Friday, July 24, 2009


It's true: Book in Bar is for sale.

Peter, of the Languedoc Page (your one-stop resource for living, working, and hanging out around this part of the world), asked me via e-mail the other day if I had any idea what was going on, and I had to say no. I hadn't been by the place in ages. It's the only English-language bookshop here, stinks.

When I first came to visit here about five years ago, there were two English-language bookstores, Book in Bar and one which didn't seem to have a sign or was just called Books in English, over on the rue de la Université. The Book in Bar folks were young and enthusiastic, the Books in English folks older and a bit crusty, although they seemed nice enough once you broke the ice. Book in Bar had all kinds of novels, non-fiction books, and lots and lots of books about France, its culture, and the Languedoc in particular. It also served coffee, tea, and the kind of snacks that go along with that, and had a couple of newspapers lying around for people to read. Books in English was more no-nonsense: it was there for students taking American Studies, English, and related courses, and, since those sorts of books didn't fill it, there were other books (and videos) for sale. It seemed like there would be enough trade in the ecosystem here for both.

Apparently not. Or maybe the Books in English people decided to retire. At any rate, there was a sudden change as one closed and the other bought their stock. The Book in Bar management, too, seemed to change. A German woman took over. A section of the upstairs was cleared for the student-required books, another for German titles. The stuff on the French shrank to two shelves' worth. The entire upstairs suddenly got a lot duller. Downstairs, a huge selection of fiction appeared, mostly British, mostly aimed at women.

Now, I didn't watch this happen. This is based on a visit or two each time I came to Montpellier to look for an apartment or, once, to help distribute a magazine I'd helped edit. There's probably a lot of nuance I'm missing. But the bottom line is this: I'm hardly surprised that the place is for sale. Sauramps, the gargantuan bookstore just off the Comédie, has a small English-language section in which I found more books I wanted to read than in the entire Book in Bar, which I'd just come from the day I discovered it.

I have more opinions on how to run a bookstore here that I'll gladly offer someone who might be interested in either buying this place or taking a chance on a new one, but I will say this: someone at Book in Bar has missed a bet. They've done a lot of stuff right: they had a web presence early on, at least in terms of sending out a monthly e-mail newsletter detailing readings, book-signings, and conversation groups. (Unfortunately, they sent it out as a Microsoft Word file instead of just typing it into the body of the e-mail, which I never understood). They participate in every possible local function -- they were at the literary festival in the Comédie a couple of months ago, and I've seen stands at other events. They've held writing workshops and lots and lots of readings by local authors -- mostly retired Brits who are taking a stab at writing novels, from what I can see.

But they've blown it on other fronts. The most notable way they've blown it is that a sizeable percentage of the help there doesn't speak English. That may not sound so bad, but it is: instead of being over in a student ghetto with kebab shops every other storefront like Books in English was, they've got a prime location on a very picturesque, very narrow back street lined with cute little boutiques. In short, they're in an area where the foot-traffic is as likely to be tourists as it is to be locals. Yet an English-speaking tourist coming in there is going to be daunted by the look of the place upstairs and disappointed in the stock: most of the time there are very few books dealing with the Languedoc, be they coffee-table picture books or the Rough Guide or even a Michelin map. The clerk will be harried (or, if they get the German owner, rude), and if this tourist is anything like me, they'll get the feeling that this isn't a place to hang out -- which is exactly the opposite of the vibe a bookstore's supposed to give off, since the one and only advantage a place like this has over Amazon is that it is a place to browse, to find something you'd never heard of and didn't even know you wanted.

I honestly wonder what happened here. The store has another presence, which I think is the original, in Aix en Provence, and its website hasn't been updated since June. Or there may be a more bizarre explanation: down by Checkpoint Charlie on Mauerstr. in Berlin there used to be a wonderful place called the British Bookshop. It originally wasn't so wonderful, but it was taken over by two women, one American and one Irish and they turned it into a dynamo of a place. American authors visiting Berlin clamored to do appearances there because the crowd that came was so much fun. A visit would always include a discovery of some title you just had to have. Amazon came on line and made not a dent in their sales. And the prices were far better than at any of the other stores in Berlin offering English-language books. But it died: the shop (and the building it was in) was owned by a woman in Frankfurt, the wife of a German banker, who owned the British Bookshop there, and she became jealous of the success the two women in Berlin were enjoying -- so she shut the store down.

Like I said, I have no idea what's going on here, but I do know that between the students, the residents, and the tourists, Montpellier could do with a first-rate English-language bookstore. And like I also said, I have some ideas past what I've written here on how that could be accomplished.


