Take Five: English-Language Bookstores in Paris

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Take Five: English-Language Bookstores in Paris

If you assign Ernest Hemingway as your guide to Paris, you’ll leave believing there is only one bookstore in the whole city (Shakespeare and Company), and he probably would have wanted it that way. But Paris has an incredible landscape of bookstores.

It would be a shame for visitors to miss out on this scene just because they don’t speak French. Happily, the city also has a handful of very-well-curated English bookshops, some of which have long and storied histories of their own.

They’re a wide-ranging bunch, from chain store to hole-in-the wall. Several are just a short walk from each other on the Left Bank but this list will also take you to the picturesque Marais and wind-swept Place de la Concorde. You could get lost in the overflowing shelves of any of them but make sure not to miss the Paris section in each shop, you’ll learn something new about the city of light in each one.

Emma Jacobs is a multimedia journalist and podcast producer based in Paris.

1. Shakespeare and Company

Ethan Hawke gave a reading here recently from his newly published book. At the beginning of his talk, he expressed a sense of déjà vu, unsurprisingly, since his fictional character in the film Before Sunset does the same in the opening scene. But his sense of familiarity is likely shared by many visitors who have read or heard about the historic institution on the banks of the Seine, with views of Notre Dame through its book-filled windows. Shakespeare and Company customers can wander through the upstairs rooms where many writers and thousands of readers have stayed the night, including Hawke and the late David Rackoff. Founded by a famously eccentric and welcoming American, George Whitman, in 1951, the shop is now run by his daughter. Sylvia Whitman has also opened a cafe next door, something her father apparently always dreamt of doing. She organizes a packed calendar of author events, which out-of-towners can follow via podcast once they've left.

2. W.H. Smith

While part of a British chain, W.H. Smith occupies a warm place in many an ex-pat's heart. It's not the most atmospheric place, but it's open seven days a week with the largest English-language selection in Paris. You'll find everything from hardcover literature to sci-fi paperbacks. In a touristy area near The Louvre, the store carries a lot of essentials for English-speakers living in France, such as test prep books and a section for French-learners. This store also offers one important thing in particular that the other options in Paris do not: a large children's section. Then there are the shelves of British and American comfort foods (the American section includes pop tarts and Hershey's syrup, the British section has lots of tea). Bizarrely for France, you can also buy souvenirs imprinted with the British flag. The other big highlight here is the periodicals section, with a wide selection of English-language newspapers and magazines.

3. The Abbey Bookshop

Brian Spence already had a bookstore in Toronto when he moved to Paris to get a Ph.D. He opened the The Abbey Bookshop in the Latin Quarter in 1989 and he likes to think it continues a tradition on the rue de la Parcheminerie, named for the parchment shops that once lined it. The Canadian flag flies above the entrance but the store is no longer quite as Canada-focused as it once was. There was a time, pre-internet, when half of Spence's shop was filled with Canadian titles. Today, the store is split between new and used books. A coffee pot out front has a sign saying "servez-vouz" or "help yourself." Since there's nowhere to sit, it's offered for free, however, it's wisest to drink it outside when the shop gets busy, as navigating the tiny aisles inside is an ongoing negotiation with other customers. But, perhaps the close quarters are what make this an unusually chatty place for Paris. As for that Ph.D., Spence never got around to it.

4. I Love My Blender

The name is admittedly weird. "I Love My Blender" refers not to kitchen supplies but the mix of French and English titles and other oddities for sale in this quirky, bilingual bookstore. Somehow this place seems to hold more than possible in a space of its size. There is a fascinating collection of titles, about which proprietor Christophe Persouyre will happily volunteer his opinions. The store is split physically down the middle between English and French. It also carries a lovely collection of cards and notebooks. I Love My Blender sits right at the edge of the lively Marais neighborhood, in the shadow of the Pompidou Museum. As a small operation, the shop closes when the owner vacations and you'll occasionally find it closed during normal business hours. C'est la vie.

5. Berkeley Books of Paris

Berkeley Books of Paris was created after a split between the owners of San Francisco Book Company around the corner, so it feels a little personal to choose between them. However, Berkeley is the brighter and more spacious, less warren-like of the two, if those sorts of things are important to you. If you've felt nostalgia for typewriters lately, this is also your place. All the fiction and nonfiction titles are secondhand, occasionally collectibles. Most are shelved according to a sometimes puzzling organizational system that incidentally makes for good browsing. The shop also has just enough room to host readings, art shows, small concerts and at least one interpretive dance performance.