I was recently in the eternally beautiful city of Paris where I haven’t visited for many years. I found myself preparing to leave with what could be considered a severe case of the ‘holiday blues’ at the prospect of returning to an increasingly chain-store orientated London, shared housing and a job far from the industry that I am both qualified in and so passionate to be a part of. There were tears…a lot of tears…tears of rather embarrasing levels. This wasn’t, as may be the case for many, because of the romantic lure of Paris (though it was very romantic and a joy to explore with my rather lovely, fluently French-speaking boyfriend) but rather, because for a book-lover such as I, Paris remains a city of wonderful bookshops and independent Bouquinistes lining the Seine.
This is a city where small businesses across many industries still seem to thrive or, if not thrive, continue to fight for their independently localised highstreets in a manner that Britain seems to have given up on long ago. I became obsessed by this city’s varied independent businesses over chain-stores, with their wonderful customer service (which as a long time retailer still strikes me as the heart of a business) and with what seems like a healthy attitude to market competition. Here follows the things I saw in Paris which won my heart…
1. The number of similar stores in a single area
This is something that I constantly noticed and brought up (to my boyfriend’s dismay). In Paris there seems to be key areas in which certain types of businesses dominated. Much like days past in London there seemed to be particular areas you might go to for certain things. Walking from Monmartre, for example, we seemed to come across a wedding dress district and some time later a comic book district. Initially I questioned how any of the businesses could be doing well and I came to the conclusion that it was due to healthy competition. Each store must have to strive to do ‘better’ in some way than the shops before and after it. Before chain-stores came into play this was how business worked. It seems considerably fairer that several independents are competing with one another rather than trying to compete with the big-boys popping up all over the city.
2. Book shops filled with people
Perhaps this is the prospective publisher in me but I at least looked into every single book shop I saw if I didn’t enter it’s doors and what I saw was busy busy bookshops so unlike what I see in the UK nowadays. And what’s more, people were leaving with bags full of books! As we know many other countries feel entirely different to us Brits about spending full price on books. Sadly we cannot go back and reinstate the Net Book Agreement and there is no point in wishing we can but it was so nice seeing a city full of people who still respect the worth and value of physical books. This respect is something that I wish and I believe we should strive to reinstate in people in the UK rather than allowing other countries to fall into our own money-pinching ways. Afterall, when you are willing to spend £3-£5 on a coffee what is your complaint of spending little more than that on a physical book?!
3. Independent shops are the mainstream
Of course there are chain-stores in Paris but they are few and far between. I took great joy in trying a different patisserie every day and determining who produced the best baguette, who had the most pleasant staff, where could I not resist returning to, and so on. And if you really wanted the chain stores there were certain areas that you could expect to find them so it came down to a personal choice of which experience you preferred. This is something we are losing in the UK and something I dread will eventually disappear in the rest of Europe. To me there is little worse in London than seeing a Tesco or Starbucks everywhere I turn. I want variety, I want the option to shop at any of the stores in a mile radius based on the quality of their products.
4. Bookshops open late into the evening
Honestly, I only noticed that one bookshop opened to 11pm and this was the incredibly busy independent Shakespeare and Company, a wonderful cavelike bookshop selling English titles, which attracted tourists like bees to honey. For me the greatest potential for an independent business is that you can determine your own working hours to better benefit yourself and your customers. I have long been saying that if independent bookshops in the UK were to open later, offer a better variety of community events and stronger customer services, offering a different business model to what is already out there then they could truly compete with the likes of Amazon. This isn’t a new idea, it’s just one that seems to be ignored in large util around the Christmas period. By staying open later you are making yourself available to a whole host of potential customers who would otherwise be at work themselves during your standard opening hours. I always seem to bring up the film Empire Records when I talk about this. If you’ve seen it you’ll probably understand why, if you haven’t and you dislike the big stores as much as I do, well just go watch it.
5. Working in the service industry is treated with respect
Having worked in retail for most of my adult life this is something that I was quite jealous of. Retail workers and waiters/resses, at least, seemed to be treated with respect and in return the customer service given surpased (for the most part) what I have seen in most of the UK. In France these positions are treated as careers, qualifications are even earned relating to the specific field that you go into and therefore the wages are higher and there is even a sense of pride for the job that you are doing. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen great customer service in the UK (I count myself as one of those who gives such) and I also saw some bad customer service in France (i’m sure not everyone in the service industry is there out of choice) but overall it just felt different and better.
I could actually keep on going but these were the key points that I have been considering endlessly. I have to admit though that these alone had me considering the potential to move to Paris in order to pursue my career – to run a successful publishing house alongside a bricks and mortar bookshop – but I continue to love London’s great publishing tradition, it’s history, the many wonderful, exciting and innovative publishers that are popping up regardless of the many challenges that abound. I also am cynical enough to believe that all that I consider to be great about this industry in Paris has the potential to disappear almost over night. For now I will continue to practice my French and push for change on this side of the Channel and finally start writing that novel which Paris inspired. One day though, who knows…