One of Paris’ most famous booksellers, Gibert Jeune, is obsessed with Covid and online sales, keeping his mouth shut in the city’s historic literary and intellectual heart, a stone’s throw from the Seine beach where the family-owned company started over 130 several years ago.
The planned decline of Gibert’s flagship store on Place Saint-Michel, as well as others nearby, follows the loss of the Boulinier store last year.
On the left bank of the Seine is the Paris Latin Quarter Sorbonne. It has been a haven for researchers since the Middle Ages and boasts dozens of booksellers.
But today, with its plethora of franchise stores – Levi’s, Celio, Sephora – along Boulevard Saint Michel stretching from the Seine beach to the Sorbonne, critics have charged the area has become just another bland global retailer.
The iconic Boulinier, a fixture on the same boulevard since the 19th century, was forced to move its main store to smaller premises in June last year due to rising rents.
Contrary to competition from online sales and internet giant Amazon, 43 percent of the quarter’s bookstores have disappeared in 20 years, according to figures from the city planning agency Apur.
The Latin Quarter, the center of a 1968 student revolt, is still a large university hub, although fewer than 10,000 students are now said to live there.
Gradually, the center of Paris becomes gentrified, dominated by tourists, while the university faculties “decently” increasingly gravitate towards the suburbs, says Francois Mohrt, an urban planner in Apur.
Least money trend
As France’s first independent bookseller, the Gibert Group’s flagship store has been on Place Saint-Michel for as long as anyone can remember.
It plans to close four of its six Gibert Jeune stores not far from Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Surrounded by already half-empty bookshelves, one of the 69 employees whose jobs will disappear to AFP said: “It is brutal, but we did not expect it to be ten years.”
In 2020, the pandemic emptied Place Saint-Michel of tourists. After that, Bruno Gibert, a former group manager, sold the building with the largest bookstore.
In an attempt to help, the city authorities, through their semi-public company Semeast, are proposing rents slightly below market rates and relocation with a focus on a model that works – small local bookstores 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 booksellers who offer the sector a glimmer of hope.
According to the Union of French Bookshops (SLF), independent bookstores have returned to growth since 2017, despite a slight decline in 2020, a decrease of 3.3 percent due to a three-month closure during Covid lock-in.
Small booksellers, with a turnover of less than 300,000 euros per year, make the most progress with sales by 15 percent in the past year.
For SLF’s Guillaume Husson “there is a social aspect that is important today if you want your bookstore to work”.
And it is the human relationship between the bookstore and its customers that is one of the most important things book lovers seek from “small-scale sellers,” he added.
The same lesson has not been lost on the Gibert group. It will retain its six-storey store next to the Sorbonne but excludes any new openings in the Latin Quarter.
And it is considering opening bookstores of “less than 150 square meters” in the remote districts of Paris and possibly in the suburbs, although “the basic issue of rents must be addressed first”, says Director General Marc Bittore.