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Emerging from lockdown, France’s cherished bookshops battle to avoid shutdown

Bookseller Philippe Seyrat, wearing a protective face mask, arranges books at La Sorbonne bookshop in Nice on May 13, 2020.
Bookseller Philippe Seyrat, wearing a protective face mask, arranges books at La Sorbonne bookshop in Nice on May 13, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, REUTERS

Neighbourhood bookshops in France survived the advent of television, megastores, online retailing and Kindle. Then came the coronavirus lockdown, an eight-week-long hiatus that has weighed heavily on profit margins and threatens the survival of some stores.

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France's bookstores were allowed to reopen on Monday for the first time since March 17 as the country began easing lockdown measures put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19

After almost two months of confinement, the French government is trying to balance the need to resuscitate a crashing economy with the risk that the spread of the deadly virus accelerates once more.

>> Parisians enjoy coffee, company and haircuts as lockdown lifted

At the ICI bookstore in central Paris, wearing a mask is compulsory and hand sanitizer is readily available to allow customers to pick up and flick through whichever book catches their eye.

"People are being careful not to touch the books too much. And we tell them that if they touch the books, they can but they must use the [sanitizing] gel each time," co-founder Anne-Laure Vial told Reuters.

The bookshop's 12 employees are back on the payroll after being temporarily furloughed, and the store has applied for two loans to help cover overhead costs.

Customers are also back "in large numbers", said Culture Minister Franck Riester, as he visited a bookshop in Vincennes, east of Paris, on the first day of France's déconfinement

"People have come to refill their bookshelves or buy presents for those whose birthdays could not be celebrated," a satisfied Riester told reporters.

France is a paradise for bibliophiles. Large chain booksellers exist, but independent bookstores are a ubiquitous feature of Parisian neighbourhoods.

Inside, the bustle of the French capital slows to a sedate tempo as patrons browse the shelves.

Protecting culture

France has jealously protected its cultural life and institutions for decades. The French notion of 'l'exception culturelle' means more than cultural exceptionalism — it points to the belief that national culture should be shielded from free-market forces.

Subsidies, quotas, income support and tax breaks help prop up French music, cinema and literature. There is also a law that prevents large bookstores and online retailers from slashing prices, in order to protect writers.

Even so, margins are tight.

"The difficulty comes if we don’t get enough business to cover our costs," said Vial, who is worried about a slow rebound. "We must hold on for several months. It’s not a given."

The government is aware of the perils they and others face.

"They have very weak margins, very weak profits, and so they could have trouble finding the finances to pay back loans," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said during a visit to a bookstore last week. "We could have a string of bankrupt bookstores. That's exactly what we want to avoid."

>> French teachers anxious as schools gradually reopen after Covid-19 lockdown

Browsing the ICI's shelves of comics among the 60,000 titles on sale was six-year-old Marcel di Nicola.

The lockdown, his mother Florence said, had been a rare opportunity to focus on reading.

"We don't leave him alone in front of the television. So as soon as homework is done, we need to find another activity and something he can do alone," she said.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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