Photograph by Jacqueline Feldman.
“With a diving suit and helmet,” said Yannick Poirier, the owner of Tschann bookstore on the boulevard Montparnasse, where he has worked for thirty-five years, “and with dark glasses, earplugs, and a plan for survival and retreat to the countryside. I hate sport. That’s personal, but I hate sport, and I have a horror of circus games, and, how to put this. You are American? So you know Jean Baudrillard. For us he was a friend, Jean Baudrillard. So he has The Consumer Society, like Debord has The Society of the Spectacle, and all that sticks to us like shit. No, frankly, the Olympic Games—for me they leave me neither hot nor cold. They leave me totally indifferent.”
“There are books about sport,” offered a bookseller at Le Genre urbain, “but they are very distant disciplines, all the same.”
“If there are any,” they said at Le Monte-en-l’air, “and if they are good, we have them.” This clerk, like their counterpart at Le Genre urbain, was “against” the Olympics (“in a personal capacity,” they added at Le Genre urbain). Both bookstores, singled out for questioning out of the city’s hundreds, are in the twentieth arrondissement.
“We’ll of course have a few books,” they said at Les Traversées, “but in a corner.”
“We are not going to decorate the bookstore,” said Anne-Sophie Hanich, managing Les Nouveautés.
“The Olympic Games,” said Gildas, his first name, at Les Traversées, which is half-buried in the hill of the rue Mouffetard (“I detest my family name”), “are not the most important thing.”
“We have other things to think about,” they said at Le Merle moqueur, on the rue de Bagnolet. “We have other problems right now.”
“Literature, first of all,” Gildas went on. “And then, well. Thought, imagination, reflection, beauty, love.”
“The problem of getting clients to come in. Social problems.” At Le Merle moqueur, the clerk wrapped a book for gifting.
“You think an independent bookstore isn’t a business like any other?” Olivier Delautre at La Cartouche, where his own trade has been, for sixteen years, in antique and used books, was leaning back in a low chair, letting it tilt. As a bouquiniste, Delautre sets himself apart from peddlers of new books, whom he sees as profit-minded. “These are small people,” he said, “who are there to carry boxes.” His colleagues who sell out of iconic boxes along the Seine have mobilized against a prefectural injunction to remove themselves ahead of next year’s opening ceremony (for the reason, the prefecture told them, of “terrorism” risk). “I sell principally old books,” Delautre said, “published at a time when sports did not exist.”
At the Librairie des Abbesses, Marie-Rose Guarniéri, who had been described to me at Les Traversées as the grand dame of the Parisian bookstore, told me to come back in fifteen minutes and, by the time I did, was in a fury. I had been expecting her to speak to me of her own métier without making an appointment, she accused. “You must make an appointment,” she repeated. “I am not some button you can just push,” she said.
“At the moment it’s still a little early,” said Chafik Bakiri, the owner of Equinoxe, where “eighty percent” of stock is secondhand books. “Currently I don’t have any ideas.”
“I know that during the Olympic Games we will do strictly nothing other than what we’ve been doing for ninety years,” said Poirier.
“Nothing,” Gildas said. “And so it’s simple.”
“Old posters,” Bakiri mused. “Objects, medals, I don’t know.”
“Maybe we’ll do one window about sports,” said Hanich. “Maybe some French flags.”
“I live in Saint-Denis,” they said at Le Monte-en-l’air, “and we’ll be particularly affected.” The suburb just north of Paris, its name—like the name of the poorest department in mainland France, the 93, where it is situated—is in wide use as a metonym for institutional neglect and the suffering of whole communities; the national stadium, located there, will be one of the principal sites for the 2024 Summer Olympics (“the biggest event ever organised in France,” according to official messaging). Leaving Le Monte-en-l’air, I saw the window was lined by copies of On ne dissout pas un soulèvement, Seuil’s new release by forty authors writing in support of Soulèvements de la Terre, a collection of groups in France organized around local environmental causes. In the 93 in Aubervilliers, local activists have been partially successful in defending community gardens against their demolition to make way for, among other things, the Paris Olympics Aquatics Centre.
“Now we know,” said Xavier Capodano, after making me a coffee, espresso, in an office at Le Genre urbain, which he founded. (“Relax,” he said as we went back there. “I’m not nice, but I’m not going to eat you.”) “Thirty or forty years ago, we didn’t know where we were going.”
Capodano was referring explicitly to the link between runaway construction and “the planet’s quality of life.” It was a summer of, once again, high temperatures everywhere (with the notable exception of Paris, where it has rained almost every day); of service outages along the Paris metro for planned work (“The Line 5 is closed,” I complained to a friend, “between Gare du Nord and the rest of the world”); and of, in this city definingly, the death of Nahel Merzouk, seventeen, shot in the chest by a Paris-region policeman during a traffic stop. “I’m not convinced,” I heard, “of the book’s role in the revolution.” This was from a worker at a bookstore in the east of Paris who asked me to identify it in that way only. They had the sense, they said, that their “role in society,” their part in its duties of care, had been greater when they were on unemployment. They had time then to participate in a neighborhood group like a soup kitchen, which was organized horizontally (so that “there wasn’t any distinction” between volunteer and beneficiary). Not anymore. “We’re a business,” they said of the bookstore, “before anything else.” And so the store retained a certain “expressive space” in being able to, say, “do a bit of publicity for Soulèvements de la Terre,” but to the worker this did not seem, at all times, adequate. We spoke in a courtyard of modern, unfancy construction, unplanted. “The moments of radical transformation of society I’ve had the chance to see have been more in its insurrectional phases,” they said, “and I haven’t necessarily seen insurrectional phases opened up immediately from reading books…”
“In the abstract,” said Anne, “literature can do anything it likes.” A retired sociology professor, she was volunteering at Quilombo, a “bookstore of the extreme left, anarchist in fact.”
“It’s not my place to judge what literature should or shouldn’t do,” said Capodano. “Literature does what it wants. It lives its life.”
“For me,” said Poirier, as if demonstrating a last, important capacity of literature, “it’s as if the Olympic Games did not exist.”
Jacqueline Feldman is a writer living in Massachusetts. Precarious Lease, her book about Paris, is forthcoming from Rescue Press.
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