In France, it's 'Longue vie à la librairie'

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Owner May-Kou Pham, author Robert Hutchinson, and employee Cyril Fernandez in Librairie Le Ventre de la Baleine in Sarrebourg.

Last month, I spent 10 glorious days on a book tour in France.  A small but venerable French publisher paid my way so I could help promote the French translation of my next-to-last book.

Book tour is perhaps too pretentious a name.

I flew Norwegian Air (which charges 3 euros for a glass of water) and stayed in the home of my publisher’s sales manager, sleeping in his 9-year-old daughter’s borrowed bed (she slept with her older sister).

I lugged my 40-pound suitcase up and down the Paris metro stairs so many times I thought my knees would finally snap.

But I had a magnificent time. The weather was amazing, cool, and sunny in early April. My French hosts were delightful, funny, and friendly.

I spent much of my tour in the wine country of Alsace, traveling around to small towns and giving one-hour lectures to small audiences of 50 to 300 people.

This would be impressive except for the fact that I don’t actually speak French.

I studied French 40 years ago in college — but, as you might imagine, I’m a tad rusty. However, the French audiences were great sports, helping me with my pronunciation as I trudged through my Powerpoint presentations.

And the highlight of all this for me was the bookstores!

Incredibly, the French still have actual bookstores — new, brightly lit, tastefully designed structures packed to the rafters with every kind of book imaginable, in a dozen languages.

I was seething with jealousy wherever I went.

Where I live in America, the only “bookstore” we have is the book table in the local Costco. I linger there every Saturday, scanning the new titles, longing to see one of my books piled up next to the latest Bill O’Reilly tome.

One by one, all of our independent bookstores were shuttered in the 1990s because they couldn’t compete with the “deep discount” big chains.

And then the big chains — Borders, B. Dalton’s, Waldenbooks, Crown Books — got their just desserts.  They were all shut down by Amazon. In our area, the only bookstore left is a Barnes & Noble 50 miles away.

But this isn’t true in France. France still has bookstores. Lots of them! And I finally found out why.

In the small town of Sarrebourg, I spent some time with the owners of a brand-new independent bookstore, the Librairie Le Ventre de la Baleine.

It seemed like such an insane venture, starting a new bookstore. I asked the husband and wife owners, over dinner, how they could possibly succeed with Amazon’s predatory, monopolistic pricing.

“Oh, Amazon can’t charge any less than we do,” they explained. “In France, it’s the law. Everyone has to offer the same price.”

Sure enough, I looked it up. It’s called the Lang Law, passed in 1981.

When big-chain bookstores began appearing in France just as they did in America, the French legislature passed a law that prohibited discounting of new books by more than 5 percent.

My book on the French Amazon website sells for the same price, 22 euros, as it does at the indie bookstore Librairie Le Ventre de la Baleine or at the Librairie Kléber in central Strasbourg.

What’s more, the French recently passed another law making it illegal to combine even the paltry 5 percent discount with free shipping, a move clearly aimed at Amazon.

I couldn’t believe it. Was that all it took to keep bookstores alive? Simply make it a law that Amazon had to offer books for the same prices as local bookstores?

The highlight of my mini-book tour was a visit to the Salon des Livres, the Paris International Book Fair, which happened to be going on when I was in Paris.

My publisher had a poster of my book on display, which made me very proud, and I wandered around the exhibition halls in the Porte de Versailles looking at what seemed like miles of books.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about the Lang Law.

My first thought was that this was against my libertarian principles. Amazon and publishers should be able to cut whatever volume discounts they wanted, I figured.

My second thought, though, was that Amazon is a monopoly — and we’ve always had laws to combat monopolies for the common good.

My third thought — as I scanned the display tables everywhere — was that maybe a little socialism wasn’t too high a price to pay for having bookstores again.

Clearly, the French love books — and they’re willing to take steps to make sure that they, and those who sell them, survive.

Robert J. Hutchinson is the author of The Dawn of Christianity and Enquête sur le Jésus historique (Salvator, 2017), which was recently published in France. robert@roberthutchinson.com