How an independent bookshop struggles to survive
In the narrow rue Princesse of Saint Germain des Près, the royal blue door of the Village Voice Bookshop stands wide open, inviting passers-by to stop and browse inside. Odile Hellier, the petite and red-haired proprietor, is percolating: As she does every week in her medium-sized Anglo-American bookstore, she is about to host a reading. On the second floor, amongst the book stacks, 30-40 chairs are installed, creating a delightful place for Anglophones and Anglophiles of Paris to come together to listen to books being read and to discussing them. Quickly, all the seats are occupied; Hellier introduces the reader to the audience and then settles herself on the stairs to listen.
Because of the harsh competition from both the Internet and megastores, the Village Voice Bookshop, as well as many other independent bookstores, is in danger of closing. For now, it remains, but it stands as a rare and fragile relict of old-time bookselling.
Hellier is well aware of the strengths of her store: a shrewd selection of books, a first-rate reading program, and a crucial role as a hub of English-language cultural activity for the expatriate community. However, she is very lucid about the difficulties involved for such a bookshop to thrive in the era of Amazon, Fnac, Virgin and the like.
“In the 1980s, when I opened my bookshop, I was very lucky because the circumstances were very much working in my favor,” she explains. Thanks to a steady flow of young Americans coming to Paris, the Village Voice Bookshop soon became the profitable center of the then intense Franco-American cauldron.
But times changed when what Hellier likes to describe as “the world of Oz” emerged: namely the Internet, and subsequently Amazon. Parallel to the extraordinary growth of online commerce, the Village Voice Bookshop’s economic vitality declined. “Amazon has affected our sales tremendously,” comments Hellier. “How can we compete? They can drop the prices by 30%, and they go through without having to pay taxes. We, in contrast, pay the VAT every month”. Since 2001, the bookstore’s sales have dropped by 25%, forcing its owner to reduce holdings by the same percentage. And this trend is unlikely to be stop. Forrester Research, a market research company, forecast an 11% rise in the online book sales in 2008.
Instead of the 25,000 titles of its beginnings, the Village Voice Bookshop now carries approximately 18,000 titles from English-language literature. And the bookshop struggles to maintain this wide array of books, still considered by many, and notably Arthur Bloom, a Bostonian writer as “the best Anglophone collection in Paris”. Certainly, the store’s collection remains unique. “It is challenging, it is not the surface best-sellers that everybody is going to buy,” remarks Carole Brearley, a Canadian passing through Paris for holidays. Nevertheless, Hellier notes that she recently has had to “take fewer risks in making her selections”.
An additional hindrance to the Village Voice Bookshop’s economic sustainability is the sharp drop in the value of the dollar over the last two years. “We had to lower the prices because the dollar market has shrunk,” explains Hellier. And that is without acknowledging the fact that the size of the Anglophone community has significantly declined in recent times. “The situation is very difficult for an Anglo-American bookshop in Paris”, Hellier sums up.
Over the years, Odile Hellier has grown very pessimistic about the possibility of her independent bookstore surviving. She gives the Village Voice Bookshop five years before it dies. In the meantime however, she stays the course. She maintains her selection of books acute, and continues to bring in renowned writers to read extracts of their books, thus keeping the institution alive and well for the moment.
Odile Hellier has a regular and continuously developed web of relationships with authors and clients that sustains her business, at least for now. “Since I’ve known the bookshop three months ago, I haven’t bought books from Amazon,” attests the Bostonian writer Arthur Bloom. Invited to read at the Village Voice Bookshop, he accepted, both as a way to promote his novel and to support an endangered haven of books. “Odile Hellier is not only selling books, she is selling an atmosphere which is conducive to intellectual exchange”, he says. “It would be a shame if it disappears.”