During my last stay in Paris, I had the great pleasure to meet Marie-Claire Pleros, bookseller at the bookshop “l’arbre à lettres”, the book tree, in my quartier in Paris. The bookshop is situated in 62 rue du Faubourg St. Antoine, just a couple of minutes from the Bastille. I visit the bookshop every time I am in Paris to discover some old and new French books. They have a lot of French literature, but also art books, books about Paris and they have a wonderful children’s books section. Marie-Claire was kind enough to consent to this interview that gives you an idea about the work and the worries of an independent bookshop in Paris.
Can you please tell me a bit about your bookshop, how long it has been around, if it is an independent bookshop or part of a chain, and what part you play in it?
“L’arbre à lettres” used to be a chain of bookstores in Paris. The first of its bookstores was founded in 1980, but some time ago, the chain was broken up and the bookshops became independent. In the summer of 2015, Actes Sud [one of bigger indie publishers in France] bought the “l’arbre à lettres” bookshop close to the Bastille. I am part of the management team of this bookshop and I worked in the Actes Sud bookshop in Calais before.
Who makes the decisions about the range, presentation and categories of your bookshop?
This is a group effort. Our team gets to decide which categories we use and we like to experiment with them. It is important to us that the categories add to the visibility of our books, that they are easy to understand to our customers – and we like to create “surprise effects” that lead to unexpected discoveries.
The programme of our shop, again, is a team effort. Our criteria include e.g. that our experts feel an affinity for the titles, but we also have a good sense of what our customers might like. And, thirdly, we want to make sure that we have a different programme than the library next door.
We have a very strong literature section and also carry unusual and highbrow titles. In addition, our size is also a distinctive feature – we are rather big and offer a wide selection.
Who are your clients?
We have a mix of regular clients and passing trade [the bookshop is very close to the lively Bastille district]. We know our regulars because they come in quite often – and we see their orders come in. In addition, we have a loyalty card.
How does your loyalty card work?
It’s a highly classical offer: after your fifth purchase you get a discount on the sixth purchase. The previous purchases are added up and we offer a 5% discount that we deduct from the sixth purchase. This is the maximum we can offer – in France we have a law, “la loi Lang”, that states that book prices are fixed. We can, however, offer 5% off.
Other discounts are only possible after 2 years or when a book is out of print.
How and where do you buy your books?
We buy our books directly from the publishing houses. We receive visits from sales representatives on a regular schedule and put our orders in. We don’t really deal with wholesalers, but rather with smaller distributors.
Some publishing houses have joined forces and sell via the same distributor. And bookshops are ranked according to their size and importance. This position gives you more or less power to negotiate prices with the publishing houses – and the negotiations are very hard. The book chain is very tight.
Do you organise events in your bookshop? And if so, what kind of events and how many?
Yes, we do organise events. Usually four per month, but sometimes even more. This can be classical readings or readings and discussions with the author of a book. But we sometimes invite several authors to a joint event, e.g. a poetry reading, and we also have events where we combine music and a reading.
The decisions who we want to invite and what kind of event we want to create are taken by the team. And in the end, the events are organised and carried out by the team members. It is a lot of work.
How important are events for your bookshop?
These events are very important for us. They increase the visibility of our books and they increase our sales. Because in the end, we have to cater to our love for literature and the need to make money; “c’est la passion et le commerce”.
In Paris, there is a lot of competition for people’s attention. In Calais, it was a lot easier to draw a big crowd to our events.
What do you perceive of as the biggest challenge?
To make people understand that entering a bookshop is an engagement, a political act.
To me, a big challenge is to make people understand what a book is and what kind of work goes into it. What a great freedom we get through bibliodiversity.
The challenge at the moment is to survive as a bookshop in a context where commerce is dematerialised.
What we try to do is to make people interact with authors, bookshop people and others in the field to increase the esteem for their work. Books are cultural objects and this needs to be defended: “Ce sont des objets culturels à défendre.”
If you could make a wish, what would it be?
I wish I were able to see into the future.
The book chain is very tight at present and many people are scared to make wrong decisions and drown. I would love to know in what direction we are moving in this field in order to make the right choices.
My wish is to come out stronger of this challenging period and to be able to continue to offer great books and reading experiences.
Apparently, Marie-Claire and her team are making many very good choices already. The bookshop is a lively place, the selection is amazing, and there is a lot to discover. Next time you’re in Paris, drop by: 62 rue du Faubourg St. Antoine, 75012 Paris (www.arbrealettres.com)