April 23 is Saint George’s Day. Saint George is the patron of booksellers thus his day was chosen as Independent Bookstore Day, an initiative of Association Verbes, which aims to promote independent bookstores and to maintain the special status they have in France in the face of ever more present threats, such as e-books. This initiative was started twenty-three years ago and today, Independent Bookstore Day is celebrated in 80 countries. Each year, the association publishes 23,000 copies of a book whose purpose is to acquaint people with publishing and with the demands of running a bookstore. This year’s book, on sale for just 3€, is a compilation of reading lists that ispired 50 French authors. Each author also has a page to describe the view from their writing space. Bill& Rosa’s Book Room will participate in this year’s event, check out this page for more information on our activities.
This year, to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day, we thought you’d like to meet a French libraire. Libraires are important people in French social fabric. The French have a close relationship and follow closely the suggestions of their libraire often refering to him or her as « MON libraire ». So we interviewed Benjamin Cornet focusing on his shop Les Mots et Les Choses, an independent bookstore located in Boulogne Billancourt at 30 Rue de Meudon, a few minutes walk from the Marcel Sembat metro station. The bookstore opened in 2013 and has become woven into the local fabric. The books they sell and recommend are mostly in French but they also have a few books in English.
Benjamin Cornet, owner of Les Mots et les Choses, gives us a few insights:
Q: What do you like the most about Boulogne?
A: I like how diverse the population is here. The Renault factory that has been around for decades really left its mark on the architecture and also on the people living here. I really like how the neighborhood also managed to reinvent itself, by building new schools and companies. This brings many people who don’t live here to the neighborhood. There are many new apartment buildings and of course, many old buildings. For example, the bookstore is in a building that’s 120 years old. It’s great to see old buildings next to new ones; this neighborhood is rooted in its history but is also moving forward. We opened in 2013 and since then, much has changed.
Q: Do you think one needs to follow a course to become a bookseller or do you think one can learn on the job? Also, what is the most important quality for a bookseller?
A: I think the most important thing is to be willing to work in a business where you’re always dealing with clients and everything that this entails: being available for clients at all times, whoever they may be and whatever the request. The bookseller should be welcoming and encourage clients to come back. They must be as consistently warm and welcoming as possible. That goes for almost any business, though. More specific to booksellers, it’s of course important to know what has been published. There’s no need to have read every book out there, but it is important to be able to make recommendations based on a client’s requests. It’s equally important to know your inventory and to know how books are ordered and everything that this entails. Knowing how the book supply chain works is very important as many middlemen are involved before a book makes it to the bookstore.
Q: What is the strangest request you’ve had from a client?
A: There are many strange requests! A few years ago, I took a book from the shelf to show it to a client and opened it. Inside it was a 10 euro bill and a note that said “Hello, if you picked up this book, it means you’re interested in it, please use this bill to buy it.” I was very surprised to see this! I had only taken the book out because a client asked for it. He, of course, bought the book.
Q: Did he like it?
A: I don’t know, but it was a funny incident.
Q: What made you want to become a bookseller?
A: I chose this job because I’ve always loved books, they’re a very important part of my life. I don’t only mean reading, but also books as objects: I think they are very beautiful and elegant. I read a lot, of course, but this is not enough if you want to be a bookseller, you have to love what you’re selling. I worked as a consultant but had long wanted to work in cultural management, which can sometimes sound like an oxymoron, but it is this opposition that drew me. One day, it just became obvious that I had to change jobs and I invested all my energy in opening this bookstore 9 years ago.
Q: Who is your favorite American author?
A: I think that one of my favorite authors is Peter Heller, he’s one of the authors who really encouraged me on this path of recommending books to others. He was an absolute revelation. His books send a message of humanity, love of nature but also human violence, goodness and vice. His last novel is called La Rivière. He has written several books about nature, violence and beauty. I really recommend him in French and in English as well. I have read all his books. He even came to our bookstore in 2016 with his translator Céline Leroy, which was wonderful.
When you visit Les Mots et les Choses be sure to stop at Place Jules Guesde which is right next to the shop and learn a bit about Renault history from the signs near the factory whistle.