Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze

Battered by Covid and online sales, one of Paris's best-known book sellers Gibert Jeune is to shut up shop in the city's historic literary and intellectual heart, a stone's throw from the banks of the Seine where the family-owned firm started out over 130 years ago.

Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze
The Gibert Jeune flagship store in Paris's Place Saint Michel is set to close after struggling to survive during the pandemic. Photo: Hugo Mathy/AFP

The planned demise of the Gibert flagship shop in the Place Saint-Michel, as well as others nearby, follows the loss of the Boulinier shop last year.

On the Left Bank of the Seine, Paris’s Latin quarter houses the Sorbonne.

It has been a haunt of scholars since the middle ages and boasts dozens of

But today with its slew of franchised stores — Levi’s, Celio, Sephora — along the Boulevard Saint Michel running from the banks of the Seine to the Sorbonne, critics charge the area has become just another bland global retail strip.

The iconic Boulinier, a fixture on the same boulevard since the 19th century, was forced to move its main store to smaller premises last June due to rising rents.

Faced with competition from online sales and internet giant Amazon, 43 percent of the quarter’s bookstores have vanished in 20 years, according to figures from the urban planning agency Apur.

The Latin Quarter, the centre of a 1968 student revolt, remains a major university hub, although fewer than 10,000 students are now said to live there.

Gradually, the centre of Paris is becoming gentrified, dominated by tourists while university faculties “decentre”, increasingly gravitating toward the suburbs, says Francois Mohrt, a town planner at Apur.

People look at books at the Gibert Jeune bookstore in Paris in 1951. Photo: AFP

Smallest buck the trend

As France’s first independent bookseller, the Gibert group’s flagship shop has been in the Place Saint-Michel for as long as anyone can remember.

It plans to close four of its six Gibert Jeune shops located not far from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Surrounded by already half empty bookshelves, one of the 69 employees whose jobs are due to disappear told AFP: “It’s brutal, but we didn’t expect to last 10 years.”

In 2020, the pandemic emptied the Place Saint-Michel of tourists. Then Bruno Gibert, a former head of the group, sold the building housing the largest bookshop.

In an attempt to help, the city authorities via their semi-public company Semeast are proposing rents slightly below market rates and relocation with a focus on a model that works — small local bookshops that can also offer refreshments, according to official Olivia Polski.

The initiative is based on the discovery that in Paris, as in the rest of the country, it is local bookshops which are offering the sector a glimmer of hope.

According to the Union of French Bookshops (SLF), independent bookshops have since 2017 returned to growth, despite a slight decline in 2020, down 3.3 percent, due to three months of closures during the Covid lockdowns.

A woman walks past a closed bookstore in Paris on October 30, 2020, on the first day of a second national lockdown. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

Small booksellers, with turnovers of less than 300,000 euros a year, are making the most progress with sales jumping by 15 percent in the past year.

For the SLF’s Guillaume Husson “there is a social aspect which is essential today if you want your bookshop to work”.

And it’s that human relationship between the bookshop and its customers that is one of the most important things book lovers are seeking from “smallscale sellers”, he added.

The same lesson has not been lost on the Gibert group. It will keep its six-floor shop next to the Sorbonne but rules out any new opening in the Latin quarter.

And it is considering opening bookshops of “less than 150 square metres” in outlying Paris districts and possibly in the suburbs, although “the basic question of rents will have to be addressed first”, said general manager Marc Bittore.

Member comments

  1. Before Covid and hopefully after, Paris bookshops are one of the main places I visit on several occasions during my annual two-week visits. I have been coming to France and Paris every year since 1964 and I take the occasion to stock up on my French language books. My main go-to librairie is Ecume Des Pages on Blvd St. Gemain just a door west of the Cafe de Flore. Also there was a new bookstore that defied the tide of closures and opened by two women in the Grands Boulevards that I visited for the first time in 2019 called Ici at 25 Blvd Poissoniere. I can’t imagine any city in any country without its independent bookshops. Our smaller ones here in Toronto are doing better and seem to be surviving so size right now seems to be important. The big chains seem to be having a harder time and are turning more into department stores specializing in books like our Chapters-Indigo chain in Canada. Please hang on. I need you when I come to Paris. I’ll be there as soon as I can to spend my money and support you. Michael Dorman. Toronto.

    1. Your comment mirrors my thoughts. Hopefully, someday soon we will be able to return and enjoy Paris again. Zoe

    2. I feel exactly the same. Every paris visit includes browsing my bookstore itinerary, and gibert is a prominent stop. St Michel is being turned by tourism into the banal set of chain outlets which reek of anonymity. I shall be spending money at whatever remains of Gibert as soon as France allows me to return.

