Postcards from France - books and bouquinistes in Paris
Do you love reading about France? I absolutely do! I also like to read French classics in my own time but reading has to be its own pleasure and I have gradually become one of those readers who will put the book down if it just doesn't work out for me. I no longer plough through hoping that by chapter 23 it's going to improve.
I read a LOT of books about France as I build my Francophile library and so that I can share great books with you, my dear reader! I've shared the Top 10 French cookery books on the blog for those who want to explore regional French food and baking. I'm working on a few more "top ten" lists whether you're planning to travel within / to France, move there or want to be immersed in all things French and France wherever you are. Reflecting on the mix of books spilling out of my bookcases has been interesting...
So today, I want to share a moment with a book really. Whether at a café people-watching and intermittently reading, dining alone with a book, engrossed in some summer story by the pool or beach or curled up in a favourite chair with a new found gem, books transport us. None more so, I think, than the small paperback that's light and easy to carry with you. Handbag or pocket, bike bag or basket, the paperback is easy to take with you. Commuting endless hours on the métro or train makes it almost mandatory to have something to read and I suspect a paperback is a great prop for those conversations you don't want to have with strangely chatty tourists or people seated next to you too (hardened city commuter talking. 😂)
Where do you like to read? In today's postcard from France, it's the handy little Livre de poche and some classic booksellers that we're revelling in. Have you heard of the bouquinistes?
Hachette launched these handy little volumes in the 1950s and they remind me a great deal of the Penguin Classics I used to search for in the secondhand bookshops of the Charing Cross Road in London. Or like the little paperbacks I'd always convince myself I needed to buy in Shakespare & Co, if nothing else because it's got a beautiful stamp inside to remind of where I bought it (they now ship worldwide with the book stamped inside too!)
Personally, I think a slow TER or high speed TGV train journey isn't complete without a good book. Don't you get tired of the endless scrolling, swiping and screen time? The simple pleasure of opening up a new paperback and diving into a new story or a familiar classic is just so wonderful. So it's no surprise that the Hachette Livres de poches launched in the 1950s have become a staple of bookselling in France.
Whisking you away on an adventure far away, or to a story set in France or the region you're travelling to - it's your choice!
Livre de poche
What I love about them is their versatile small format and the fact that you can find a huge general catalogue of works - from an Agatha Christie or a classic Maigret whodunit murder mystery to contemporary bestsellers in French and other langages. So whether you prefer Dan Brown or Ken Follett, Stephen King or Georges Simenon, you'd rather read Zola or Eat Pray Love in French, you can find something to enjoy in this format. If you absolutely have to charge up your reader, then nearly 1,000 titles are currently available as ebooks too.
Books for French Learners
What's your favourite book about France or by a French author? Perhaps you'e learning French and would love to read some of the classics in an accessible way? The Hachette FLE easy readers series is the one for you!
A great resource (that comes with a CD audio) which is immensely helpful for beginners as well as intermediate learners. You can read a Maigret mystery by Georges Simenon or the Adventures of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc or get adventurous with Jules Verne. Beginners can explore stories along the coast or the adventures of a cat and dog who go on adventures together. The Hachette 'Lire en français facile' books are great for all levels in the CEFR framework from A1 (beginners) up to B2 (upper intermediate.) with longer stories as you progress through the levels. I love them (my own copy of a Maigret classic below!)
The longest outdoor bookshop
Do you have a favourite bookshop? As well as these lovely paperbacks, I love exploring the secondhand and antiquarian books along the Seine in Paris dubbed the longest outdoor book shop, making the Seine a river encased between two bookshelves. Certainly, I love ambling along this outdoor book shop as much, if not more than, the next Francophile and I also love supporting small businesses and individuals passionate about their métier. Have you been to the bouquinistes? A Paris institution for 450 years that needs never to be taken for granted, it just would not be Paris without those dark green boxes painted 'vert wagon' after the colour for railway carriages (and of a fixed size since 1930.)
You can stroll along and explore specialisms in art, fashion, Russian literature, gastronomy or travel, meet booksellers from elsewhere who now tend their stall with passion or meet French bouquinistes who have worked at their stall for decades. You can also often find etchings, engravings and prints at many of the stalls (although bouquinistes are limited in the proportion of books to souvenirs/non-book materials.)
To find out about where you can walk and what you can explore, check out the map of the greatest open air bookshop and visit the tourism office's website.
Like so many people, booksellers and bouquinistes have struggled through the pandemic with such a huge drop in visitors and tourists and before that with the gilets jaunes protests. Find out more about their difficulties at France24. The past several years have been pretty hard but I for one do not want to see the bouquinistes disappear. It would be like bistros disappearing or no more boulangeries. Imagine that!
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If you'd like to support the riverside booksellers, one bouquiniste has setup a website where you can purchase books of a huge variety. Have a look and support a Parisian bibliophile tradition by finding a rare or wonderful book at the boutique.
Bookmark it for your next trip to Paris (sorry 🙄 🤓) and explore the world from the comfort of your riverside strolls. Beats endless scrolling any day, doesn't it?
To explore more of the people and stalls that make this Paris bibliophile tradition live on today, check out Jeremy T. Iverson's excellent article at France Today magazine.
These postcards from France remind me of the happy times I've travelled through France and yet there's still more to discover. There's always another region, another town or beautiful village (officially a Plus Beaux Villages or not). There are customs and regional food and wine to discover as well as accents and words you might have never heard before.
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