Merci et Au Revoir, Mme. Hellier…
“Disheartening news” is the way a friend described his discovery the other day that the Village Voice bookshop, long a much-beloved Left Bank institution, and an important force in the literary community of Anglophone Paris, is closing its doors on July 31.
The Village Voice has succumbed to the pressures that beset independent booksellers worldwide—how to compete with discount sellers who don’t have to meet the high overhead costs that go along with running brick-and-mortar establishments, and especially the increasing dominance of e-books.
It’s hard for consumers to bypass bargain pricing in books, but of course independent booksellers offer readers much more than just books. They offer us places to browse shelves, to listen to authors read, to discuss books with others, to ask for, and receive, intelligent (and personal, and customized) advice about what’s new and interesting, a community gathering space.
So it has been at the Village Voice for the past 30 years.
Unfortunately, more and more booksellers are finding that it’s just impossible to stay alive, no matter how devoted they are to the business that George Whitman, another independent bookseller in Paris, called “the business of life.”
It’s a big problem with no evident solution, at least not yet. Though perhaps the loss of one more literary treasure—which the Village Voice certainly was—might make us all think a little bit more about how and where we spend our book-buying dollars.
For now, I’d like to say a personal thank you to Odile Hellier, owner and proprietor of the Village Voice. About fifteen years ago, when I was first teaching my class “Paris through the Eyes of Travelers” (now called “Paris: A Literary Adventure”) to my CUNY undergraduates, upon my request she recommended a list of American writers living in Paris. I wanted to find someone to come and read to my students, to show them that the tradition of Paris as a nurturing place of refuge for expatriate American writers was one that was emphatically still alive. Out of the names on the list she gave me, I chose the poet James A. Emanuel. In the years since then he has read his wonderful poetry to my students nearly every year, providing them with an unforgettable literary experience.
That’s just one little anecdote about the powerful impact Mme. Hellier has had. There must be hundreds of others.
If you happen to be in Paris this week, you can go to the Village Voice one more time. (They’re open through July 31, and books are being sold at 50% off. The selection of titles is superb.)
Oh, I really do hate goodbyes. And one of the things I love most in the French language is the way of saying that dreaded word: in its emphasis on the future, au revoir is resolutely resistant to the notion that what is happening is an end, rather than some kind of new beginning.
And so, Mme. Hellier, from all of us, mille mercis, et au revoir….
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris, Hawaii and Cuba for Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. She also teaches culture and literature courses at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.