The Last American Bookstore in Paris

Now that tomorrow is my last day of the first week of classes (hello, three-day weekends for the next four months!), I’ve finally started searching for the books that I need. And forget just griping about textbook prices and doing more online shopping for textbooks than clothes trying to find the best deals—here, in Paris, the biggest trouble is just where to find the books and knowing that I’ll have to suck it up and pay any price just to have them.

This has not been the case for most of my classes. I bought my French Phonetics textbook and my French grammar reading (an adorable French short story collection called “The First Sip of Beer” that’s all about the French appreciation of life’s small pleasures—like the first sip of beer. But, I’ve had the most trouble with my only literature course, the 20th Century French Novel, which is also my only class that will be taught in English.

Outside of the classics (ie. Victor Hugo, Flaubert, other old dead French guys), the only French books I’m familiar with are The Little Prince and the TinTin series, and I that isn’t something I’m proud of (you’ll notice that it is something I can joke about, though). Needless, to say, I wasn’t too surprised to find that those titles weren’t on the syllabus, but I was surprised that I recognized two out of the six authors on the syllabus—so that’s 1/3 of the authors, which is coincidentally the amount of time in years that I’ve completed for Drexel.

I read Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger,” or “The Outsider/The Stranger,” in a French class, and that was pretty dense, philosophically speaking, but hopefully I’ll get a better feel for it in English. The other I hadn’t read but I did know about, and that is Marcel Proust (we’re reading some of the first volume, Swann’s Way) just because I’m more familiar with his name through literary connections and esteem than his actual work.

In addition to these two works, I have four other books I’ll need to buy: Colette’s Chéri, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove and Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon.

Give yourself a clap on the back if any of the authors or titles seem familiar, because I sure as hell didn’t know any of them. And then give me some help finding them, because I sure as hell could use it.

My teacher told us to go to Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, which made me happy because I used to go to the cute, tiny bookstore-looking bookstore with my dad when I would visit him and buy Harry Potter books there. It’s in walking-distance of where my dad used to live and I’d been meaning to go to it anyway because lately I’ve taken to revisiting places we used to go to, like the open-air market we’d shop at on Sunday mornings or the patisserie we’d buy macarons from. Random things like that.

It was for that reason that immediately after class ended I set out to visit the bookstore my dad decided to show me instead of Shakespeare & Co.

[Side note: honestly, dad, wtf? #literarywhitewhine].

It was easy-ish to get to, because I remembered what street it was off of and what side of the street it was on and things like that. It was exactly like I remembered, except some of the bookshelves were only half full and I was like, huh, you never see that. And after asking the man sitting behind the desk who had been watching me scour the shelves for my books, I found out why—the bookstore is closing. Or not. I’m not sure, and the man isn’t too sure, but from the way our conversation went I’m definitely freaking out more about it. It turns out that the store wasn’t carrying any of the books I need because it might be permanently closing by the end of this week (“We might still be open on Saturday but it’ll probably be later in the day because it might be our last day”). He wasn’t sure that they’d even be open next week because they haven’t come up with rent money.

What. The. Fuck.

I couldn’t believe it. And I’m not just talking about how blasé he seemed about it (although that might be because he’s French, or that might be because he isn’t French. Just like with everything else about this strange little man, I have no idea). Granted, I have the bare minimum connection to this store, as much as I like to pride myself on it, but I still felt like I’d been shopping there my whole life and just found out it was closing (or not, no one knows). I guess sitting on the grungy wooden floor of the only English-language bookstore (to the best of my middle-school knowledge, thanks dad) in Paris and buying books off your summer reading list makes you feel like it really meant something.

It seemed to mean something two for the guy. He smiled and leaned back in his chair when I told him I once bought the newest Harry Potter book when it came out when I was visiting my dad in Paris. Heck, he even said he’d have to tell Penelope (the owner of the store? A part-owner of the store? Clearly I don’t know as much about this store as I should to deserve to feel this genuinely distressed about the news of its imminent closing) because he thought it was a wonderful, enriching memory.

The enigma of a man didn’t really go into specifics of why the store was closing other than rent money. But I’m still surprised. Paris is a huge supporter of the arts and has always been, but there are books everywhere you get lost here. There arelibraries,” or little neighborhood bookstores in every little quartier. If you walk along the Seine, you’ll probably be just as fascinated with the antiquated bookstands lined up along the river wall as the sights you’ll see on your walk. Even the French Barnes & Noble, Gilbert Jaune, has a lot of locations and always seems busy (although, to be fair, some of that might be because of back-to-school traffic). It’s very appropriate for a city with as much literary history as Paris.

These were all examples of opportunities to buy French-language books. And you’d think that because everyone in France seems to be able to speak English (including waiters and taxi-drivers and other people you wouldn’t expect to be bilingual—trust me, everyone speaks English or at least enough to make conversation with someone who is unfortunately obviously American), there’d be a lot of opportunities to buy English books, right? I think there used to be. Now I’m not so sure.

Red Wheelbarrow is closing (or it isn’t). Another, Village Voice (no discernible relation to the newspaper) closed less than a month before I arrived in Paris. Another, Tea & Tattered Pages, closed in June—so less than two months before I arrived in Paris.

The guy from Red Wheelbarrow directed me to a small French-English bookstore on the northern part of the arrondissement with the charming, quirky name I Love My Blender. It’s a great, funky little bookstore with primarily Anglo-American authors and their French translations, but they didn’t carry any English versions of French writers. The cute guy there said he could order them for me but I wouldn’t be able to get them before next week, which is when I need the first book. And I was cranky and tired and not in the best mood to stop and go through every book like I intend to do later, so I just asked (in French of course!) if he had any other recommendations besides Shakespeare & Co. and he just said he thought that would be the best for me.

I was already planning on creating my own literary tours of Paris (i.e. reread A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife and make a map of all the apartments and haunts of Hemingway) but now I think I just added a different type of tour. I’m hoping that nothing short of WWIII will close down Shakespeare & Co. (after all, Sylvia Beach’s only closed down for WWII), but I’m not as sure about the other Anglo-American bookstores in Paris.

So now I’ve made it my prerogative to go about finding other bookstores that didn’t close one or two months before I arrived in Paris. And, ya know, find the books I need for my class.


One response to “The Last American Bookstore in Paris

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