He thought that was a good idea, so he did it. He began opening the packages, and that was the start of his career at the shop. He has worked there five or six days a week ever since.

It’s hard to capture the ambiance. Manera tries again:

With the exception of the Village Voice, there is generally little collegial contact between the French literary milieu and English-speaking academics and writers who live in Paris, or come here on sabbatical, or to promote their work in translation. … But when you squeezed into the narrow event space on the Voice’s upper floor, French and international book lovers mingled with Parisian editors and publishers, shared a glass of wine, a new discovery, a heretical opinion, and took the conversation outside to the sidewalk of the Rue Princesse, for another shared pleasure: an unguilty cigarette.

My visits to Paris have been far too infrequent and fleeting – it has only recently become a haunt. Just as I’m getting to know the city, one of the best reasons for being there is disappearing, and will be nowhere to be seen when I return this month in bitter November.