Just because books are old doesn’t mean they are worth thousands of euros. Photo: Nick Hammond
In an age where so many independent businesses, even in Paris, are being overtaken by chain stores, I recently visited a small bookshop in the Opéra district (one of the worst areas in the city in terms of being overrun by faux Irish pubs and all kinds of international chains).
I was met by a less-than-welcoming locked door and a sign instructing me to ring the bell, which I duly did. The door was opened by a glaring man who blocked my entry and asked me what I wanted. When I told him that I was a specialist in 17th-century literature, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say that I wouldn’t find anything of interest in the store.
Trying desperately to justify my presence in his shop, I added that I liked all kinds of works, and then started looking through the books, of which there were many relating to my specialty (why on earth didn’t he say so in the first place?). Bizarrely, all the editions from the 17th and 18th centuries were wildly overpriced, with fifth or sixth editions of unremarkable books selling for thousands of euros; in some cases I could have bought the original handwritten manuscript for the same price!
After browsing for a few minutes, all the while followed by the owner’s suspicious gaze, I tried to justify my presence further by showing an interest in his collection, and so asked if he had a Web site where I could study his catalogue. This question was met with a snort and the comment, tinged with not a little pride, “Du tout!” (“No way!”).
That was my cue. I retreated from the store, feeling thoroughly ashamed for having had the audacity to enter it in the first place.
Is it surprising that small businesses are failing in Paris if they are treating those whose custom they surely stand to gain from with such a hostile attitude? Yet, at the same time, I can’t help feeling that there is something gloriously defiant in such a blatant lack of concern about both making a living and adapting to modern technology. In a perverse, possibly masochistic, way, I have an idea that I might be revisiting that shop soon!
Reader Michael Sales writes: “There are soooooooooo many retailers like that, and they’re nuts. As a book collector (and a collector of way too much stuff, period), I recognize this experience very well. Nicely documented. The next time he visits the store, it’ll be closing, and the owner will be joining a lot of people he disdains on the dole.”
Reader Roger Moss writes: “I, too, get incensed when I encounter such blatant arrogance. My view is that if you can’t be at least civil to people who are only in your shop/hotel/resto, etc., to part with their increasingly hard-earned cash. then you simply don’t deserve to be in business. I treasure the value still placed on respect for the individual in French society, but like all rights, it can get abused by those not bright enough to see that the concept is intended to be for all. Of course, natural selection has the final say…”
Reader Jonathan Jacobs writes: “Enjoyed your article. We have had similar experiences. But we have, unfortunately, also experienced many delightful and friendly local small businesses that we patronized in our Latin Quarter neighborhood disappear as well, often to be replaced by franchise chain stores. Dommage!”
Reader Nick Woods writes: “I tend to leave or not buy something when I encounter such blatant arrogance, and tell the arrogant person why, just so that they know for sure, but in your case, in the old curiosity bookshop, I would have probably found it rather quaint! If the old guy wants to shoot himself in the foot commercially then that’s his business, but he sounds like a character nonetheless. I’d like to know why he IS so rude! I can definitely see why you’d go back there! It’s almost irresistible.”
Reader Paul A. Scott writes: “Brilliantly and accurately summed up. I once, and only once, had the upper hand in a similar situation. Having just purchased a first edition in quarto of Racine’s Athalie, which I’d found in a shop that did not update its catalogue too often, I encountered an interesting-looking bookshop in the 6th on my way back home. As soon I walked in, I received piercing glares of censure since I was wearing jeans and looked vague and British. Meanwhile attention was being lavished on a French couple who, from their questions, didn’t have the first idea about books or literature. After enduring several minutes of frosty glares and a curt interrogation as to my intentions, I produced my first edition, announced what it was, how much I’d paid, and why I wouldn’t be spending a centime nor returning to their shop. As I left, I spotted the faint trace of a smile of respect on the owner’s face, that muted Gallic gesture that invariably takes either years or heroic feats to produce.”
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