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Can Independent Bookstores Survive?

July 08, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The closure of a storied independent bookstore in Paris illustrates the impact of new media on booksellers, and its potential to alter the physical landscape of historic places.

A Bookstore With a Past

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Brentano’s English-language bookstore on Avenue de l’Opera had been in existence since 1895 and drew the likes of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. But the old shop could no longer pay the rent, according to Charles Bremner of The Times of London, and shut its doors at the end of June. Though the closure isn't terribly surprising, given the harsh economic climate and stiff competition independent booksellers face from online retailers such as Amazon, what's notable is the power of the digital world to influence treasured physical landscapes.

Bremner reports that local owners had taken over the store some time ago, freeing it from the New York-based Brentano’s, which is now owned by the Borders Group. The shop had a colorful past: It was closed by Nazi occupiers in 1940 and at the beginning of the occupation, it supplied a German library official with more than 6,000 books, including “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “some expensive erotica,” according to Brentano’s Web site.

Opinion & Analysis: What makes an independent bookstore successful?

A similar perseverance and survival instinct is seen in other independent booksellers, which continue opening shops despite the hardships. Innovation also seems crucial.

Bookseller David Del Vecchio, for example, told The New York Times City Room blog that he hoped specialization and a sense of community would set his store apart. “I don't think it can be a chain store but smaller and cuter—it has to have a strong concept,” he told the Times. The new generation of independent bookstores also feature a sleeker aesthetic and fresher atmosphere than their predecessors, according to The Times.

Background: Competition from non-bookstores and the Web

In June, Simba Information released its report on “Trends in Trade Book Retailing,” which “provides a detailed assessment and size estimate of the book industry through the lens of the four channels: Bookstores, the Internet, book clubs, and ‘other,’” according to its press release.

The report revealed that more adults in the United States have bought books from a “non-bookstore physical retail location” than online, which has created “a volatile situation for the entire industry,” according to Michael Norris, senior analyst at Simba Information.

Related Topic: How media alters the physical landscape

The closure of Brentano’s is indicative of wider changes in Paris, brought on by the city’s need to compete with increasingly digitized and tech-friendly metropolises such as those in Central Europe and the U.S.

In a 2006 article for the Los Angeles Times, Alissa J. Rubin discussed Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's mission to offer free Wi-Fi throughout Paris, including at cafes once considered Hemingway’s stomping grounds. Delanoe hoped to draw “young people” and “new business” to the French capital through enhanced technology, Rubin wrote.

Historical Context: The occupation of France; Avenue de l'Opera

France spent much of World War II occupied by German forces. Adolf Hitler ordered the German forces in Paris to fight to the very end, and if the city couldn't be defended, to burn it and destroy the landmarks.

The troops, led by Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, spread explosives throughout the city. But von Choltitz ultimately refused to follow those orders, and on Aug. 25, 1944, Allied forces joined the French Resistance to liberate Paris from Nazi occupation.

The Avenue de l’Opera opened in 1864 after nearly ten years of construction, but was not given its name until 1873; initially, the street was named “Avenue Napoleon,” according to BibliOdyssey. Construction for the roadway ultimately cost $9.8 million, and resulted in 168 destroyed homes.

The Avenue de l’Opera is the only avenue in Paris without any trees. According to The Paris Traveler, the reasoning “was not to obstruct the view of the famous Opéra house by Charles Garnier.”

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