On France and Independent Bookstores

Pamela Druckerman, who lives in Paris, provides some insight on how the French people still value books and independent bookstore in France. The secret? Fixed prices on books across the entire country.

France, meanwhile, has just unanimously passed a so-called anti-Amazon law, which says online sellers can’t offer free shipping on discounted books. (“It will be either cheese or dessert, not both at once,” a French commentator explained.) The new measure is part of France’s effort to promote “biblio-diversity” and help independent bookstores compete. Here, there’s no big bookseller with the power to suddenly turn off the spigot. People in the industry estimate that Amazon has a 10 or 12 percent share of new book sales in France. Amazon reportedly handles 70 percent of the country’s online book sales, but just 18 percent of books are sold online.

The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 “Lang law,” named after former Culture Minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 percent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online. The Lang law was designed to make sure France continues to have lots of different books, publishers and booksellers.

And this point, beyond the economics of book pricing, is very important:

What underlies France’s book laws isn’t just an economic position — it’s also a worldview. Quite simply, the French treat books as special. Some 70 percent of French people said they read at least one book last year; the average among French readers was 15 books. Readers say they trust books far more than any other medium, including newspapers and TV. The French government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread and water. (A French friend of mine runs a charity, Libraries Without Borders, which brings books to survivors of natural disasters.) “We don’t force French people to go to bookstores,” explains Vincent Montagne, head of the French Publishers Association. “They go to bookstores because they read.”

On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.

The Baguette Police in France

An intriguing piece on Bloomberg about how rule-heavy the country of France is. There are rules for determining the height of sidewalk,  to the composition of the concrete used for construction, to the length of baguettes that can be sold at boulangeries:

A French baguette has to measure between 21.6 inches and 25.6 inches, or between 1.8 and 2.1 feet. Civil servants are required to check how windows open and close in the nation’s public buildings.

The 400,000 norms that go to make France France — many of them “absurd” — cost the state more than 500 million euros ($640 million) to implement and need to be reviewed to stop them strangulating the country, a 116-page report said this week.

All of this scrutiny adds up to a big cost:

Rules including those that ensure hotel stairs are bi- colored and that four-year-old children’s public school lunch has the protein equivalent of half an egg and two chicken nuggets have cost France more than 2 billion euros between 2008 and 2011, with more than 700 million euros just for 2011, according to the report.

More here.

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(via Chris Peacock)

Traversing Provence by Foot

In a blog post titled “Pilgrims in Provence,” Matt Goulding realizes his dream of vising Provence, France.

My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.

That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.

All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.

Having spent some time in Provence (mostly in Avignon) a few years ago, this description is apt:

Avignon is the kind of town that brings Provence’s virtues into sharp focus: the old part of town, circumscribed by an ancient city wall, is home to leafy avenues, a sprawling central market housing the building blocks for historic feasts, and the types of cafés you’d sacrifice unspeakable things to have in your neighborhood back home.

On navigation:

No, your best friends in this mysterious new world are the maps you procure from the local Tabacs shops (or from excitable outdoorsmen in Avignon) and the colored lines that mark the trails at every turn: red and white for the GR 6, our path for much of our time in the Luberon, red and yellow for the long-distance GRP trail, and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon you learn that an x means you’re going the wrong way, that a 90-degree angle indicates an imminent turn, and that the absence of any color at all for more than, say, 100 meters means you’ve gone rogue.

A convincing paragraph on why it’s better to travel on foot than by car/bus:

Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).

A wonderful essay. Highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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(hat tip: @legalnomads/@MikeAchim)

 

The French Love Their Books

There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books.

That quote is from this New York Times piece detailing how books sales compare in the United States and France:

From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.

There’s also this:

A 59-page study by the Culture Ministry in March made recommendations to delay the decline of print sales, including limiting rent increases for bookstores, emergency funds for booksellers from the book industry and increased cooperation between the industry and government.

One tiny operation determined to preserve the printed book is Circul’livre. On the third Sunday of every month this organization takes over a corner of the Rue des Martyrs south of Montmartre. A small band of retirees classify used books by subject and display them in open crates.

The books are not for sale. Customers just take as many books as they want as long as they adhere to an informal code of honor neither to sell nor destroy their bounty. They are encouraged to drop off their old books, a system that keeps the stock replenished.

 

David Sedaris on Socialized Medicine

Funny man David Sedaris writes about his experience with socialized medicine in this New Yorker piece. The bulk of the focus is his interaction with his dentist and periodontists, but it was the below exchange with his doctor in France that had me laughing out loud:

The last time I went, I had a red thunderbolt bisecting my left eyeball.

The doctor looked at it for a moment, and then took a seat behind his desk. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” he said. “A thing like that, it should be gone in a day or two.”

“Well, where did it come from?” I asked. “How did I get it?”

“How do we get most things?” he answered.

“We buy them?”

The time before that, I was lying in bed and found a lump on my right side, just below my rib cage. It was like a devilled egg tucked beneath my skin. Cancer, I thought. A phone call and twenty minutes later, I was stretched out on the examining table with my shirt raised.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” the doctor said. “A little fatty tumor. Dogs get them all the time.”

I thought of other things dogs have that I don’t want: Dewclaws, for example. Hookworms. “Can I have it removed?”

“I guess you could, but why would you want to?”

He made me feel vain and frivolous for even thinking about it. “You’re right,” I told him. “I’ll just pull my bathing suit up a little higher.”

When I asked if the tumor would get any bigger, the doctor gave it a gentle squeeze. “Bigger? Sure, probably.”

“Will it get a lot bigger?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked.

And he said, sounding suddenly weary, “I don’t know. Why don’t trees touch the sky?”

Hilarious.

If you’ve never read Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, get yourself a copy immediately.