Oct 28th, 2020, 12:25 PM

Paris's English Bookstores Adapt to COVID

By Emilyn Snyder
San Francisco Book Co. Image Credit: Emily Snyder
How are anglophone bookstores surviving amidst this year's lockdowns, curfews and stay at home orders?

English bookstores in Paris are one of the many forms of business struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic. In an industry built on analog products, shop owners must find ways to make up for the loss of in-person traffic and sales. 

“The government hasn’t helped very much so far," says Jim Carroll, the owner of a used English bookstore called the San-Francisco Book Co. located in the 6th arrondissement. "They have given me a subsidy to help with salaries but it’s not much. They are offering loans, but I so far have chosen not to borrow any money.” A large part of the store’s business used to be attributed to tourists, but since March, that form of revenue has virtually disappeared. As a result, San Francisco Book Co. has had to adapt. 

A crowded bookstore. Image Credit: Unsplash/Glen Noble

“I think the retail sales of regular customers will never return to what it was. So, I am adjusting my business to be primarily online," explained Carroll. "I can keep the shop open in order to buy books and be of service to the city and the neighborhood; but it’s the online sales which will, in a sense, subsidy this aspect of the business.” Carroll has been building up the store's online business over the course of 23 years as a supplementary stream of revenue. But now, during the pandemic, he does most of his business through the Internet.

“We have our own website and we also list on other bookselling sites — this business has increased since the lockdown for COVID. [The website] is what keeps the shop running now. This was a bit of a surprise,” said Carroll. Given their unexpected popularity, online sales are now the store's main focus. Customers can still go to the shop in person, but more often than not, it's repeat customers who visit. In this regard, the bookstore isn't attracting any new buyers. 

Not every bookstore is doing better online though. The Red Wheelbarrow, another English bookstore that is located in the 6th arrondissement, actually has more people buying out of the bookstore. The shop specializes in ordering books for its customers and sends them a message as soon as they've received it. One of AUP's own professors, Biswamit Dwibedy, orders books from the store for his Advanced Creative Writing course. If one needs a specific copy of a book, no matter how difficult it may be to find, The Red Wheelbarrow can track it down.

Out of ten AUP students asked, five have visited the Red Wheelbarrow and three of those five have also visited the San Francisco Book Co. It seems both locations are helping to satisfy students' literary needs. 

The Red Wheelbarrow. Image Credit: Emilyn Snyder

“People need books for lockdowns, curfews and staying at home in general. They want to make sure they always have books at home," said Penelope Fletcher, the owner of The Red Wheelbarrow. "People also don't like ordering off Amazon as they disagree with the politics of the company.” But despite having the advantage of being a locally owned business, The Red Wheelbarrow is not necessarily doing any better than they were before the pandemic. Although the store has a website, their sales come uniquely from special order and in-person purchases. This meant that the store had to request help from the French government.

“We did get the business loan from the government that we will have to pay back in a year from now," said Fletcher. The French government has guaranteed up to 90 percent of loans for all small businesses, to be paid within a year, but beyond that not much more help has been provided.

Although times are hard, bookstores are surviving, and will probably continue to survive. Whether they are enduring with the help of online endeavors or outside financial aid, as Carroll says, "books will always sell and Paris is full of books."