Wednesday, May 18, 2011

‘Livres Modernes’ and ‘Livres Anciens’ in Lille

Having spent some 72 hours in Lille, the northern capital of France and Flanders we reflect not on the shopping, opera, marathon, Palais de la Beaux Arts, Wazemmes market, or even the fact that Saturday erupted as Lille beat PSG in the French football Cup Final but on books, bookshops and a different perspective on all things bookish.

First we had to visit Le Furet du Nord in Place du General de Gaulle. Billed as Europe’s largest bookshop it was like a Tardis and opened up into a cavernous space built cleverly around its central staircase with mezzanine floors, variable floor levels and all opening up into more and more ‘hidden’ rooms. Not since South Korea have we seen so many people enjoying a store. It was clearly more than just a bookshop with games, PCs, DVD, Music departments all attracting a young demographic. The books themselves were not overstocked and many enjoyed being faced out.

Not far away was what could only be described as the French equivalent to the UK bargain store ‘The Works’. In fact if we blinked we would have sworn it was the Works and it even had the blue signage. However, it was just books and very tidy. The shop itself was labelled ‘Le Discounteur De Livres Neuf’ but the books were still expensive compared to their UK equivalents.

Across from the Opera and our hotel was The Vieille Bourse, built in1653 as the old stock exchange, the central courtyard now operates as a rare, antiquarian and used book open market. A great location, stunning architecture, but still very expensive books.

Then there was the Euralille massive 90,000 square metre shopping complex between the two main train stations which housed a Carrefour hypermarket. Unlike US and UK free markets even the supermarkets can’t deep discount books in France. Undeterred, they still had a large section dedicated to books and all but thye best sellers were offered at 5% discount. So not being able to offer discounts didn’t deter Carrefour who probably still made sufficient turn on their footage and a healthy margin. If price maintenance were not in place these stores would obviously be more than capable of wiping out French booksellers.

Shopping in Lille is very European, closed on Sunday, often only open between 1400 and 1900 and even closed on Monday! Booksellers are no different!

Digital books didn’t appear to have reached Flanders and even Le Furet de Nord only had a small section, no bigger than the miserable space allotted by Waterstones. The selection of readers was almost identical and the attention given by staff also very similar. Interestingly, we saw no ereaders being used in Lille or on the Eurostar.

Finally, as if to remind us that we are in the 21st century there was the old bookshop of Emile Raoust & Co with the great signage above the door, ‘Livres Modernes’ and ‘Livres Anciens’, but inside the store now was a mobile retailer and the shop window no longer housed books but a big ad for an iPad2.

Europe is different and its culture is different and although change will happen but at its pace and within its cultural boundaries.

Next stop Oslo.

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