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The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore : An Interview with Penelope Fletcher
I miss reading a book at a Cafe. I miss listening to authors read their books, packed in shoulder to shoulder with a small crowd around me, inhaling a writer’s every word. I really miss visiting bookstores.
I really miss the full experience of bookstores, which is why a recent and unusual endeavor — conducting interviews with owners of independent bookstores has been a source of light in a very dark year.
Let’s have a behind-the-scenes look at the bookselling lifestyle with Penelope Fletcher, Founder/Owner of The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris, France.
The Red Wheelbarrow is an Independent Anglophone Bookshop (English Language Bookshop) on the Rive Gauche (Latin Quarter of Paris). Located just opposite the Jardin de Luxembourg garden, with an exciting range of classic and contemporary literature, gastronomy, children’s books in French and English, theory, small press, poetry, history and politics. It lends itself perfectly to purchases being read in the park, preferably in a spring sunbeam , surrounded by blooming flowers and to a soundtrack of birdsong.
Excerpts from the Interview : -
Q1) How was Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop born? What made you decide to be a bookseller? Was there a ‘eureka moment’ in your life when you knew you loved books and wanted to point your career in that direction?
Penelope : I opened my first bookshop (secondhand books in a caravan) when I was 19 on the west coast of Canada “mostly on an island off an island off an island.” . I had it for three years — and because of that I always worked in bookshops — I often felt in those days I didn’t want to be a bookseller, I wanted to be a writer, or a lawyer or an academic. After studying English literature and classics in universities in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec, I moved to Paris in 1990 and worked in Brentano’s (then a big bookshop) and Smiths for a short while and then became an English teacher, married a jazz musician and had three children. When my youngest was three in 2001 I decided to open a bookshop because I wanted to go back to bookselling but had to support a family of five. I am not sure that I ever had an eureka moment. I am comfortable in a bookshop. The first Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore closed in 2012 and then this one opened in 2018. We opened it again because one of my main bookshop partners — Danielle Cumbo — told me she was ill in 2016, and I asked her what I could do and she said ‘lets begin the bookshop again and so we did’. She passed in 2019 but lived to see her bookshop open.
Q2) How did you decide on the name Red Wheelbarrow?
Penelope : When we opened the bookshop in 2001 — I had to think of something original. The poem made sense to me in those days because there was so much that depended on so much in order for something to happen. In 2018, I realized that the first time that poem was ever published (and in English) was here in France when it was included in a strange book called Spring and All. That book came out in 1923 and was printed by Darantière
. “Spring and All was printed in an edition of 300 by Maurice Darantière. Darantière was a printer based in Dijon, France, who had printed the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, and who also printed a range of other significant modernist works.”
So that is a fabulous coincidence.
Q3) How do you feel about the way technology is affecting book readership and book purchasing? As a self-proclaimed bibliophile I feel being able to help readers find themselves in books, learn about a new culture, or escape to a new adventure is a privilege and something I hope we never take for granted. Surveys continue to show that although technology is convenient, print books remain much more popular than e-books. Although technology provides convenience, print books give us a break from the technology and distractions in our daily lives. What do you think?
Penelope : I think the answer is multifold- I agree with you that print books give us a break from the technology and distractions in our daily lives. People also find us through social media like Instagram where there is the Bookstagram world. Kemy who does our instagram is part of the bookstagram world and it is a major part of our business. That world, the contents of the book are important but so is the cover. Before people didn’t really care about the cover of the book, now it is super important. On another level, reading makes you happy. It takes you out of whatever world you are worrying about or feeling lonely in, or wanting to find a break from and it feeds the mind — so reading a real book is physically a nice break from the screens- but it returns us to the real world. You can read in bed, and find the book — and then when you are finished the book stays with you — goes on the shelf- and people who visit your home or office — can know more who you are from looking at your shelves. In the middle of a discussion- you can reach down a reference. I look at my fiction shelves at the actual book and I can be transported back to the time I got that book or that I read it. Having said all that, I have noticed a growing number of people who openly say they read on kindles. A lot of very serious readers read on machines, or on line. (I feel sad about that but I understand). But they still buy some books, and talk books… to counterbalance that there is a huge amount of young readers who love books and owning books.
Q4) Online algorithms might recommend additional books to purchase, but they aren’t a substitute for the conversations that lead to personal recommendations from booksellers you know and trust. According to you what does a brick and mortar store offer patrons that they can’t get from an online retailer?
Penelope : People can see the book and hold it in their hands. “In France booksellers are like pharmacists- the reader explains their conditions and the bookseller prescribes a book.” People come back and they know they can say they liked it and/ or didn’t like it and then the bookseller gets to recommend another book … or prescription. But also there is the other thing — many people do not want to buy online because they disagree with the politics behind Amazon — and they disagree with what Amazon is doing to the world of ‘small businesses on all levels.’ The Covid lockdown created a lot of business for independent booksellers because people realized how much they loved their local independent bookshop and hated that big online seller. Human contact became more important .
Q5) What’s your bookselling philosophy?
