Having written four books of her own, author Gillian Harvey explores the reasons why English- speaking expats set up bookshops in France…
For many bibliophiles, the idea of running a bookshop is a long-held dream. To work in the world of books, read to your heart’s content, recommend your favourites and get to know like-minded customers sounds idyllic. Others may dream of moving to France and embracing a different way of life. But what of those who want to combine the two, and opt to open English-language bookshops in a French setting? Does merging two dreams work? Is there sufficient demand? And in these days of internet shopping, do people flock to bookshops the way they used to? I spoke to the people behind three thriving bookshops doing just that to discover what it’s like to live two dreams at once.
THE RED WHEELBARROW, PARIS
When Penelope Fletcher moved to Paris in 1990, she was already an experienced bookseller. In fact, she’d opened her own bookstore at the age of 19: “I grew up on Hornby Island on the west coast of Canada – a really special place, three islands from Vancouver,” she says. “When I was 19, I decided to open a second-hand bookstore while at college.”
A chance comment by a teacher may even have sparked a future ambition. “One of my teachers at the time said: ‘are you a second Sylvia Beach?’ Sylvia was an American woman who had opened a bookshop in Paris in 1919 and is famous for having published Ulysses by James Joyce – it kind of stuck with me. I wasn’t sure who she was at the time, but I found out. Maybe that’s why I ended up here!” says Penelope.
Years later, she made her own move to Paris from Montreal, where she was working as a bookseller. “I arrived in France on a one-way-ticket with just 200 French francs in my back pocket,” she says.
She soon found a job at the famous Brentano’s bookshop: on Avenue de l’Opéra and settled in the city. And in the 11 years that preceded the opening of The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, she worked in two Paris bookshops, became an English teacher, married a jazz musician, and had three children.
Being married to a jazz musician made financial stability a goal. So, in 2001, when her youngest child was three, Penelope decided to work with her strengths and opened her own independent bookshop in the city.
The original Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore opened its doors in 2001 in the Marais and traded for 11 years. The shop was closed in 2012 when Penelope had to leave Paris for a time and travel to Canada for personal reasons. “I returned to Paris in 2014, but had no hope of re-opening the bookshop,” she says.
However, fate had other ideas for Penelope. In 2018, the Red Wheelbarrow opened again on the Left Bank, on the famous bookstore street Médicis after a long-time friend of Penelope’s, Danielle Cumbo, who worked for a publisher in the States, made a special request.
“I met Danielle at the London book fair in 2001 before I opened the Red Wheelbarrow. She worked for Harper Collins at the time. She was the first one to tell me what a great idea it was. We stayed in touch even after the shop closed. Then in 2016, she confided that she had terminal cancer. I asked if there was anything I could do for her and, to my surprise, she proposed that we open The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore again,” says Penelope.
True to her word, Penelope set about securing premises and financial support in order to re-open the shop. “I think the store and the dream of coming to Paris was something positive for Danielle to focus on,” says Penelope. “I still find myself making decisions with Danielle’s voice in my head.”
Despite the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore has now become a thriving business. “During the pandemic many businesses in Paris that relied on tourist trade really struggled, but because a lot of people in Paris read in English, we thrived. We even delivered some books on foot or by bike.” In France, bookstores were considered essential and were not locked down as they were in the UK. The success of The Red Wheelbarrow during this time meant that in 2021 Penelope was able to open a second shop on Rue de Médicis, The Red Balloon, which specialises in children’s books in English and French. The Red Balloon was named after the 1956 film Le Ballon Rouge.
Situated opposite the beautiful Luxembourg gardens, the two bookshops carry on Sylvia Beach’s bookselling legacy in the Latin Quarter.
EMMA’S BOOKSHOP, CLERMONT-FERRAND
Best friends Emilie and Marie met when studying literature and the book industry in Paris and Brussels and remained close ever since. But it was the pandemic that brought them together in a business sense. “At the start of the pandemic, I had recently moved from Montreal to Clermont-Ferrand, and Marie had just moved there from Lille,” says Emilie. “At the time, I was working as a bookseller and Marie was working for a theatre company. I’d imagined one day I might run a bookshop – but it was something I thought I’d do in my 50s or beyond.”
But, like many, the Covid pandemic led the pair to reflect on their lives and consider making a change. “It caused us to reassess everything and we began to wonder whether we might take this moment to open a bookshop together.”
A collaboration between the pair led to the opening of Emma’s a bookshop and café in 2021. The now thriving bookshop sells books in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch. The pair also run regular book groups where people meet to share their thoughts over a cup of coffee and a weekly storytime (in English) for children on Saturday mornings.
“We stock a wide range of English language books, as well as a selection of books in other languages,” says Marie. “We love making recommendations and sharing our love of books with our customers. “It’s always interesting to see who attends the English reading events,” she adds. “We get people who are trying to improve their English, or who want their children to hear English read by a native speaker, as well as people who live locally or those on holiday.”
The pair have recently launched a monthly book subscription service, where a recommended book will be sent to customers every month. “It’s a great way to reach readers further afield and to share our love of brilliant books,” says Marie. “We’re really excited about it.”
CHRISTIE’S BOOKSHOP, GENÇAY, VIENNE
Andrew and T-Anne Christie have run their English language bookshop in Gençay, Vienne, for 19 years, having moved to France from the UK three years after they married in 2001.
“We’re both avid booklovers and tea drinkers, so shortly after we married we decided to quit our jobs in social services and move to France. Andrew had lived in Normandy previously and had noticed a demand for English language books, so we knew we’d have a market,” says T-Anne. “Rather than specialising solely in books, we also opened a tea room and filled the shop with handmade gifts and cards.”
Over the years that followed, with the acceleration of internet-based bookshops, the couple have worked hard to provide a personal, unique service and to adapt their business to meet changing demands. “We’ve diversified quite a bit over the years,” says T-Anne. “Trends have changed, and we try to listen to customers if they suggest something. We serve our homemade English cakes and take pride in our offering – sourcing gifts from the UK so we know we have something different for our customers.”
Despite their wide offering, books remain at the heart of the business. “I love being able to read books and recommend them to customers,” says T-Anne.
“It’s a real pleasure to be able to share my love of books with other people and to find the right book for the right person.”
And although books can now be purchased at the click of a mouse, it’s this personal touch that many customers value. “We get people travelling up to two hours to visit the shop,” says Andrew.
“Sometimes they will call in on their way down south, or en route up to the hospital, but most will make the trip specially to visit our shop. It’s a lovely feeling knowing that people are prepared to go the extra mile for the personal service we offer.”
Gillian Harvey’s latest book, One French Summer, is available from Amazon and other bookshops.
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Lead photo credit : Emilie and Marie of Emma's bookshop, Photo: Gillian Harvey