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, but...it 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.