English bookshops in Paris: pandemic on the shelves

As a worldwide pandemic emerged at the beginning of the year, many countries were forced into lockdown. It implied the closing of shops, including bookstores. An economical and cultural tragedy for all book lovers.

Paris has many, many bookshops. And among those, many, many are English ones. Shakespeare and Company, the Red Wheelbarrow, The San Francisco book Company, After 8 books, The Abbey bookshop, Berkeley Books of Paris, Galignani etc., most of them located in the 5th and 6th arrondissement. All of them had to close between March and May. Some shops, such as the San Francisco Books Company, were able to revive their online sales after a while, as the postal system got back to normal. They used systems of click and collect, or traditional online deliveries, in order to try and compete with major retailers. But most of them didn’t have any opportunity to create an income

Regarding the situation, a large number of stores demonstrated a lot of optimism and hope on social medias. Through Instagram and Facebook posts, they tried to lift people’s spirits. Shakespeare and Company used reading recommendations (with the #confinementreading) as well as a lot of promotion for their ancient podcasts, in order to offer a distraction, and faciliate new access to literature. People were invited to share their favorite lockdown book, or the book that gave them hope, allowed them to travel, to escape from their houses for a few hours. They created an online community, online book clubs, anything to keep customers interested and connected to them.

Beyond a statement of cultural optimisms, this is also an economic strategy, to hold the customers’ attention and keep them close to their local, favorite bookshops. And it worked. Many people started boycotting big chains, such as Amazon, during the lockdown. And as soon as these small places reopened, they welcomed a surprisingly high number of customers. Many of them had felt restricted when stores were closed, resulting in huge spending as soon as they reopened. Hence this growth of frequentation being considered a way of catching up, as well as a militant gesture. So if Parisian bookshops had to face the economic consequences of this pandemic, they actually benefited from one of the highest turnover of the cultural sector in June. This was small compensation for the massive losses they endured (because of the coronavirus, but also because of the December 2019 strikes before that).

For Anglophone bookshops, the situation was different. One of the major elements is the absence of tourists in the French capital.  Indeed, anglophone bookshops had to face the decline of the number of clients over the summer. Shakespeare and Company, the most popular of all, was mostly frequented by Parisians who appreciated not being surrounded by tourists, for once. And even if the store experienced a drop in sales, one of the seller, comforting herself, told Challenges it wasn’t all bad, as it enabled her to spend more time advising visitors.

Yet, the situation must be considered case by case. Indeed, the San Francisco Book Company is less renowned and therefore maybe less touristic. It didn’t suffer much from the absence of international travelers. The store, who only sells used books. It benefited from a lot of donations, especially now that Gibert is no longer buying anglophone books. The manager, Jim Carroll, told us that since he reopened, he tried to focus on online sales, especially books that are “higher priced and harder to find”, knowing he would have an interested audience for that. It is a way for him to get ahead of an economic decline.

With the reopening also came the question of hosting events, taking into account the new sanitary restrictions. If most places decided to suspend all events for an undetermined amount of time, others, such as The Red Wheelbarrow, took the decision to continue organizing things, such as signings. They were of course masked events, and a limited number of clients were allowed inside the shop. After the first lockdown, this bookshop also allied with almost forty other foreign stores in a manifesto that only stated one thing: Come!

Nonetheless, even if Parisian books shops managed to make up a little for the loss they experienced, the second confinement could prove much more difficult for these places. Indeed, from October 30th and for an undetermined amount of time, France is under lockdown again, implying that all bookshops must close again. It is even more difficult for those stores, as it happens at a time where Christmas shopping begins. The Shakespeare and Company relayed the call. It is important to do what we can to prevent those essential stores from dying. Wherever you are, please support your local shops, to prevent them from dying from Coronavirus.

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