Penelope : Not quite sure I can answer this question properly. Booksellers like books. I like books, the physical entity ,- my philosophy is that the bookshop should be a reliable, discrete, interesting place to go into. We try to keep up with what is happening in the world, what is about to and also keep what has already come out — and should be in in stock in a good bookshop. My philosophy is that when people go into a bookshop to find a specific book and If you don’t have the book but find it for them in another shop- they will be happy and come back or tell other people about the bookshop.
Q6) Apart from the actual selling of hard copy books, what other activities do modern booksellers participate in?
Penelope : Before COVID Booksellers sell books at events, libraries, universities or go to school and universities conferences, we had a children’s writing competition at the old bookshop and we are going to do a children’s publishing competition (groups of three have to write and illustrate and publish a book. We also now have Zoom launches (we have had one for Wakanda). We are also going to publish a book which is really exciting. This book is coming out in a limited edition in September 2021.
Q7) Do you have favourite books and authors, or a genre that you’d like to share?
Penelope : Yes, lots of favorite books and it changes. We love Janet Skeslien Charles new book The Paris Library, love Aysegul Savas and Anne Marsella and Michelle Kuo — we have fun with all the different competitions such as the Booker, the Woman’s Prize, the International Booker etc. I tend to love fiction, but we take care of our non fiction –too. We have to have a large section on civil rights and a lot of antifascist books for both adults and children — human rights being an important subject as the bookshop next door to the bookshop is a politically far right bookshop.
Q8) Any challenges or surprises you’ve encountered in your years of bookselling?
Penelope : Yes, we had an overwhelming amount of people thinking of us and ordering and buying books from us during the lockdown who didn’t want to order off amazon anymore. Bookshops are like community centers in some ways so that has an important role — surprises, there was the moment that I had been chatting to a customer who said I had a lot of work to do in the bookshop and then he explained that he worked in a bookshop when he went to Science Po — and now what do you do I asked — raising my hands. I am the Prime Minister, he said. On a different note, is the very real challenge of dealing with the boring Brexit customs procedures. We keep having to pay a fortune to get each box of books we get from the UK. Shipping has slowed down and the books get lost and delivered to other bookshops. I can think of lots of challenges — and could easily make an encyclopedia out of them… surprises there are many as well.
Q9) Do you have any favourite memories or stories about connecting books with customers?
Penelope : The customers often tell us these stories afterwards. That is one of the nicest things about bookselling. I love that Lisa Pasold, the writer, said that I had put Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project in her hands and that had changed her life.
Q10) What can authors do to help promote events hosted by bookstores?
Penelope : Tell their friends and family to buy the books at the bookshops. Get the publisher to print up posters. And of course it is a joint effort…
Q11) What are some creative ways authors can become involved with events at the store between new book releases?
Penelope : Well a lot of authors come by the shop and sign their books. Or hang out and it can turn into a small promptu event– Aysegul Savas and Deborah Levy had a discussion on Desire on February 14 before the first lockdown..
Nita Wiggins whose book we stock does recorded interviews in the bookshop of other people’s books — and recently had a ZOOM interview with a few of the contributors of the new release Wakanda. . Oliver Gee and Lina Gee printed up a huge attractive poster of their children’s book Kylie The Crocodile in Paris that we hung up on the window for a month or two.
We made a children's book! Meet Kylie the Crocodile - The Earful Tower
Meet Kylie - a crocodile who lives in the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. She is the star of our new children's book, with…theearfultower.com
We had two papercutting workshops with one of the authors of Paper Poetry. Elaine Sciolino did a projection of information about her book The Seine. Richard Wright’s granddaughter did a whole evening around her grandfather –which was a huge honour.
Q12) How can everyone champion his/her independent bookselling community.
Penelope : We have a few lovely people who buy book vouchers and order books from us –and buy book vouchers for their children’s teachers, friends etc. Others who make the shop their meeting point. By buying a gift voucher for family or friends people get people into the shop. The books themselves help create a community — it happens naturally.
Q13) Lastly, what do you think the future looks like for independent booksellers? What do you think you and your fellow independent booksellers need to do to survive?
Penelope : The future looks good for independent booksellers. People love bookshops in Paris. They are done with Amazon. (I’m an optimist).
Booksellers need to roll with the haywire ( I think). You think bookselling works one way and then all of a sudden it needs to change and going towards the change and adapting is part of the challenge and fun of bookselling. And if you do that, you will survive. It’s multi-faceted what makes a bookshop successful.
A huge challenge at the moment is to find a way of getting rid of the cost of customs declarations. Once we get over that challenge-things will be better for all of us booksellers in Europe. But we might have to sell books that are actually printed in Europe directly ourselves rather than get them from the UK if a solution isn’t found or we might have to lobby — .
One of my favorite books on bookselling is Reluctant Capitalism by Laura Miller. It shows how independent booksellers have constantly adapted.
We will be opening a second shop very soon in the same neighbourhood. We will be publishing a very beautiful book — the first in a trilogy about World War II by SK Francis called A Time of Ostriches . We have some exciting projects coming up. We are going to have a children’s publishing competition — there are a lot of things one can do.
I think more bookshops will open in Paris. I think people love their cafes, cheese shops, wine shops, their farmer run vegetable shops, ethical clothing shops, etc and their bookshops.
Thank you so much for collaborating in today’s post Penelope Fletcher!
It’s a pleasure!
If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.
Website : https://theredwheelbarrowbookstore.com/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/rwbparis