On a beautiful street in Paris—the fittingly named Rue des Médicis, which borders the northern edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés—one independent bookstore is doing its part to save the ancient tradition of books printed on paper.
Against so many odds, the Red Wheelbarrow, one of the city’s best-loved English-language bookstores, has recently expanded into a second shop space, located one door down from its original address.
“I know how to imagine a bookstore,” says owner Penelope Fletcher on a chilly morning just outside of the new shop front, which more than doubles her selling space. “It’s making them work that’s a bit more of a challenge.… The culture of reading is everything for me, and it must be cherished, shared, and protected.”
Despite looking very much the part of a Parisian bookseller in cable-knit black leggings and an old-fashioned cotton-serge shopkeeper’s apron over her simple charcoal-gray corduroy dress, she grew up on Hornby Island, in the Salish Sea in British Columbia.
“Books tell us who we are and make us dream. They also keep us safe and sane,” she says. “I love them as objects, too. The taut cloth of their covers, the smell of fresh paper, the excitement of tight binding, the beauty of letters, those brilliant little tools we take so much for granted.… Even if Amazon has a library of almost infinite availability, I doubt they’ll ever be able to create an algorithm that successfully mimics the quiet art of browsing, or the spontaneous curiosity of picking up an unknown book in a bookstore.”
If you count the new space of the Red Wheelbarrow as a separate address, this will be Fletcher’s fifth bookstore. Her first was located on Hornby Island; at age 19, she sold used volumes out of a chicken coop that her father painted bright red to attract the attention of weekenders and tourists.
Fletcher didn’t set out to be a bookseller; she initially intended to be a writer. “I was seduced by literature when I fell in love with my handsome English-literature professor, who was secretly part of a couple with my French teacher,” she recalls. “These cultured men were so witty, sophisticated, and different they made me curious about the world, and the only way I could learn more about it, then, was to read.”
Perhaps dosed with wanderlust by her mother, who worked as a decoder in Liverpool and in the navy during World War II, Fletcher worked in bookstores in Vancouver and Montreal before moving to Paris in 1990. She married a French jazz musician, had three children, and worked at Brentano’s and Smith & Son Paris (formerly known as WHSmith Paris), two of the best-known English-language bookstores in Paris (along with 70-year-old Shakespeare and Company), which remain open. She opened her own bookstore, the Red Wheelbarrow, in the Marais in 2001. Its name was a nod to the poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams.
She ran it until 2012, when she had to return to Canada for family reasons. “It was heartbreaking for me to close my doors, because it orphaned the community of passionate readers that had grown up around the shop,” she says. It was not surprising, then, that the Anglophone book-lovers of Paris were ecstatic when Fletcher returned to France, crossed the Seine, and reopened her shop with the support of 10 benevolent investors in 2018.
“Even if Amazon has a library of almost infinite availability, I doubt they’ll ever be able to create an algorithm that successfully mimics the quiet art of browsing.”
“We read for pleasure, to learn, to escape, and to resist,” says Fletcher, making a pointed reference to her shop’s next-door neighbor, La Nouvelle Librairie, a French-language bookstore that specializes in the works of far-right thinkers such as the proto-Fascist Joseph de Maistre and convicted Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen.
“You sell books you’re interested in, which is why I enjoy my customers so much. They come from everywhere, with many Nordic and Dutch readers, but I especially enjoy the Irish…. Customers have suggested wonderful books to me, and vice versa, I hope. This love of reading and talking about books is just such an infinite richness. It’s also what’s keeping a candle burning in the window right now.”
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now
The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore is located at 9 Rue de Médicis, in the Sixth Arrondissement, telephone 33-01-42-01-81-47, theredwheelbarrowbookstore.com