0604 GMT October 28, 2021
Gibert Jeune once attracted long queues of students in search of cheap secondhand books before the start of each academic year; most students who have studied in Paris will have paid a visit to the six-floor shop at some point to find a book for their course. The family-owned company was founded in 1886 and started out as a bookstall on the banks of the Seine, quickly expanding into several shops in the fifth arrondissement, selling a mixture of new and secondhand books. Its bright yellow awnings along the Boulevard St. Michel became a familiar landmark of the Latin Quarter, historically Paris’s literary and intellectual neighborhood, and home to the Sorbonne, the Guardian reported.
Now, with sales down 60% due to the pandemic, the chain’s most iconic shop – 5 Place Saint-Michel – will be closing as part of a restructuring plan, after the owner of the building decided to sell. It follows the move of Boulinier, another much-loved bookshop, which was forced to leave its historic location due to rising rents. Meanwhile the centuries-old bouquinistes just across the road on the quays of the Seine are struggling to survive.
The pandemic has emptied the area of people for months. “COVID-19 arrived and suddenly there were no more tourists and no more students,” said Rodolphe Bazin de Caix, marketing manager of Gibert Jeune.
When France was put into a second lockdown in October, there was a huge outcry from booksellers, who asked to be treated as essential services and remain open. Shakespeare and Company, one of Paris’s most famous bookshops and a neighbor of Gibert Jeune, appealed to customers for help as it faced “hard times”: customers and well-wishers around the world piled in with purchases and donations to save the shop.
But it is not just the virus that has weakened Gibert Jeune. Before the pandemic, disruption caused by the gilet jaunes demonstrations and transport strikes reduced footfall in the Place Saint-Michel. Gibert Jeune and its sister company Gibert Joseph have also been slow to react to the threat of Amazon; while the French secondhand book market is booming, trade has mostly been captured by online platforms.
“Gibert Jeune is not dead,” said De Caix, but it’s having to reinvent itself. The first Gibert Jeune bookshop, opposite Notre-Dame, is staying put. The company is currently renovating its shop in the 10th arrondissement, after an independent bookstore owner’s project to buy it and make it into a “co-operative of ideas” failed. There are even plans to open at least four smaller Gibert Jeunes, spread out across the city, by April. In any case, the future lies not in the tourist centre, but in residential neighborhoods.