Saving Paris's Oldest Bookstore

Can a uniquely French dedication to culture triumph over Amazon and foreign landlords?

Victoria Baena

PARIS—Nestled between cafés and tour shops on the busy Rue Saint-Honoré, the Librairie Delamain, the oldest bookstore in Paris, strikes an inconspicuous pose. Outside, tourists jostle their way through the stands and shelves on their way from the Louvre to the Comédie Française across the street, rarely pausing to glance under the gray-and-white awning.

The tempo inside the bookstore is slower, as patrons—almost all French—vie for browsing space among the cramped shelves. The president of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Louis Debré, is a regular visitor; so is Comédie-Française actor Denis Podalydès. Over the years, Michel Foucault, Colette, and Jean Cocteau have all passed through its doors.

But Librairie Delamain may now be coming to a close. This month, the Librairie Delamain’s lease is up for renewal by the Qatari company Constellation Hotel Holdings, which owns the block-wide property that also houses the soon-to-be-renovated Hôtel du Louvre. The company plans to double the bookstore's rent to 100,000 euros per year—nearly a tenth of their annual revenue. With already slim margins, the shop would be forced to shut down or abandon the storefront where it has been since 1906 (the business itself dates to 1700).

This tale is a familiar one to bibliophiles around the world, as the frail arsenals of independent bookstores surrender to the triple threat of Amazon, e-books, and competition from other media. Here in France, though, the story diverges from the script. Barely had the threat to Delamain been announced when author and journalist Angelo Rinaldi pledged to do all he could to prevent the bookstore’s closing. “It’s always when grandmother is sick that you realize how much you loved her,” he told Le Figaro last week. Rinaldi plans to spread the word among his colleagues at the Académie Française when it reconvenes on September 25.

Rinaldi was joined by the Minister of Culture herself, Fleur Pellerin, who visited the bookstore in person to assure the staff of her full support. The president of the Centre National du Livre, Vincent Monadé, demanded a meeting with Constellation Hotel Holdings. Several days later, the Hôtel du Louvre, feeling the pressure, released a statement saying that the Qatari holding company would take into consideration “the specific activity of its renter as well as the many years in which it has occupied the site.”

“I hope, now, that this is going to be translated into action,” said Monadé to Le Figaro.

It's difficult to imagine the shuttering of a bookstore causing a similar outcry anywhere else—not to mention direct government involvement in the matter of a private lease. This has something to do with what the French call l’exception culturelle. It doesn't just mean cultural exceptionalism; the phrase refers more precisely to the notion that cultural goods should not be subject to the whims of the free market—and should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of global, and in particular American, cultural imperialism.

In the U.S., such a policy would smack of protectionism. The French prefer to justify it in terms of maintaining “cultural diversity.” L'exception culturelle is the source of production quotas for radio programs made in France. It’s the reason the initial arrival of Netflix executives in France was met with a letter from producers bemoaning the “implosion of our cultural model.” And in a more general sense, it is part of a conviction in France—albeit one increasingly debated—that cultural heritage is a good with its own internal logic and value system, one that the government has the duty not only to protect but to actively promote. France even entombs its most celebrated literary and cultural figures, among other “great men” (and now women), in the Panthéon in Paris.

In the publishing sphere, l'exception culturelle morphs from a committed ideal into concrete policy. It has allowed the French to mount a challenge to the digital revolution in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

As an independent bookstore, the Librairie Delamain already receives a partial merchandising subsidy—5,000 euros in 2013—from the Centre National du Livre. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture announced a further injection of 5 million euros into the independent bookstore industry, as well as the creation of a new bureaucratic position (the stereotypical solution to all French problems)—the “book arbitrator”—who could, in cases like this one, intervene in legal disputes without forcing the small businesses to involve themselves in expensive litigation. Booksellers like Delamain are also aided by the loi Lang, a 1981 law named after a former minister of culture, which limits discounts on books to 5 percent of their cover price. Earlier this summer, a so-called “anti-Amazon” amendment extended this limit to online booksellers and prohibits them from offering free shipping on reduced-price books.

