Troubles of famed Paris bookshop expose French retail shift

With its bright yellow awning, the Gibert Jeune bookshop on Place Saint Michel in Paris is a familiar landmark to anyone who has ever whiled away a few hours wandering around the Latin Quarter. Generations of students have come to buy textbooks in the six-floor warren. 

Now it looks like the shop — the biggest of several in the area belonging to the same family-owned firm founded in 1886 as a bouquiniste on the quays of the Seine — may not survive the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The company has taken steps towards closing down the Place St Michel store by next March after the building itself was sold this summer, according to French media. Exact plans are sketchy since negotiations with unions over the store’s workers are still ongoing.

Its problems are not only due to the virus, although the absence of tourists and students has decimated footfall. The truth is Gibert Jeune and its sister company Gibert Joseph have been in trouble for years because they were slow to adapt to the digital era, and lost ground to Amazon.

The pandemic has mercilessly exposed bricks-and-mortar retailers in France who can no longer get away with ignoring ecommerce.

Paris is still home to many independent shops selling everything from guitars to books, but they are struggling as consumers buy more online, encouraged by three months of lockdowns. While almost 85 per cent of French small businesses have websites, only 26 per cent actually sold online, according to a 2019 government survey. The web has also demolished the protection once offered by strict urban planning rules that impede chain stores from proliferating in city centres.

While the looming closure of Gibert Jeune has prompted mourning among many book-loving Parisians, less noticed has been that many stores in the area have already closed. Covid-19 has left deep scars on the urban landscape. I recently counted 12 empty storefronts along Boulevard St Michel, on the less than one-kilometre stretch from the fountain to Luxembourg gardens. Three were apparel stores that filed for a court-protected restructuring this year, such as Naf Naf and André.

The Gibert Jeune bookshop pictured in 1956 © Gamma-Keystone/Getty

The closures reflect just how fast the commercial real estate market is resetting in certain parts of the French capital. Beyond the visible vacancies, there are also many businesses that are choosing not to renew leases, according to real estate experts. 

“I’ve never seen as much available space on the market in my 25-year career,” said Christian Dubois, who heads retail services for Cushman & Wakefield in France. “It will be a disaster if empty storefronts stay empty for a long time.”

Despite those worries, the shock to the commercial real estate market could be a good thing for Paris. Rents on stores and offices had been climbing for years in Europe’s densest city. Led by the likes of Zara and H&M, retail businesses were constantly seeking to increase square metres to serve local shoppers and the 50m tourists who visited a year before Covid-19. 

That all now needs to be rethought. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online shopping, boosted remote work and decimated international tourism. Each of these changes has a knock-on effect on footfall on city streets and neighbourhoods.

Some changes may prove temporary but others are structural. The problem is that right now, it is hard to tell which is which. The coming arrival of vaccines may well scramble people’s behaviour again.

One thing is clear though: property experts predict a correction to commercial real estate prices. When rents fall, entrepreneurs will try new things in neighbourhoods they earlier could not afford.

A grocery store near my office recently opened up a co-working space on its previously disused second floor above the aisles of cereals, fresh fruit and laundry soap. It is a bit weird, but the desks are clean, bright and much cheaper than WeWork.

For another sign of hope, look no further than Renny Aupetit, an independent bookstore owner who bought another Gibert Jeune store on the right bank. He plans to spend €1.5m in renovations before reopening as the Co-operative of Ideas where employees are part owners and books on social issues and the environment have top billing.

“I want it to be an emblematic place that gives hope that bookshops have a future if they reinvent themselves,” he told a Les Echos podcast. If he can pull it off, the spirit of Gibert Jeune will live on.

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