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In Strasbourg, “World Book Capital 2024”, bookstores in pain

“It’s complicated”: in Strasbourg, independent booksellers are warning of their difficult situation in a fragile sector, while the Alsatian city takes on its role as “World Book Capital 2024” in a month, a first for a French city.

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In Strasbourg, “World Book Capital 2024”, bookstores in pain

“It’s complicated”: in Strasbourg, independent booksellers are warning of their difficult situation in a fragile sector, while the Alsatian city takes on its role as “World Book Capital 2024” in a month, a first for a French city. “We have never experienced a normal exercise,” sighs Eric Schultz, who opened in September 2018, near the Krutenau student district, “La Task Noire”, one of the rare bookstores in France entirely devoted to crime fiction.

Yellow vests, attack on the Christmas market, Covid-19, then the war in Ukraine and its economic consequences, between energy costs and rising paper prices... “We found ourselves with liabilities which accumulate (rent, suppliers, etc.) while we were making progress,” recalls this former environmentalist municipal representative in a previous mandate. A crowdfunding operation last year, however, saved it from the abyss and made it possible to pay off the majority of its debts. Since then, “it’s okay, but we remain vigilant…”

About a hundred meters away, same story at the “Tiger”, a bookstore specializing in comics and “underground” micropublishing, which opened at the same time. “We had to fight,” confides Nicolas Deprez, 47, who has employed an employee since 2021. He also noted a war in Ukraine which further “complicated” things: “we continued to have people ”, but “all our fixed costs have exploded”. “You don't start a bookstore to make money,” he concedes, but “in the current situation,” these new difficulties are like “a second slap in the face.”

A context which notably pushed the neighboring bookstore “Obscurae”, specializing in fantasy, to close after a year of existence. Near Strasbourg, in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, “L’Ill aux Trésors” has also lowered the curtain. After Covid, “customers came en masse to bookstores” but this effect has subsided, notes Anne Martelle, president of the French bookstore union, which brings together more than 750 bookstores. And in this period of inflation, it has become “very difficult” for these establishments which display “an average profitability of 1 to 1.5%”.

In this context, readers “make choices, leisure comes after everything else,” says Carole Benelhocine, manager of L'Indépendante for a year (three employees). From now on, “pockets go faster than large formats”. “All small bookstores that opened less than five years ago are in difficulty,” summarizes Morgane Albisser, who has run L’oiseau rare since 2019 with her sister Diane, a bookstore, gallery and café. Faced with soaring charges and transport costs, “the profits of a bookstore cannot be enough. We earn as much from selling a coffee as a paperback book!”

Establishments in pain as the “World Book Capital” opens on April 23, with 250 events over a year. Strasbourg, where Johannes Gutenberg developed the typographic system that would give birth to printing in the 15th century, currently has 25 bookstores. It is the first French city to receive this UNESCO label, created in 2001.

A beautiful showcase for books and reading that several independents nevertheless look at with “perplexity”, regretting not having been more associated with it, believes Eric Schultz: “We are asked to host events and that is what we are going to do. TO DO. But apart from the sale of books that we will eventually do, I don't see anything concrete to promote the sector. “We don’t see what is being put in place for us,” says Nicolas Deprez, while for Morgane Albisser, the event will be “more interesting for the city than for the bookstores.”

“The role of bookstores is essential for us” and they are “absolutely not” forgotten, assures Anne Mistler, assistant for arts and cultures. “A whole series” of events integrating them is planned, such as the “Book Rally” planned for June in several bookstores, the increase in school funding for book purchases or even the organization of “author residencies » in bookstores, lists the chosen one. “I can understand that there is dissatisfaction among some. But to say that there was no association is frankly an exaggeration.

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