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PARIS

Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze

Battered by Covid and online sales, one of Paris's best-known book sellers Gibert Jeune is to shut up shop in the city's historic literary and intellectual heart, a stone's throw from the banks of the Seine where the family-owned firm started out over 130 years ago.

Paris Latin Quarter booksellers feel the squeeze
The Gibert Jeune flagship store in Paris's Place Saint Michel is set to close after struggling to survive during the pandemic. Photo: Hugo Mathy/AFP

The planned demise of the Gibert flagship shop in the Place Saint-Michel, as well as others nearby, follows the loss of the Boulinier shop last year.

On the Left Bank of the Seine, Paris’s Latin quarter houses the Sorbonne.

It has been a haunt of scholars since the middle ages and boasts dozens of
booksellers.

But today with its slew of franchised stores — Levi’s, Celio, Sephora — along the Boulevard Saint Michel running from the banks of the Seine to the Sorbonne, critics charge the area has become just another bland global retail strip.

The iconic Boulinier, a fixture on the same boulevard since the 19th century, was forced to move its main store to smaller premises last June due to rising rents.

Faced with competition from online sales and internet giant Amazon, 43 percent of the quarter’s bookstores have vanished in 20 years, according to figures from the urban planning agency Apur.

The Latin Quarter, the centre of a 1968 student revolt, remains a major university hub, although fewer than 10,000 students are now said to live there.

Gradually, the centre of Paris is becoming gentrified, dominated by tourists while university faculties “decentre”, increasingly gravitating toward the suburbs, says Francois Mohrt, a town planner at Apur.

People look at books at the Gibert Jeune bookstore in Paris in 1951. Photo: AFP

Smallest buck the trend

As France’s first independent bookseller, the Gibert group’s flagship shop has been in the Place Saint-Michel for as long as anyone can remember.

It plans to close four of its six Gibert Jeune shops located not far from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Surrounded by already half empty bookshelves, one of the 69 employees whose jobs are due to disappear told AFP: “It’s brutal, but we didn’t expect to last 10 years.”

In 2020, the pandemic emptied the Place Saint-Michel of tourists. Then Bruno Gibert, a former head of the group, sold the building housing the largest bookshop.

In an attempt to help, the city authorities via their semi-public company Semeast are proposing rents slightly below market rates and relocation with a focus on a model that works — small local bookshops that can also offer refreshments, according to official Olivia Polski.

The initiative is based on the discovery that in Paris, as in the rest of the country, it is local bookshops which are offering the sector a glimmer of hope.

According to the Union of French Bookshops (SLF), independent bookshops have since 2017 returned to growth, despite a slight decline in 2020, down 3.3 percent, due to three months of closures during the Covid lockdowns.

A woman walks past a closed bookstore in Paris on October 30, 2020, on the first day of a second national lockdown. Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP

Small booksellers, with turnovers of less than 300,000 euros a year, are making the most progress with sales jumping by 15 percent in the past year.

For the SLF’s Guillaume Husson “there is a social aspect which is essential today if you want your bookshop to work”.

And it’s that human relationship between the bookshop and its customers that is one of the most important things book lovers are seeking from “smallscale sellers”, he added.

The same lesson has not been lost on the Gibert group. It will keep its six-floor shop next to the Sorbonne but rules out any new opening in the Latin quarter.

And it is considering opening bookshops of “less than 150 square metres” in outlying Paris districts and possibly in the suburbs, although “the basic question of rents will have to be addressed first”, said general manager Marc Bittore.

Member comments

  1. Before Covid and hopefully after, Paris bookshops are one of the main places I visit on several occasions during my annual two-week visits. I have been coming to France and Paris every year since 1964 and I take the occasion to stock up on my French language books. My main go-to librairie is Ecume Des Pages on Blvd St. Gemain just a door west of the Cafe de Flore. Also there was a new bookstore that defied the tide of closures and opened by two women in the Grands Boulevards that I visited for the first time in 2019 called Ici at 25 Blvd Poissoniere. I can’t imagine any city in any country without its independent bookshops. Our smaller ones here in Toronto are doing better and seem to be surviving so size right now seems to be important. The big chains seem to be having a harder time and are turning more into department stores specializing in books like our Chapters-Indigo chain in Canada. Please hang on. I need you when I come to Paris. I’ll be there as soon as I can to spend my money and support you. Michael Dorman. Toronto.

    1. Your comment mirrors my thoughts. Hopefully, someday soon we will be able to return and enjoy Paris again. Zoe

    2. I feel exactly the same. Every paris visit includes browsing my bookstore itinerary, and gibert is a prominent stop. St Michel is being turned by tourism into the banal set of chain outlets which reek of anonymity. I shall be spending money at whatever remains of Gibert as soon as France allows me to return.

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ENVIRONMENT

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities

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