The small bookshop where you are always welcome is an essential part of life

September 11th, 2008

I was in Paris last week for my birthday, and the Rentree was just beginning to happen; the sand was swept up from the banks of the Seine, and the little artisan boulangeries were baking again.

I had my godchildren with me, and we spent a long time in my favourite bookshop in all the world – Shakespeare and Company, opposite Notre Dame. I packed the kids off to the Second Hand Children’s Section, as it is called, bringing to mind woeful pictures of orphans up for recycling, while I had a glass of champagne with the owner. That, to me, is a civilised bookshop.

French independent bookshops stay in business because the French don’t allow the chainstores to undercut on price by more than 5%. This brilliant idea means that small shops thrive. It is evident that when not driven by price alone, most readers prefer the store in their own quatier, where the owner will make conversation as well as recommendations, and where you can borrow an umbrella when it rains, and sit outside on a bench when it doesn’t.

Sarkozy is said to want to scrap this admirable model, and do business the Anglo-Saxon way, borrowed from the Viking raiders who used to terrorise our shores – take what you want – sell what you can – trash the rest

I am keen to preserve what is good in life, and that is often at odds with what is most profitable in life. Leaving aside the price arguments about supermarkets, bookshops have, or should have, a special place in our culture. We need books, and books are best browsed in the energetic peace of a small store where the owner loves reading, just like we do.

When I was at Shakespeare and Company, a boy of about nineteen wanted a book he could not afford. He really wanted the book, and he really could not afford it. So Sylvia, who owns the store, asked him if he would come back later, shift boxes, help with the poetry event they were running –and then he could take the book.

I am sure this breaks all the rules, but it mends the jagged gap between love and money. We need money, but not everything is about money, and books, even though they are bought and sold, are essentially about love.

No, I don’t mean the memoirs of Paris Hilton or the latest airport thriller, anyone can get those anywhere, at any price, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that real books belong to the heart not the pocket, and there has to be a way of letting that be.

I know that the Internet is great for ordering whatever it is you need by tomorrow morning, and I am not trying to turn back the clock, I am trying to hold on to what is valuable – even if it doesn’t make much money.

In my previous column I wrote about the chilling man I had met by mistake, who advises companies on how to be more efficient, and who said that an arts degree was useless to society. I fear it is exactly that sort of man, unelected, unaccountable, one-sided and uncultured, who ‘advises’ those in power that the free market can solve everything. Why would he care about independent bookstores? And he would argue that most of the population doesn’t care either.

As the kids go back to school, and to many a syllabus where they don’t have to read a book all the way through any more, how can they learn to value what society seems to be saying has no value?

The opposite of culture is barbarism – and it is much easier to achieve. There is no point moaning about feral kids on the streets when we reckon that a diet of shopping malls, moron TV and Nintendo Wii will do fine until their vocational education funnels them into a job. Culture is a process of osmosis. If it is around, if it is clearly desirable and clearly valued, then kids will look that way.

The poet Tony Harrison talks about the Rhubarbarians. I love that; they are the ones who have nothing to say but talk a lot. They are the true chattering classes who hide their total lack of culture under democratic phrases like ‘elitist’ or ‘minority interest’.

Books are for everyone. Culture is for everyone. There is no need to apologise. No need to explain. The small bookshop where you are always welcome is an essential part of life.