BANON, France — The tourist office was shut tight for the two weeks of school vacation when we visited this village last Thursday. It’s early spring in the alpine foothills of northeastern Provence, and the tourists who come here in modest numbers in summer have not yet arrived.
By most measures, Banon is a sleepy, idyllic place, a village whose population of roughly 1,000 was about the same two centuries ago, and one best known to most foreigners and French alike as a place bearing the name of a well-known goat cheese.
Yet in the heart of Banon sits one of the most exceptional bookstores in France — Le Bleuet, a rural outpost with roughly 100 titles for every inhabitant in the village. Unlike the tourist office, the bookstore stays open 363 days a year, all but Christmas and Jan. 1, the young man at the cash register told us.
But now, faced not only with the village’s distance from population centers but also the fierce competition of big Internet sellers like Amazon, Le Bleuet is fighting for its very survival. It has begun a crowd sourcing campaign in an effort to raise 25,000 euros — about $35,000 — in part to strengthen its online sales. So far it has commitments, the page says, for about 10 percent of this goal. And on the fundraising page, Gattefosse acknowledges he’ll need to raise another 25,000 euros before completing his campaign.
“Help us carry on this beautiful adventure,” Joel Gattefossé, who opened the store 24 years ago, writes in French in his appeal. “A bookstore, one of the largest in France, but also an e-commerce site that offers a real alternative to the ‘ogres of the Internet.’ … help us allow Le Bleuet to live.”
After visiting the store last week and buying several lovely books, I’m rooting for Gattefossé to beat what must be long odds in an age when huge urban bookstore chains such as Borders in the States have wilted and closed in the face of online competition.
Le Bleuet is a marvelous and distinctive bookstore, with 13 rooms on four floors connected by spiral staircases. On the top floor, for example, you’ll find 15 shelves of books devoted to architecture. There’s a shelf on the middle ages, one on antiquity, one on the years between the first and second world wars. An entire room is filled with graphic novels, many hard-covered. You can find Henry David Thoreau here, the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Jack London, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats — all in French, though the Yeats edition has his poems in their original English as well.
Only in the basement, beside the science section with titles such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History are a few shelves devoted to “literature en langue anglaise,” literature in English. It, too, includes many substantive books — Atonement by Ian McEwan, for example, and five titles by Tom Wolfe.
We learned of Le Bleuet from one of my French teachers at IS-Aix, Juliette Rambaldi.
“People will drive 100 kilometers just to go there,” she told me.
Remarkable. And in many ways, Gattefossé and his staff have done all that’s humanly possible to keep them coming — opening the store long hours seven days a week, organizing it beautifully, and stocking a varied and intellectually interesting collection.
Still, these days fewer customers are coming. And in this age of self-promotion and marketing, Gattefossé and staff seem badly in need of some advice on how to spread their story. The store’s actual website, for example, says nothing about its fundraising campaign and makes no effort to tell the store’s story, such as why it opened in such an out-of-the-way place. When I introduced myself as a journalist and asked if there was any literature about the store, the woman behind the counter froze me in place with her glare and abruptly said, “non.” When I asked whether I might speak with the owner, I was told he wasn’t around.
On the crowd-sourcing page, Gattefossé does tell some of the store’s tale, though just why the store succeeded in growing so large remains something of a mystery. (The fellow at the checkout counter ascribed the store’s success to “word of mouth.”)
In a Q&A on the crowd-sourcing site, Gattefossé says he originally was a carpenter, but his father was a printer and he grew up in a world of books. After the death of his parents in the 1980s, he says, he had a need to change his life. He moved to Banon and in 1990 bought an old boutique that sold a little of everything, including about 70 books.
His new career, however, was put on hold by health problems and it wasn’t until 1994 that he returned to Banon “transformé (transformed).” He bought the current site in 1999 with the help fo 52 investors who, he said, encouraged him to build a great bookstore. Somehow he did: In the month of August 2009, he says, the store sold an average of 940 works a day.
That was nearly years ago and now the store is facing serious financial problems. I’ll call Mr. Gattefossé in my best faltering French tomorrow to see if I can set up a more formal interview. I don’t know whether he’ll choose to talk, but it strikes me that if Le Bleuet is to survive, someone beyond the the environs of southern France will need his help to tell the story of this unique store.