Thomas Riggs & Company: From France, Love Letters to Booksellers

Posted by - Admin / November 4th, 2009

What is the biggest challenge for publishers and bookstores today? The simple answer, of course, is that people are buying fewer books, and when they do buy books, it’s increasingly online. But it’s not as if people are reading less. They might, in fact, be reading more, except now they have a new option: free content in the ever expanding virtual world of the Internet.

I sometimes think of this as an American phenomenon. In the United States attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, and people seem more interested in reading blogs or watching strangers lip sync on YouTube than doing something as sedate and tedious as reading a novel. But I was discouraged to learn recently that in France, too, book buying is on the decline.

This week in Nice I found a small book, Lettres à mon libraire (Letters to My Bookseller), that helped reassure me that the world has not completely abandoned the idea of books and the stores that nurture and sell them. For the book forty-five French writers wrote brief letters, verging on love letters at times, to bookstores and booksellers. In the preface François Busnel (a well-known editor and host of a literary television program in France) begins by arguing something seemingly antiquated but at the same time intuitively true for those who grew up in the nondigital world. “Soyons honnêtes: il n’y a pas de livre sans librairie, pas d’écrivain sans libraire” (“Let’s be honest: there is no book without a bookstore, no writer without a bookseller”). He then goes on to pin the problem of bookselling today on capitalism’s commodification of art.

Literature [is] the most useless of activities. That is what we hear every day . . . in this overloaded century, which made speed its supreme value and superficiality its guardian angel, which in metaphysical discourse asked the question “What is this for?” and insisted on profitability as the answer to everything, it is a good sign, I’ve said, that something resists the terrible temptation to declare itself “useful.” Beauty is useless, as poets and philosophers all affirm.

It is in this spirit that bookstores have more than commercial value that novelist Michèle Lesbre, one of the forty-five authors, writes,

Dear bookseller of my youth. I learned that you died several months ago. I couldn’t believe the bad news. Your tiny bookstore, at the top of rue des Gras and under the shadow of the cathedral, in Clermont-Ferrand, was so long the only real sanctuary for those that thought literature could save the world, one day.

True, these passages are nostalgic and in themselves of little effect, as is much of the commentary these days lamenting the decline of reading and wearily pushing against the upcoming digital revolution in book publishing. But if it’s any consolation, books and bookstores are still valued by a lot of people, and in the worst case, when everyone has a Kindle or an Apple Tablet for reading, you’ll probably still be able to find paper books. They’ll be right next to the vinyl record section.

Thomas Riggs
Thomas Riggs & Company
Missoula, Montana

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