France’s independent bookshops struggle to survive a second lockdown

A picture taken on May 6, 2020 shows books on display at the "Folies d'Encre" (Madness of Ink) bookstore in Montreuil, near Paris.
A picture taken on May 6, 2020 shows books on display at the "Folies d'Encre" (Madness of Ink) bookstore in Montreuil, near Paris. © Eric Piermont, AFP

Many are worried that France’s independent bookshops – already struggling against large retailers and online giants – may not survive being forced to close for a second Covid-19 lockdown.


Answer a few questions to join Europe Talks and debate with another European


France’s independent bookshops were forced to close as the country entered a second phase of lockdown on October 30 to stop the recrudescence of Covid-19 cases. Unions and others have criticised the decision and are organising initiatives to support booksellers.

“Since theatres and cinemas are closed, bookshops are the last place where you can have access to culture,” said Anne Martelle, president of the Union of French Booksellers. “Going to a bookshop is a low-risk cultural activity, so it’s a shame to stop it.”

In recent days, France’s cultural community has spared no effort in lobbying the government to keep bookshops open. The sector’s main unions issued a joint statement on October 28 asking the authorities to “leave them open so that the lockdown doesn’t lead to cultural isolation”.

Journalist and literary critic François Busnel launched a petition against their closure on Friday. Closing bookshops means “depriving us of the best weapon we have to fight malevolent ideas”, he told the Franceinfo media network, referring to the terrorist attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice the previous day. 

“There are millions of people in this country – and we could see it in the first lockdown – who want to read and need to read,” Busnel said. At the same time, closing bookshops means putting part of the cultural sector into “a precarious state, and in some cases, out of business”.

Busnel added that President Emmanuel Macron should meet with writers and representatives from the Union of French Booksellers so they could make their case for a reopening.

“At a point when so many of us feel stressed and isolated, books allow us to reflect on the nature of human life in all its aspects,” said Vincent Montagne, president of the National Union of Editors.

“It’s a fundamental good, essential for those whose hunger can’t be sated with food alone.” 

‘A big gift to Amazon  

The organisers of literary prizes have also lent their support to the campaign to keep bookshops open. France’s renowned Prix Goncourt, for example, has been “postponed indefinitely because bookshops will be closed”, said Françoise Rossinot, head of the Goncourt Academy, in comments to AFP. The prize is usually awarded in November.

“The prize should go ahead, for the sake of book sales,” Rossinot said. Seeing as bookshops have to close, book sales will have to continue online – via Amazon and French retail chain Fnac. 

“It’s a real blow to bookshops and a big gift to Amazon and Fnac, just a few weeks from the all-important Christmas season,” Martelle said.

In response to the outcry from booksellers, the government announced Friday that the book sections of supermarkets would close. Fnac closed the book departments at all of its locations for two weeks.    

Montagne said bookshops play a key role in promoting books that other retailers, such as Amazon, do not play.

“Independent bookshops make it possible to promote many new books that have a short lifespan and need to gain momentum,” he said. 

“We can’t just focus on bestsellers.”

Thin margins

In light of the damage the closures will do to the sector, the government has promised to re-evaluate the shutdown of bookshops in two weeks.

So far this year, France’s bookshops have experienced a “two-and-a-half-month operating loss” when one includes the impact of the previous lockdown, according to Martelle. This second lockdown can only make a bad situation worse, especially seeing as Christmas season sales usually “add up to 25 percent of a bookshop's annual turnover”.

Book sales rebounded following the end of the first lockdown and French bookshops benefitted from a €25 million grant from France’s culture ministry.

But booksellers already operate on extremely thin margins because French law restricts the price of books.

“Because of that, the slightest lockdown measures can quickly put a shop in bad financial condition,” Martelle said.

Meanwhile, click-and-collect – introduced during the first lockdown to allow customers to buy online and retrieve their books at the entrance to shops – only represents about 10 percent of turnover.

“There is a big risk that some French bookshops will not be open by Christmas,” said Montagne.

This article was translated from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning