In France, the price of a baguette is protected by French law, and so is the price of a book. This says a lot about the place of reading in French life. In 1981, the loi Lang, named for then-president François Mitterand’s flamboyant minister of culture, Jack Lang, mandated that all booksellers, whether chains or independent (the law now also applies to online retailers), charge the same price as their competitors. The maximum discount allowed for books is 5 percent. The law not only protects independent bookshops from larger chain outlets, it ensures cultural diversity, guaranteeing that a wide range of titles can be published, including books that have cultural value but won’t become bestsellers. (Thirteen other European countries also have fixed prices for books.)
“Books are the pillars of our society,” Xavier Moni, a Parisian bookseller and head of the booksellers’ union, told a radio interviewer last May, at the end of France’s first lockdown, one of the strictest in Europe. Anyone who doubted this assertion need only consider the uproar that ensued during France’s second lockdown, last fall, when bookshops were ordered to close. Customers — including many authors — took to social media to decry the decision. The prize-winning novelist and screenwriter Serge Joncour tweeted to France’s prime minister, Jean Castex: “To read is to see the world in a thousand ways. Closing bookstores during times of confinement is a summons to ignorance.” And Joann Sfar, an author and comics artist, tweeted: “Without a bookshop I can’t think.”
A poll conducted during the second lockdown found that 52 percent of the population considered bookshops essential businesses. Many shops created a “click and collect” workaround to sell books in spite of the closures — the way restaurants sold takeout. And when that lockdown was lifted in December, bibliophiles showed their love for their booksellers, buying 35 percent more books than they did during the same time the previous year.
In February, following months of intense lobbying on the part of booksellers and the reading public, the French government decreed bookshops to be essential businesses, just like grocery stores and pharmacies. It was in the nick of time; Paris entered its third lockdown in mid-March, and the rest of the country, by the order of French President Emmanuel Macron, followed two weeks later.
The number of independent bookshops in France has remained relatively stable over the last two decades — there are approximately 3,300 today. That’s just a 4 percent decrease since 2007. Compare that with the number of independent bookstores in the United States — 2,524 in 2019, for a population five times larger.
Many people refer to their neighborhood libraire, or bookseller, the way they might their butcher or their hairdresser. And that’s where 40 percent of French people still buy their books — their neighborhood shop, not the superstores, not the Internet.
Booksellers in France work hard for that customer fidelity. Faced with online competition, as American booksellers are, they are vulnerable to one-click shopping convenience. And as with their American counterparts, if they prevail, it is because booksellers are passionate about their jobs and people value their advice and professionalism.
Anne-Marie Carlier, who owns Autour du Monde bookshop in Metz, in northeastern France, recalls that during the first lockdown, some customers sent her checks to sustain her cash flow. “Our customers missed us as much as we missed them,” she says. Now, thanks to her shop’s essential status, they don’t have to miss her at all.
Olivia Snaije is an arts journalist based in Paris. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @oliviasnaije.