“What is a bookshop? A bookshop is a community,” says Penelope Fletcher, the Canadian founder and co-owner of the recently reopened Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris.
When the Red Wheelbarrow, a popular English-language bookstore in Paris’s Marais from 2001 to 2012, closed unexpectedly (for personal reasons, not as a result of competition from Internet retailers, as one might expect), there was a strong feeling of loss in Paris’s Anglophone community. “We just kind of disappeared,” Fletcher says. Her former customers are thrilled that she is back.
The new Red Wheelbarrow is located at 9, rue de Médicis, opposite the Luxembourg Garden in the Latin Quarter. “People like Umberto Eco lived here,” says Fletcher. “There’s this very rich community of writers and characters here. I didn’t realize it still exists.” This location is poignant in Paris’s bookstore canon; the store’s building has been a bookshop since 1930, and before Fletcher and her associates acquired it last year it was the last remaining secondhand science bookshop in France.
Around the same time the original Red Wheelbarrow closed, the Left Bank lost another much-loved English-language bookstore, the Village Voice. Its former customers now frequent the Red Wheelbarrow. In the couple of hours I spent in the shop, several Anglophone bookworms who have been loyal to the two shops for decades came in to say hello and browse the shelves.
Fletcher mentioned that Turkish-American writer Ayşegül Savaş, a regular at the old Red Wheelbarrow, “cried when she heard the bookstore was opening again.” The Red Wheelbarrow will hold an event in the spring to promote Savaş’s novel, Walking on the Ceiling, to be published by Penguin.
The store will play a strong role in promoting authors. Fletcher points out that “there are a lot of writers here in the African American community who haven’t had a bookshop to do events.”
The shop window makes the store’s politics clear: on display are Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist and Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works. An upcoming event with James Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart will promote the reissue of his uncle’s book Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. These choices are especially relevant, and perhaps brave, as right next door to the Red Wheelbarrow is an extreme-right bookstore.
“You never know what’s going to happen with a bookshop,” says Fletcher. “You have to roll with the haywire. Because we have the extreme-right bookstore next door, we have to be extremely attentive to what we’re doing and be an opposition, and be more powerful, and be more positive, and be cleverer than them. Which is a challenge, because they’re very clever.”
She feels a responsibility to oppose the kind of hatred represented by the shop near her peaceful little store. “One of our co-owners survived the Holocaust, so of course her whole life has been dictated by this. Another one is African American – we are all directly impacted by what their intention is.”
Clearly, it is of paramount importance to the Red Wheelbarrow to serve as a haven of positivity in uncertain political times. “Lots of people who rent or own apartments in Paris come back every year and then go back to the U.S. And with the political situation, they’re spending more time in Paris if they can.”
Is it more difficult to run a brick-and-mortar bookshop in the face of the might of Amazon? “It’s got more to do with corporates calling the shots than with Internet,” she says. As publishing has become more centralized, it has become less cooperative. “Publishers slowly became less friendly, less easy to work with. Back in 2001, it was much easier to open a bookshop, to get publishers to give you the books. This time I had to go through all the hoops.” She succeeded with the help of an interest-free loan from the Paris Initiative Enterprise (a City of Paris project that helps find financing for small businesses with a social component) and ongoing investments of time and effort from all the co-owners.
What’s next on the agenda? Fletcher is planning to create a student cooperative, “so that people feel a part of something.” University students will be able to order their books at a discount and become part of the Red Wheelbarrow community.
“Community” is a word that came up again and again in our meeting. The community of booksellers, for example: in Paris, the Red Wheelbarrow exchanges customers with nearby San Francisco Book Co. and Berkeley Books – and internationally – a pretty shelf of books in the store features volumes from Persephone Books (a publisher and bookshop in London). Then there are the communities united in the face of political adversity, and the English-language community in Paris in general.
The Red Wheelbarrow is a community in itself. Customers hang out in the shop or take their purchases to the unofficial bookstore café down the street, Treize Bakery. Everyone feels welcome among this group of people who still believe wholeheartedly in the power of the bookshop.