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Death and Life of the Bookshop

Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker (June 12th), writes of a recent visit to Paris, which happened to coincide with the planned final closure of one of Paris’s best known bookshops, La Hune, formerly on the boulevard Saint-Germain and more recently on the nearby rue de l’Abbaye.

“I walked through La Hune one last time,” writes Gopnik, “sniffing the books and looking at the posters, and found myself far more distraught than I expected to be. I felt a deep sense of loss, more than mere regret, and ever since I have been trying to decide why I felt this way and whether the feeling was mine alone or might have resonance elsewhere.”

Close to the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, the two (rather expensive) Saint-Germain cafés associated with Sartre and De Beauvoir, La Hune, Gopnik writes, “was as much a social center, a place to drop in and see what was new” as a place to find the book one wanted, but it also conveyed to him the special feel and aura of French literary culture – its difference from Anglo-Saxon literary culture.

The quality it offered ... was of a high seriousness of purpose, uncut by gaiety, but still surprisingly well disposed towards amateur readers. La Hune demonstrated the oddly severe, puritanical nature of French publishing, with almost everything published only in paperback and, until recently, without any cover illustration or come-on, only the title and the name of the author, the familiar brand color of the maison d’édition, and, at most, a dark band around the book with a cryptic subtitle or explanatory note (“The New Duras”; “Glucksmann on Sixty-Eight,” or the like). These books seemed unyielding in their affirmation of philosophical literariness; like the great French film stars of the postwar period, they seemed to exhale their cigarettes directly in your face, so to speak, begging neither quarter nor favor. The rows and rows of books, placed horizontally, in the French fashion, seemed to offer a landscape of unvarying, unblinking sagacity. You are here to woo us, and enter our thoughts, the books declared; we are not leaping up, waving our arms, or our author photos, hand on chin, in your face, to woo you.

The forces that did for La Hune are, Gopnik writes, the same ones that have done for a number of venerable New York bookstores, Amazon, of course, though its activities are somewhat restrained by the state in France, but also the apparently uncontrollable depredations of the urban commercial property market, “the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury. Where La Hune last stood, Dior now stands.”

Gopnik briefly rehearses the usual reasons that are trotted out as to why we should not be too worried about any of these things – change is inevitable, change is good, reading will still go on as “books” will continue to exist, only on a different platform. But he cannot quite share this complacency for “once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart ... This act of mere looking and touching and even smelling pages, poking around without the benefit of links, is profound ... A bookstore is a place you go to look as you choose, for as long as you want.”

He concludes:

The deeper, macro answer of why a closing bookstore is a loss to freedom, is that free-market societies ‑ at times by compensatory instinct, at times by compulsory instruction ‑ have built, alongside the responsive market with its unending appetite for change, smaller institutions where people can exchange ideas, share spaces, be in contact, feel at home, without any particular institutional endorsement from higher authorities. Restaurants, bookstores, cafés ‑ on a grander scale railway stations, on a lesser one chessboards near park benches ‑ are the sinews of civil society ... By atomizing our experience to the point of alienation ‑ or, at best, by creating substitutes for common experience (“you might also like …” lists, Twitter exchanges instead of face-to-face conversations) ‑ we lose the common thread of civil life.
As Adam Smith understood so profoundly, economic choices reflect value choices. Markets don’t make men free; free men (and women) have to have the confidence to accept the instability that markets make. Otherwise, panic sets in. If we try to protect small merchants, or mourn their disappearance, the last thing we are being is nostalgic. Books are not just other luxury items to be shopped for. They are the levers of our consciousness. Every time a bookstore closes, an argument ends. That’s not good.



Gopnik’s valuable broadside comes nicely in time for (British and Irish) Independent Bookshop Week, running from June 20th to June 27th. As part of this year’s week of promotions and events to publicise and encourage support for the small and independent bookseller, Books Upstairs, in its new premises at 17 D’Olier Street in Dublin is offering a 10 per cent discount on all book purchases and a complimentary glass of wine from 7pm to 9pm this evening (Tuesday 23rd). A good chance to stock up on your holiday reading, meet some fellow book enthusiasts and enjoy a glass before heading home with your treasure.

23/06/2015

Read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker: http://nyr.kr/1QNxKO5