In the 1850s, as the old Paris of narrow streets and ramshackle houses gave way to the broad boulevards and uniform apartment blocks planned by Napoleon III and carried out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Charles Baudelaire wrote an epitaph for the city he remembered:
Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart)
Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville / Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel)
Baudelaire was right at the time, and indeed, you could say the same thing of Paris today. It never stops changing. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, you cannot set foot in the same city twice. Ask any visitor who has gone on a futile quest to find “that wonderful little restaurant / hotel / shop / patisserie we discovered on our honeymoon / student year abroad / first visit / previous visit.” We’ve all done it, and we’ve usually ended up looking sadly at the space it once occupied, now a laudromat / modern high-rise / government office / vacant lot.
One gets used to the changes, typical of any modern city. Every time we leave Toronto to visit Paris, we return to find that in our neighbourhood, one business has closed, a new one has opened, and a sign on a third proclaims that a developer is seeking to turn a row of older shops into “a 52-unit condominium with retail at grade and underground parking.”
On this past summer’s visit to Paris, however, we noticed a pattern to the disappearances. It started on the first day, when we passed the Livre Sterling on the avenue Franklin Roosevelt, an idiosyncratic bookshop we have written about in a previous blog.
This time, the tables outside advertised books on sale and the shelves inside were almost empty. It was going out of business. Perhaps it wasn’t an ideal location for a bookshop, but it was the only one in the area, and now it has gone.
We already knew about the demise of our favourite English-language bookshop – the Red Wheelbarrow on the rue St-Paul in the Marais. Here it is as we remember it.
The owner had had to move away for personal reasons, and had been unable to find a buyer to take over the business. So the books were sold and the place closed. The sign remained for a long time after the shop went dark.
What threw us completely was the disappearance of another Marais book and paper store – the Librairie Charlemagne on the rue St-Antoine, which had closed a year earlier. How had we missed that? We’d bought books, maps, gifts, stationery in that store countless times over the years. It had vanished so completely that I had to ask in a nearby store if I had got the address wrong. No, a young woman told me, it had closed and been replaced by a clothes shop.
By a curious quirk of Google Street View, the view of the bookshop is split between 2008 and 2012. I have spliced the two together here with a red line to show the overlap: on the right is the bookshop when it was still a going concern. On the left is the same entrance again and the rest of the facade with signs advertising the going-out-of-business sale. I wonder if the little statue still graces the corner of the rue St-Antoine and the rue de Sévigné.
We wandered over to Mona Lisait nearby (a chain that sells secondhand and remaindered books). The branch in the Marais occupies an odd, interim space that seems to have been a cobbled lane at one point.
Norman then suggested we have a look for the Archives de la Presse, a place selling old magazines and advertisements, where we had often rummaged for materials related to our research. Of course, we couldn’t exactly remember the name, but we described what we wanted to the man behind the counter at Mona Lisait, and he gave us some generalized directions. We set off and after a few wrong turns, arrived in front of the shop.
As we watched, burly guys carried out boxes of books and magazines and put them in a truck. The shop was closing, although it will continue selling old magazines and newspapers online and maintaining a small stand in the Bon Marché. They even have a Facebook page. Score one for the Internet.
Tea and Tattered Pages in Montparnasse closed earlier this year when its proprietor died. Her daughters are searching for someone to carry on the business, which even at best seemed like the triumph of hope over experience. We can remember eating a modest lunch with a friend in the back room, surrounded by books, and the proprietor at one point asked us to keep an eye on things while she popped out to get a carton of milk for our tea.
Oh, there are still plenty of bookshops in town. There are still bouquinistes, and we even saw a display of prototypes of modernized bouquiniste stands on display near the Hotel de Ville last December.
But the form of the city is changing, and its independent bookshops are dwindling, despite efforts by the government to prop them up.
I can’t help thinking of that scene in Victor Hugo’s book Notre Dame de Paris, in which the archdeacon gazes at the huge pile of stone that is the cathedral and then points to a book, open on the table, saying with a sigh “This will kill that.” The printed book will kill the cathedral.*
Well, the cathedral is still standing, but it is filled mainly with tourists and their colourful guidebooks rather than worshippers taking spiritual nourishment from its carvings and stained glass windows. Those who do look for guidance may seek it in solitude from a book, and not from a huge religious building and the community associated with it. I suppose that is what the archdeacon meant.
Now the book is changing and the city is changing with it. It’s not that people aren’t reading. The big libraries are full of scholars, although they are often staring at laptops and tablet computers rather than actual books.
Parisians wander obliviously past the bouquinistes, absorbed in the latest news from their handheld devices. And in some places, physical books are considered décor, not the vehicle for enlightenment or spiritual nourishment. You can even get virtual books, like this wallpaper that indicates the presence of a real bookshop inside Artcurial. Note the door handle in the middle. (Ceci n’est pas une collection de livres.)
Books are objects, like typewriters, that once performed a function. And for many people, the function can be performed in other ways, through other media. But bookshops have a function too. They were never just about selling books. They hosted readings and launches, and they were places to go for conversation and news. At the Red Wheelbarrow, the people behind the desk recommended not just books, but the best boulangerie in the area. The staff weighed in on the merits of local cafés, and introduced us to other browsers crowding into the tiny space. You can’t get that on an e-book.
In Paris, where sometimes it can be hard to find one’s feet and where much is unfamiliar, a space like the Red Wheelbarrow allowed us to feel on solid ground. Lost bookshops are lost friends. When a place like that disappears, it is not just the end of a business, it is the end of a friendship.
Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Norman Ball. Photograph of the rue Pontoise by Charles Marville from Paris en Images.
*L’archidiacre considéra quelque temps en silence le gigantesque édifice, puis étendant avec un soupir sa main droite vers le livre imprimé qui était ouvert sur sa table et sa main gauche vers Notre-Dame, et promenant un triste regard du livre à l’église : Hélas ! dit-il, ceci tuera cela.