In this day and age of book superstores like Barnes & Noble and electronic reading devices like Amazon Kindle, it’s a relief to know that Paris is still alive with many individually owned bookshops that sell only books and that don’t smell of Starbucks coffee or sell Godiva chocolates. The Red Wheelbarrow in the Marais is a delightful English language bookstore, and its owner, Penelope Fletcher reflects on that in this interview with Richard Nahem.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born on the west coast of Canada, and grew up on Hornby Island, which is in the Salish Sea in British Columbia.
When did you move to Paris and why?
I moved to Paris in 1990- after I heard about a Canadian bookshop opening here, – and I had a British passport so I thought why not -and moved here with a one way ticket. I did not get a job at the Canadian bookshop- but got a job shortly after I arrived at Brentano’s.
What made you open your bookshop and how long ago did it open?
I opened a bookshop on the west coast when I was 19, which I ran for three years and continued to work in all sorts of bookshops in Vancouver and then in Montreal. I arrived in Paris at age 26- I thought about opening a bookshop here, after I had worked at Brentano’s for a year, and had briefly worked at WH Smith- I became an English teacher, after ten years of teaching I wanted to go back to bookselling – so I decided to open my own bookshop. I took classes with the Chambre de Commerce here, and they put me in touch with an organisation called Paris Initiative Entreprises, who gave me an interest free loan which helped me get a bank loan – I bought the store lease of a retiring French bookseller on rue Charles V, and The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore opened on September 1, 2001.
What are some of your best selling books now? Do you tend to sell more fiction or non-fiction?
Our best selling books at the moment are the Steig Larson books – especially the last one, since it is not yet out in paperback in North America, – we always sell a lot of Madame de Sevigné’s letters since we are in the Marais – Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Freedom”, Hilary Mantel “Wolf Hall”, Kingsolver “The Lacuna” , Paul Auster “The Invisible” ….We sell more fiction than non fiction I would say.
Who are your clientele?
We have a wonderful mix of customers, we have a lot of people visiting Paris- from all over the world, we have students at the different universities (French and American in Paris), we have a lot of people who come regularly to Paris who own or rent apartments here. We have a lot of Parisians of all backgrounds and nationalities who live on the right bank who come regularly to buy books in English. Contrary to what most people think, the majority of our customers are not Americans or English people who read books in English, but are very often Swedish, Brazilian, or Finnish- or I could say South American or Nordic, – a lot of people come in from Italy and Russia as well. And of course, an increasing number of French people like to read in English. And heaps of Australians, Irish, and families whose children need books.
How are you coping with e-books and electronic reading devices such as the Kindle and how do you see the future of small bookstores like yours?
Kindle makes bookselling boring. I think we are going to see all the big publishers go out of business when books become digitally copied for free, which will be in the next six months to two years. In five years from now, the small publishers will become the big publishers and we will start all over again. People love books, people like reminders that they exist as individuals and thinking ones at that. Small bookshops like mine, have to ride the wave, but we need to be supported by the population at the same time. We are the same as the wine sellers, the cheese sellers and the universities -we represent the real. Internet, is ephemeral, not real. It doesn’t satisfy the self. A digital book does not exist for ever.You can read it on line and then it is gone, or stored away somewhere that requires electricity – you cant pick it up late at night and read your favorite part to a friend or to yourself. My big worry with kindle and e-readers are that books are going to disappear at a faster rate- print runs of paper books are already smaller and short lived, and the out of print date used to be at two years is now shorter.
What are some of your personal favorite books right now?
I will always love George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, I enjoyed Helen Dunmore’s book The Betrayal, which is on the Booker Longlist, – in the long run, I have way more personal favorite books then I do ‘right now’ (I am reading my way through the Booker Longlist so I am excused). I always recommend Rohinton Mistry’s Fine Balance, and Vikram Seth’s The Suitable Boy.
Can you tell us what are the most popular books about Paris and what are some of the ones you recommend for someone visiting?
The most sold book in English in Paris is A Moveable Feast – I recommend Gertrude Stein though for either Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, or her Paris, France book. The book I recommend the most, at the moment, is Sarah’s Key – by Tatiana de Rosnay, a novel which takes place in Paris in 1942, and 2002- and treats the subject of the round up of the children and their families -the Vel d’hiv – and the memory of this today here in France. I always say it is Le Divorce meets Suite Français, but it is not quite. Cara Black is extremely and increasingly popular – as is Fred Vargas – and the Victor Legris Mysteries series written by the two sisters who write under the name Claude Izner – everything about the periods of Louis XIV and Madame de Pompadour time, Madame de Sevigné’s letters – is popular and of course the French Revolution and the second world war in France- also Mavis Gallant short stories sell well
What writer living or dead would you most like to have dinner with?
I tend to be terribly stupid around people I admire- so I would be horrified to have dinner with Henry James, or Virginia Woolf, or Shakespeare- unless of course I could be one at a large table of people and stay at one end quietly listening in, and keeping my loud mouth shut. So I would like to have dinner perhaps with Paul Schmidtberger because he is as funny in real life as he is in his books.
What do you prefer about Paris?
The sunlight on the buildings, the river Seine, the walk between the left bank and the right bank over the Ile Saint Louis.
The Red Wheelbarrow
22 rue St. Paul, 4th arr.
Metro: St. Paul