Friday, October 11, 2013

Vive la Bookstore!

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Everywhere in the world may look more and more like everywhere else, but there are still a few proudly Gallic institutions that you can count on spotting in any city or town in France: cafés that thrive in spite of Starbucks, bakeries with their total indifference to things gluten-free, tabacs that keep hanging on as smokers turn to e-cigarettes. Most pleasing of all, in this age of Amazon, are the independent bookstores—around two thousand five hundred of them, all told. Paris alone has nearly seven hundred, one for every three thousand citizens, though the ratio of bookstores to readers often feels closer to one to one. 

If you can’t find the Colette novel you’re looking for on Rue de Reuilly, you just go two blocks over to the Rue de Charonne, or to Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where bookstores share the street with Algerian tea shops and furniture makers that predate the Revolution. This isn’t a university neighborhood with an intellectual pedigree. It’s just the way things are there—pretty different from here. In a recent study of the American cities with the most bookstores, and the most per capita, New York didn’t make the top ten in either category. To a New Yorker who spent her formative years witnessing the routing of independent bookstores by Barnes & Noble, and then the gutting of Barnes & Noble by Amazon, the situation in Paris is luxurious beyond belief.
In 1981, France passed the Lang Law, named for then-Minister of Culture Jack Lang. La loi Lang fixed the prices of new books—whatever the publisher wants, the publisher gets—and set the maximum discount booksellers can offer at five per cent. The idea was to keep bookselling local; if they couldn’t slash prices, megastores like the FNAC, France’s answer to Best Buy, would hardly have an advantage over a tiny corner shop.

Now the threat is digital. E-books and books purchased on Amazon are also subject to the five-per-cent law. Nevertheless, at a conference held in June by the national booksellers union, Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti accused Amazon of driving prices down in order to raise them once a monopoly had been secured. The concept is so repellent to national sentiment that an English word has been commandeered to describe it: dumping. “Everybody has had enough of Amazon,” Filippetti, a novelist herself, said. She was right. Last Thursday, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the Lang Law that would bar online booksellers from engaging in “unfair competition” by offering free shipping on reduced-price books.


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