They opened bookstores in the heart of small rural villages

They opened bookstores in the heart of small rural villages

The creation of bookstores is booming in France, particularly in the heart of rural areas. Meetings with enthusiasts who have started in villages with less than 1,000 inhabitants.

In Latronquière, 419 inhabitants, an old appliance store has come back to life. But instead of televisions, the Lotois have the choice between the latest Michel Bussi, the four parts of the regionalist novel From thrushes to wolves, by Claude Michelet, or even a work on the street artist Banksy. “I rather imagined my bookstore in a traditional stone house, but this space from the 1970s, a bit industrial with large windows, appealed to me,” recalls Anne Sirieys. I redeveloped it while retaining this character. » His shop, Par les chemins, was opened in 2022. Like 141 other bookstores in France – a record – and 140 in 2021.

A new trend, openings are increasing in rural areas, indicated the National Book Center in 2023: “One in two bookstores opened since 2017 has been in a town of less than 15,000 inhabitants, and one in four in a town of less than 5,000 inhabitants. » Like the young sixty-year-old, these new booksellers sometimes opt for villages of only a few hundred souls.

Some people get started almost on a whim and, above all, from the heart. “I bought a house in the Flavigny-sur-Ozerain area (274 inhabitants, in Côte-d’Or), says Romain Billard who opened La Colline in 2017. Visiting this village, listed among the Most Beautiful Villages of France, I told myself that these were the kind of places where I would like to hunt for books. » After a few drinks with friends, he gave it a go.

Books, but not only that…

However, not everyone wakes up as a bookseller overnight. Alix Breton had dreamed of it since middle school. After working in a bookstore, then as a management assistant in the biodynamic sector, the thirty-year-old took the plunge in La Croisille-sur-Briance (Haute-Vienne) in November 2022. Convinced that if her store was attractive, customers would take the plunge. naturally the door, settling in a village of 650 souls never gave rise to doubt. Moreover, focusing on the simple number of inhabitants is misleading. The municipalities of those we interviewed benefit from a flow of tourists or already have some businesses and activities, located at the crossroads of local roads. And these booksellers obviously have no competitors in their immediate vicinity.

With a few thousand references – compared to 20,000 to 60,000 in an “average” bookstore in town – everyone adapts their offer while often remaining general in spirit. “We feel less subject to novelty or literary prizes,” continues Romain Billard, who highlights small publishing houses. This is even more true in a tourist village, where people want to find what they can’t see elsewhere. » In Haute-Vienne, Alix Breton’s hobbies are the environment, graphic novels, human sciences… “Ultimately, I only sold one copy of Goncourt,” she notes. Far from being off-putting, these editorial choices help attract locals, confirms Gisèle Giraud, who frequents La Petite Librairie sauvage. “Alix shakes me up by making me discover other worlds,” says the septuagenarian, ex-Lyonnaise. “In Lyon, the bookstores are very good but do not exude the same intimacy. Here, we are dealing with Alix the bookseller, not a saleswoman. » Would the advice therefore differ from that given in an urban environment? “In our bookstore in Rouen (Seine-Maritime), the public, more “academic”, knew what and where to look, analyzes Élise Feltgen, now bookseller in Mellionnec (395 inhabitants, in Côtes-d’Armor). Here, more care must be taken in promoting the book, perhaps guiding customers more. »

Another particularity, the village bookstore is often much more than that. “Selling only books would prove to be economically difficult,” estimates Anne Sirieys la Lotoise, who is increasing the number of craft workshops in Latronquière. Stationery, board games, workshops, even a guesthouse or publishing house… the café remains the most classic idea. “La Petite Librairie sauvage is inseparable from the tea room,” says Alix Breton, in La Croisille-sur-Briance. The overwhelming majority of customers buy a book and have a drink. » 30% of its turnover comes from the tea room, but above all this encourages people to enter the bookstore and then browse the shelves. These dual activities attempt to respond to the unprofitable economic model of the book. Our interlocutors are paid below the minimum wage… when they manage to pay themselves. “I tell this to people who would like to try the adventure: it is more of an activity for enthusiasts,” explains Romain Billard, who continues to work as a singing teacher at the Besançon conservatory.

The delights of conversation

Not very profitable, these shops take on their full value in towns sometimes far from cultural offerings. With signings, readings, even exhibitions and other events, they become places for exchange and meetings. “We talk much more with people from the village and surrounding areas in a place like this than at the bakery, because it encourages sharing and conversation,” confirms Aleksandra Chastagnol, who recently arrived in La Croisille-sur-Briance. . The bookstore even changes habits. “Before, my wife and my mother bought the books, I then read them,” laughs François Malevergne, another resident of the village. “From now on, the bookstore is opposite my house, I go directly there…” François, like Alix, also observes villagers pushing open the door, sure that they would not do the same in Limoges, “wrongly believing that it is not for them”.

In support of this almost “public” service, the local fabric plays the game. Customers order most of their books from neo-librarians, even if it means waiting ten days instead of two for an online order. Media libraries and educational establishments integrate them into purchasing channels. When the community does not directly put its hand in the dough and in its pocket: “We immediately joined Romain Billard’s project by offering him a small unoccupied home,” rewinds Dominique Bondivena, mayor of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. We carried out part of the work and offered a ridiculous rent. We would not have done it for a “temple merchant” selling simple trinkets. A bookstore creates social ties and provides a service to residents.” Particularly at the scale of a village.

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