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Festivals and events: What’s on around France in autumn 2023

Summer might be over, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to do in France - here's our pick of the festivals and events around the country in September, October and November.

Festivals and events: What’s on around France in autumn 2023

Even though the summer holidays (and the fun festivals that came with them) are over, there are still plenty of events to attract visitors before those Christmas markets start opening in November. 

Festival du Film Britannique – September 27th to October 1st

Also known as the British Film Festival of Dinard, the festival takes place at arguably one of the most British of French seaside resorts. 

The six films in competition this year include Girl – about a mother-daughter duo who move back to Glasgow; Scrapper, about a child who loses her mother and unexpectedly is introduced to someone who calls himself her father; Silent Roar, about a teenager whose father goes missing at sea; Silver Haze, about a young nurse who finds herself falling in love with one of her patients; The Effects of Lying, a dark comedy exploring a family’s secrets; and The Trouble with Jessica, about a series of unfortunate events following one couple’s attempts to rid themselves of their financial troubles.

For more information click here

Atlantique Jazz Festival – October 6th to 22nd

Located in Brest, France’s westernmost city, one of Brittany’s favourite jazz festivals will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.

With several concerts on the docket, featuring the likes of Five 38 + Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, jazz fans are sure to enjoy music, workshops, and even a conference focused on female jazz composers. 

More information here.

The Fête des Vendanges – October 11th to 15th

Also known as the Montmartre grape harvest festival – the fête des vendages de Montmartre is an annual celebration to commemorate the harvesting of grapes from the Clos Montmartre – an urban vineyard located on the slopes of the Montmartre hills in Paris’ 18th arrondisement.

This is one of Paris’ most popular public events, and it involves five days of gastronomy, wine tasting, and grape picking.

Fête du Piment – October 28th to October 29th

Are you a fan of spicy food or chilli peppers? If so, this festival is the one for you. Though it takes place in France’s Basque country, as the picturesque town of Espelette celebrates the pepper that has made it world famous. For more information click here.

Lumière film festival – October 14th to 22nd

Not to be confused with the Fête des Lumières, which also takes place in Lyon (but in December), the Lumière Film Festival is an annual film festival held each October in the French city of Lyon. The festival is named in honour of the Lumière Brothers, who are credited with inventing cinema in 1895.

Salon du chocolat – October 28th to November 1st

You love Paris. You love chocolate. Then you need to be in Paris at the end of October for its annual chocolate fair – when over 150,000 chocolatiers, pastry chefs, confectioners and professionals from the chocolate industry, as well as producing countries, great chefs, designers and cocoa experts get together show off their skills and knowledge. It takes place at the Parc Expo at the Porte de Versailes. For more information, click here.

Armistice Day parades – November 11th

November 11th is a public holiday across much of the western world, recognising the end of World War I. In France, it is the day where towns and cities host parades and wreaths are laid at the war memorials. Virtually every commune in France has a war memorial listing the men from the local area who died for their country (mort pour le patrie).

In Paris, the French president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.

Dijon International Gastronomy Fair – October 31st to November 11th

Each year, the International Gastronomy fair draws a crowd of over 200,000 people to Dijon, the heart of Burgundy. It features hundreds of booths from both amateur and professional chefs, with plenty of dishes to try for free. The event also includes cooking demonstrations, so you can learn delicious recipes from around the world.

Normal priced tickets are just €6.50, more information here.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day – Thursday, November 16th

Who cares if it’s nothing more than a clever marketing ploy – the third Thursday of every November is a celebration for wine lovers, as the year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is released in a party atmosphere from Beaujeu to Lyon via Villefranche-Sur-Saône… Find out more about the ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ here.

What about Halloween?

Unfortunately, Halloween is not very widely celebrated in France, but it has become more common in recent years. Around the end of October, you will notice supermarkets selling candy and other festive items, but trick-or-treating is not the norm.

If you are looking for an official, organised event, you might consider going to the “Disney Halloween Festival.” During the festivities, the ‘villains’ take over the park, which is fully decorated for Halloween. When you enter the park, you’ll be greeted by smiling scarecrows with pumpkins on their heads, lanterns lighting up the park, and characters in ‘scary’ (kid-friendly) costumes.

During the actual Halloween weekend, the park hosts dedicated soirées. Tickets can be expensive, usually going for more than €70 a person.

Another option, particularly if you have older kids looking for a scarier Halloween, might be Parc Asterix. Each year, usually for the entirety of the month of October, the park is decked out in autumn colours with pumpkins, corn, and even straw bales. If you want to take younger children, you can go to the ‘Petit frisson’ (small scare) section.