I happened to find myself in Paris last week and went to look one last time at an almost seventy-year-old bookstore called La Hune, on the Place St.-Germain des Prés. I knew that it would be closing for good, though I was surprised to find that its fermeture definitive was to be this week, on Saturday, June 14th. I walked through La Hune one last time, sniffing the books and looking at the posters, and found myself far more distraught than I expected to be. I felt a deep sense of loss, more than mere regret, and ever since I have been trying to decide why I felt this way and whether the feeling was mine alone or might have resonance elsewhere.
I got a lot of my French education at La Hune. For most of its life it was in a space near its final one, closer to the Boulevard St.-Germain—just opposite a still thriving newsstand, and right among the Sartrean cafés. It was as much a social center, a place to drop in and see what was new among the leaves, so to speak, as a place to go and buy an assigned book. I can’t count all the books I bought there, and still own. (Some of them I actually read.) But the education was, as educations ought to be, more sentimental than simply didactic. La Hune, more than any other place, brought the special feel and aura and even smells of French literary culture into my heart, as it had into those of many other Americans.
The quality it offered, very different from any English or American bookstore, was of a high seriousness of purpose, uncut by gaiety, but still surprisingly well disposed towards amateur readers. La Hune demonstrated the oddly severe, puritanical nature of French publishing, with almost everything published only in paperback and, until recently, without any cover illustration or come-on, only the title and the name of the author, the familiar brand color of the maison d’édition, and, at most, a dark band around the book with a cryptic subtitle or explanatory note (“The New Duras”; “Glucksmann on Sixty-Eight,” or the like). These books seemed unyielding in their affirmation of philosophical literariness; like the great French film stars of the postwar period, they seemed to exhale their cigarettes directly in your face, so to speak, begging neither quarter nor favor. The rows and rows of book, placed horizontally, in the French fashion, seemed to offer a landscape of unvarying, unblinking sagacity. You are here to woo us, and enter our thoughts, the books declared; we are not leaping up, waving our arms, or our author photos, hand on chin, in your face, to wooyou. At La Hune, you felt both intimidated and enlightened, a nice double whammy.
The forces that brought La Hune down are, sadly and predictably, the same forces that destroyed Rizzoli, on 57th Street, or the old Books & Co., on Madison Avenue: the ruthless depredations of the Internet (Amazon is regarded warily in France, and pays a bookstore-protection tax, but it is there), alongside the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury. Where La Hune last stood, Louis Vuitton now stands.*
These laments can all be dismissed as mere nostalgia—though, since nostalgia starts the very moment our experience becomes past, it can never be so easily dismissed. And the case for minimal regret about such transformations, or easy acceptance of them, is plain enough and not hard to make. Bookstores open and they close, following the path of bright young people as migratory birds follow the sun. In Paris, good bookstores have opened in, or migrated to, the popularquartiers of the 15th and 19th arrondissements, just as a few independent bookstores in this city have migrated to the sunnier climes of Brooklyn. Anyway (the more impatient counter argument goes on), a bookstore is only a platform for the purchase of literature, and platforms move and change with every new age, gathering and then shedding the moss of our memories as they roll on. Someday, someone will be writing a nostalgic account of one-click shopping on Amazon. Indeed, if videocassettes had lingered longer, we’d have sad feelings about the passing of Blockbuster. Some members of Generation X probably do now.
Yet the emotions that such losses stir can’t be dismissed quite so blithely—talking to Parisian friends, I found they shared my sense of something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart. (I had this experience just this year, when a chance, next-book-beside-the-one-I-wanted encounter with Howard Becker’s “What About Murder, What About Mozart?,” promoted by the title, led me into the beauties of Beckerism.) This act of mere looking and touching and even smelling pages, poking around without the benefit of links, is profound. It happens in libraries, but libraries are still institutions with rules and requirements, even when they are open to everyone—and those in France historically have not been. A bookstore is a place you go to look as you choose, for as long as you want. The book-sniffer is the active form of his classier cousin the stroller, as the window-shopper is the dreamier form of the curator. Each makes choices, more or less freely, at a more or less happy whim, and lines her own library or museum, if only invisibly, in her head.
The deeper, macro answer of why a closing bookstore is a loss to freedom, is that free-market societies—at times by compensatory instinct, at times by compulsory instruction—have built, alongside the responsive market with its unending appetite for change, smaller institutions where people can exchange ideas, share spaces, be in contact, feel at home, without any particular institutional endorsement from higher authorities. Restaurants, bookstores, cafés—on a grander scale railway stations, on a lesser one chessboards near park benches—are the sinews of civil society. The great German post-Marxist philosopher Jürgen Habermas, as I wrote in my book about the history of eating at restaurants, believed that those intermediate institutions were where the real work of eighteenth-century mind-making got done. Enlightenment happened more often in a café than a classroom. It still does. It’s an idea that’s been given a more empirical, pragmatic life by the American Robert Putnam, whose best work seems to suggest that the smaller instruments of social capital, like volunteer fire departments and amateur opera societies, are among the most robust predictors of success at honest, democratic government. By atomizing our experience to the point of alienation—or, at best, by creating substitutes for common experience (“you might also like…” lists, Twitter exchanges instead of face-to-face conversations)—we lose the common thread of civil life.
As Adam Smith understood so profoundly, economic choices reflect value choices. Markets don’t make men free; free men (and women) have to have the confidence to accept the instability that markets make. Otherwise, panic sets in. If we try to protect small merchants, or mourn their disappearance, the last thing we are being is nostalgic. Books are not just other luxury items to be shopped for. They are the levers of our consciousness. Every time a bookstore closes, an argument ends. That’s not good.
*This sentence has been revised to indicate the store currently located at La Hune’s former address.