In fact, France is far from the only country to require a fixed book price. Germany, Norway, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea all do as well. The U.K. used to require fixed book prices, but no longer does. Today, one can easily see the result: While independent booksellers make up 45 percent of the market in France, they are only 4 percent of the total in the U.K. In 2013, 23 percent of all trade books purchased in the U.S. were e-books (it's 25 percent in the U.K.) – in France the number was a fraction of that, at 3 percent.

Wandering through Paris, one can find large chain booksellers—FNAC and Gibert Joseph, for example—but a defining characteristic of the city continues to be its tiny independent shops. Up to dozens can be found in a single neighborhood, specializing in everything from Portuguese and Brazilian literature to rare books to the contemporary rentrée littéraire—an autumn tradition when the French publishing industry releases a batch of new books.

Meanwhile, the combination of sky-high rents and online competition have pushed independent bookstores out of their spaces. A gloomy headline in The New York Times this spring diagnosed Manhattan as a “Literary City, Bookstore Desert.” A similar piece in The Guardian reported that 500 British independent bookstores have closed since 2005.

Cultural exception aside, France is not entirely exempt from such shifts itself. Even in Delamain’s neighborhood, the Librairie del Duca recently shut down, while the Librairie le Divan relocated to the more affordable 15th arrondissement.

In fact, the Delamain’s threat may have less to do with the digital publishing landscape than with foreign competition of an entirely different sort. Average prices for Parisian apartments have skyrocketed in the last 15 years. A housing shortage that the government has called a “major crisis” can be attributed, in many cases, to foreign investment in Parisian properties—often by owners who never end up moving in.

The luxury market has been particularly impacted by foreign ownership, with owners from the U.S., Russia, and the Middle East finding Parisian property especially appealing.  In some ways the trend is an echo of Japanese companies' flooding of the U.S. real estate market in the 1980s; in this case, Qatari companies entered when nations were crippled by austerity and in many cases eager for an influx of foreign capital. Constellation Hotel Holdings itself, currently in negotiations with the Librairie Delamain, has been quietly buying up luxury properties from Nice to Cannes for years—no doubt exacerbating the sentiment that there are too many foreigners in France.

Of course, Paris is far from the only European city to witness such a trend. Last year, a piece in Vanity Fair about London's One Hyde Park, the most expensive residential building in the world, revealed that a majority of its apartments sit empty, owned by absentee billionaires like Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar. Constellation Hotel Holdings itself made the news last year for investing 400 million pounds in another London hotel; it makes billion-dollar Qatari investment deals buying up European real estate.

The knowledge that a historic Parisian bookstore may now be subject to the whims of a Middle Eastern mega-company has been incorporated into the French media's narrative about Delamain. It is already commonplace to complain that Paris has become no more than a museum, an empty shell from which the locals have fled, to be picked over by foreigners and students. And the line between national pride and hostility to foreigners has always been thin in France, where the universalism of liberté, égalité, fraternité coexists uneasily with a racially-based understanding of what it means to be French. A touch of xenophobia has tinged the irony of some commentary, suggesting that Middle Eastern wealth is oblivious to broader cultural concerns. “If the Qataris hadn’t understood that this is an important place, in terms of its physical site as well as its patrons, now they should,” said one bookseller following a week of buzz in the French media. “But we’re talking about Qataris, after all; these are people who have time and money for themselves.” Monadé of Centre National du Livre noted that he hoped the Qataris, “mindful of their investments in terms of their image,” will not let the bookstore close.

Given the peculiarities of the French cultural system, it’s quite likely that the bookstore will in fact be saved. Other threats are not so quick to dissolve. On the same block of Rue Saint-Honoré, the revolving doors of the five-star Hôtel du Louvre welcome one set of patrons; the small streetside entrance of the Librairie Delamain beckons to another. The little bookshop and the international conglomerate are now intimately intertwined.