  1. I've only been into Book in Bar once - it wasn't very inspiring - cramped, half full of set-texts for university (which, admittedly must be their bread and butter) and a pretty poor selection of fiction.

    I agree that there must be sufficient demand in Montpellier (students, expats, French people who speak English) for a really decent English-language bookshop. In its current form, Book in Bar isn't it.

    Guess I'll be sticking to Sauramps for the moment... whose English language selection is pretty good, and has virtually every French book I could ever want too!

  2. Ok.

    I'll give you some history here. The place that you are remembering as Book In Bar five years ago was actually called English Bookshop and was run by a retired UK firefighter, his wife and their five daughters. All of them very, very English and the daughters were very, very friendly.

    But, one by one the girls went off to university in the UK and once the last one was ready to go to univeristy - leaving them without the young energetic friendly and free help they were used to they sold it to the Book In Bar people (for 60,000 euros plus the price of the stock.)

    Through his connections the old owner made the bulk of his profits selling textbooks in bulk to the various Montpellier universities. This meant that he didn't have to make a lot of money from the sale of the fiction and guide books themselves and he ran the place as sort of an English speaking community center. The bulk of his sales were the used books, because American and UK students like to read fiction but generally don't have a great deal of money to spend on new books at the prices they have to sell them for here.

    When the Book in Bar people bought the place they made a decision not to pursue the Universities aggressively for bulk textbook orders - a role that Sauramps was more than willing to fill.

    Instead they decided to turn the place into a cafe that also has books. This worked for them in Avingon, but works less well here, because this is much more of a student town than Avignon is.

    The people who owned the other English language book shop, did, in fact, retire. Their mistake was they made a shitload of money renting English language VHS tapes - a market that died as soon as DVD players (which allow you to select your language) became popular.

  3. Ah! Five years ago is about when I came into the picture, so I missed the start of this. So now we have the third generation of owners here. And the for sale sign is up. Hope someone grabs it and turns it around.

  4. Just to say that it was previously known as "As You Like It" after a rather well known English Literature work.


  5. Ah, yes, by Terry Pratchett, if I'm not mistaken.

    There are still books circulating around town with stickers from As You Like It on them, so I was wondering where it was.

  6. Fyi...The owner is French and runs the Aix shop where she won young business woman of the year about 3 years ago! She normally is in Montpellier one day a week the rest of the time it is indeed run by the German girl who does speak very good english! I also believe she purchased the old bookshop on rue de la universitie and was planning to lease it out as anything but a bookshop to cut out the opposition seemed like a good idea at the time!

  7. Yep. My bad - it was called As You Like It.

    Brain fart on my end, but the rest of my history is right.

    Grahm was a very good guy.

  8. That's sad.

    What do you mean by "books for women" :-))

    I've spent the week in le Gard, near Nîmes. You should visit Nîmes.

  9. He means they sell a lot of chick lit. They also sell a lot of popular crime thrillers.

    It's just the high brow literary stuff they are low on.

    Since I only read pulp fiction, this doesn't bother me.

  10. Thank you, Bart. I think I had understood :-))) I wonder if you have an expression for books for men too ("livres de cul," I guess).

  11. Ed, have you heard of Bill's Books, a bookshop that was run by a English guy named Bill, of course? The bookshop was located down the rue de l'Université. It was very good but Bill moved to another city (I don't remember where).

  12. No, never heard of it.

    And no, Bart, that's not exactly what I meant. "Chick lit" is too specific a term, but there is a disproportionate amount of fiction written by women aimed at women, much of which is serious literature.

    There's also almost no non-fiction there, which is a huge mistake. And I don't know what kind of pulp fiction you're talking about, but both the mystery and sci-fi sections are very poorly stocked.

  13. Billy's Book Centre (or Club) used the well known BBC logo. At the time, I heard that he was going to stay in the area dealing in rare books by internet.

    They had a lot of used books some of which were bought by Grahame at As You Like It.

    A funny story about Grahame, who came across as an analytical sort of guy -

    I asked him how he chose Montpellier as a base. He told me that the family + caravan were looking for somewhere to settle in Spain, but had given up. On the drive back the car broke down in Montpellier. By the time the car was fixed, they decided to stay !

    He still had the caravan 12 years later - It can be pretty well impossible to register UK caravans in France.

    Some history :

    I think the first one may have been a successor to Billy.


  14. Peter, do you know where Bill is now? I think he has opened a new bookshop. There is a website but no address....

  15. enjoyed reading this thread. a fly on the wall i am mike eisenstadt typing u all from austin texas.

    my roommate & i are friends of marie rivet and we visited her in montpellier a few years ago. bought a guide book to Languedoc-Rousillon at Sauramps in fact.


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