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A French revolution of a bookish sort Add to ...

For more than 30 years, Marie-Jo Grandjean has spent her days and many of her nights amid the organized clutter of her tiny Left Bank shop where art books crowd every available surface and shelf right up to the high ceiling.

Infused with that distinctive smell of fragile paper and old bindings, the store has been her life. But she always worried, she said, whether it would live on without her. In the past decade, five other independent booksellers within blocks of her shop have shut their doors, victims of rising rents and rapid gentrification.

The story is the same across the historic Latin Quarter, with its zigzag streets, medieval university buildings and, increasingly, big brand-name clothing stores. In 2000, according to a survey by the city of Paris, the district boasted 300 independent bookstores, many of them quirky specialty shops. Now, there are just 170.

In a city that thinks of itself as a capital of culture, the decline is seen as a full-fledged emergency.

To reverse the trend and revive the small bookseller tradition, Paris has taken on the role of landlord - but a landlord with a one-track mind. Through one of its redevelopment agencies, the city has been buying up property and commercial leases in the Latin Quarter and renting them to bookstores.

Ms. Grandjean, who opened Courant d'Art in the late 1970s after abandoning her dream of being a flamenco dancer, is one of the first to benefit from the project. Last year, she decided she needed cash to help care for her elderly mother. But she feared that if she sold the store, a new landlord would ultimately convert it into a high-rent boutique. Instead, the city bought the shop and now rents it back to her at a below-market rate.

More important, in her eyes and that of the city, the terms of the sale specified that the space will never be used for anything other than a bookstore, no matter who leases it.

"It's extraordinary, what they're doing, isn't it?" said Ms. Grandjean, who presides over an inventory of about 100,000 rare and old art and photography books. "It allows people to stay in touch with culture, and culture to be transmitted to people."

The quasi-governmental agency that runs the bookstore rescue program is called Semaest, created 17 years ago to redesign neighbourhoods in transition. Elsewhere in Paris, it buys up leases and storefronts to counter what it calls "mono-activity," installing a mix of small businesses in areas dominated by a single trade such as wholesale garment manufacturers. In the Latin Quarter, the aim is to bring in and preserve only book-related commercial activity.

"A bookseller is not just any old business," said Jean-Paul Albertini, the director-general of Semaest. "And the Latin Quarter historically has been home to the biggest concentration of bookstores as well as publishing houses. They are part of the area's identity."

Unlike in many countries, the problems of independent bookshops do not appear to be related to competition from big chains or online vendors. French bookstores' sales have remained steady over the years and even grew by about 1.5 per cent in 2009, with Internet purchases representing just 7 per cent of the total.

"Outside the neighbourhood, the business is stable," Mr. Albertini said. "The problem inside is the real-estate market. Rents have skyrocketed as big clothing and shoe retailers have moved in. Semaest offers a variety of subsidies and assistance, including the first three months of occupancy at no charge and rents at below-market rates. The agency acquires properties either by buying up vacant space outright or by stepping in to pre-empt any private sale or lease. Vigilant residents often alert the city when a store is changing hands or a tenant leaves. "But sometimes we only learn about it once it's done," Mr. Albertini said. "A bookstore may still disappear without our knowing about it."

So far, the agency has spent about €3-million to buy space in the Latin Quarter that it now rents to two bookshops and a small publishing company that specializes in hard-to-find literary classics. Four other property purchases are in the works.

Alexandre de Nunez, an Argentine-born radio journalist, bid successfully to take over a space that Semaest bought from the owner of an electronics store near the Panthéon.

He just opened El Salon del libro, an airy art-filled specialty bookshop dedicated to Spanish-language works and French translations of Latin American authors. The only other surviving bookstore of its kind had moved out of the Latin Quarter six years ago.

"People are still buying books," Mr. de Nunez said. "That's not the problem. The big problem is the rents in this neighbourhood. You'd have to sell books at three times the normal price to be able to pay some of these rents."

The Latin Quarter redevelopment project is in line with other French government programs to support the industry.

Book prices, for example, are fixed at the publishers' price and Internet vendors cannot discount books by more than 5 per cent off the cover price. The National Book Centre, another government agency, provides no-interest loans and subsidies to independent bookshops as well as publishing houses.

"There's a general climate of protection for the underdog and small businesses," said Brian Spence, the owner of the Abbey Bookshop who moved his business from Toronto to the Latin Quarter 20 years ago.

Paris remains a book lover's mecca, he added, but independent booksellers have trouble competing with the big designer fashion stores that have been moving onto their traditional turf. "These stores come because the neighbourhood has such cachet, which is ironic because the Latin Quarter has become more charming because of the booksellers," Mr. Spence said.

The city's Semaest agency has an overall budget of €34-million for all its neighbourhood redesign projects. But Mr. Albertini, its director, said he does not have a specific spending plan for the Latin Quarter. Nor does he think in terms of how many bookstores would be enough bookstores for the neighbourhood.

"We don't have a numerical or percentage goal," he said. "Our job is to stop the decline, to re-energize and to create the right conditions."

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