Archives de Tag: reportage

A fragile relict

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.”

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Economic growth and the Rugby World Cup

October 18th 2007

It is 6 o’clock on Saturday October 13th in Paris. The semi-final rugby match opposing France and England is not to start in the next three hours. Yet, cars on the Boulevard Saint-Germain toot proudly, and smiling people start gathering in pubs where giant screens have been put in place to observe France’ bout. Inside the Wos bar, on Saint-Jacques street, beer orders seem never to stop, compelling the waitress to bring six by six the pints onto the tables. And as time goes on, the general euphoria exponentially increases.

Since France’s victory against the legendary All Blacks a week earlier, confidence has been boosted, bringing economists to once again raise the question of the correlation between sportive victories and economic growth. The so-called “World Cup Effect”gained some legitimacy after the 1998 Soccer World Cup. That very year, French growth had indeed reached 3.5%.

As the organizer, France already harvested economic benefits from the Rugby World Cup. Tourism was the domain where the “World Cup effect” was the most notable. Airports of Paris (ADP) underwent an increase of 5.4% in air traffic this September, compared to the same month in 2006. The competition also triggered an increase in French household’s immediate consumption. A document published in April by the European Chair of Sportive Marketing at the Essec (French Business Graduate School) forecast four milliard euros of direct receipts, through fans’ expenses, tickets, by-products, etc. A poll made just before the launching of the World Cup also revealed that hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and bars expected 10% of supplementary revenues during the World Cup, counting both on the fact that France was hosting the event, and on the enthusiasm and confidence generated by a nice performance of “Les Bleus”.

Will then the French defeat against England have a negative impact on national economic growth? “The week following the match opposing France and Argentina, we received almost no customers. And after tonight’s defeat, it will be the same. This will obviously have a direct effect on business, since the euphoria that characterized the past few months will relapse all of the sudden” explains Pierre Louvrier, owner of the Wos. And indeed, on the following Sunday morning, the atmosphere was rather gloomy in Parisian streets. “While strolling in the neighbourhood, I noticed that boldness had fallen,” comments Nicolas Laurent-Bonne, a 21-year-old law student. Certainly for real rugby lovers, this defeat will not kill joy. “We were in the doldrums right after France’s defeat, but we continued playing for an hour and a half”, narrates Sylvain Baratte, saxophonist in the Banda Kalimucho, which followed the French rugby team during the whole tournament. “A rugby match is festal, nothing can destroy our moral ». But French are not all rugby addicts.

And in any case, the question remains if the observed increase in household’s consumption could really have remained relevant in the long run, had France won the semi-final. In 1998, the World Cup Effect had not lasted for more than three months. And could the impact of the Rugby World Cup be as important as the soccer one? According to many economists, rugby remains less popular than soccer. Mihai, a 27-years-old intern in surgery in Paris, agrees on that point: “France doesn’t have the culture of rugby, it has the soccer culture. I think the euphoria you could observe was only transient, so defeat or victory, it couldn’t have influenced French economy that much.”