Amidst the canyons

Friday, November 25th, 2016

  • Sitting amidst overflowing shelves and precarious stacks of books, one could be forgiven for thinking The Abbey Bookshop owner, Brian Spence, is hiding among the wonderful words that surround him on the pages of the many thousands of books that cram his Latin Quarter bookshop in Paris.

    I stumbled upon this charming English language bookshop quite by accident yesterday, so taken was I with its narrow canyons of stories and knowledge, that I simply had to return to the shop today to photograph it and speak to Brian.

    The Abbey Bookshop has been in the former Hotel Dubuisson on rue de la Parcheminerie for more than 25 years. It’s an English language bookstore, like the more well known Shakespeare and Company bookshop by the Seine River, but Brian himself speaks not only English and French, but Italian and Spanish too.

    After running a bookshop of the same name in Toronto, Canada, Brian opened The Abbey Bookshop in 1989. The laneway it sits on was originally named rue des Escrivains for the scribes and scriveners who were said to be the heart of the Parisian book trade. However, in the late Middle Ages Parchmentmakers replaced them, and the street name was changed to rue de la Parcheminerie, which seems a felicitous address for a bookshop.

    I don’t read many books myself, but for some reason I love being in bookstores like The Abbey Bookshop. There’s something wonderful about being surrounded by all that knowledge and imagination, captured and held in place on the page.

    Here the shelves roll from side to side to reveal yet more bookshelves behind them. From floor to ceiling there’s no space that hasn’t been filled with books. Some are new, many are second hand, and they’re all carefully cataloged and placed. The basement is similarly crowded, and in fact the shop is so crammed that it has now spilled out onto the narrow laneway where the casual browser can freely make themselves a cup of tea or coffee under a large Canadian flag.

    Brian and I discuss the plight of bookshops for a while, something that, on reflection, he must be well and truly tired of talking about with foreigners who visit his shop and comment how their town doesn’t have stores like this anymore. Nevertheless, Brian is gracious and talks to me about The Abbey Bookshop.

    Independent bookstores, like this one, are a much loved part of the social fabric of French life, considered by many to be equally as important as their love of food and wine. In 1981, a regulation designed to protect independent bookshops, barred discounting books by more than five percent of the price set by the publisher.

    More recently, after France’s culture minister branded Amazon a “destroyer of bookshops,” the French government passed their so-called ‘anti-Amazon’ law. It forced the multinational online retailer to charge for shipping or face being banned from selling in France completely.

    However, the sweet taste of success in that decade long dispute with Amazon quickly soured when the retailer merely replaced free shipping with a charge of €0.01 per dispatch, regardless of the amount of books purchased.

    Despite battles with Amazon and the unstoppable invasion of technology into seemingly every moment of our lives, Paris is still a city that loves to read. With more than 700 independent bookshops throughout the city, one is never far from the warmth of a “librairie” in which they can browse contemporary titles or touch pages printed, quite literally, hundreds of years ago.

    See a video from inside The Abbey Bookshop. It will give you a better idea of the space if you’re curious.

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