In the Latin Quarter, Paris’s Intellectual Heartbeat Grows Fainter

PARIS — With their bright yellow awnings and sagging iron shelves, the Gibert Jeune bookstores, which sell cheap secondhand books, have been a fixture of the Latin Quarter in Paris for over a century, a mainstay of the neighborhood’s shabby-chic intellectual life and beloved by tourists too.

“So old and unchangeable,” said Anny Louchart, 74, a longtime customer who was recently rummaging through boxes of paperbacks at one of the stores, her voice filled with nostalgia.

But a sales assistant told Ms. Louchart that four of the store’s seven outposts in the area, including the one she stood in, would soon close, hard hit by a drop in sales because of the pandemic.

robbing their city of its soul has not spared the Latin Quarter, where fashion stores and fast-food restaurants have taken over many of the spaces once occupied by ancient cafes, bookstores and movie theaters. The neighborhood’s appeal has driven up rents, causing a once-vibrant student life to crumble.

Figures from the urban planning agency Apur show that 42 percent of the Latin Quarter’s bookstores have vanished in the past 20 years, and Paris’s open-air booksellers are also fighting for survival.

But the news of the closings of the Gibert Jeune bookstores — an institution that seemed immortal to many people — has sounded an unusual alarm. It strikes at the very heart of the neighborhood’s identity: access to culture at an affordable price.

Three Gibert Jeune stores just closed, and the fourth was expected to follow suit in the next few days.

student-led “May 1968” protests that took place there.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that Paris and its Latin Quarter allowed “a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were.”

Michel Carmona, a historian and geographer specializing in Paris, said that the cultural erosion of the Latin Quarter started in the 1980s and was intertwined with the gradual decline of student life. “Cheap bookstores, cafes and movie theaters are primarily for students,” he said.

He added that residents of the neighborhood were increasingly “transit people” — wealthy foreigners eager to have a pied-à-terre or tourists renting Airbnb apartments.

At the heart of this dynamic lies a paradox: Gentrification uproots the same bohemian charm that draws people to the Latin Quarter.

Latin Quarter Committee that lobbies the authorities on defending the neighborhood’s cultural identity.

In an attempt to help, the Paris authorities said they had acquired the premises of some struggling bookstores and offered them rents slightly below the market rate.

In a statement, the leadership of the Gibert Jeune chain said that “the Covid crisis, with the emptying of the Latin Quarter of Paris,” had been the final straw.

apocalyptic” since the start of the pandemic. The gloom that has settled over Paris has been perhaps most conspicuous in the Latin Quarter, whose very heart — the cafes, restaurants, theaters and museums — stopped beating amid government lockdown restrictions to fight coronavirus infections.

The temporary shutdown of these cultural pillars has resonated among local residents as a dress rehearsal for the near future. Cafes and theaters have not reopened since the fall, when a second wave of infections was taking hold in France, and many fear that some will have gone out of business by the time restrictions are lifted.

On the Rue Champollion, a cobbled, narrow street close to the Sorbonne, the lines of film buffs that once stretched out on the sidewalks in the middle of the day are nowhere to be found today. The three art-house movie theaters there were closed for the lockdown

One of the theaters, Le Champo, has been displaying extracts from its guest book — “the memory box,” as it called them — behind its closed windows. A 2018 message left by the prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who died last month, read: “For Le Champo! So many years later … and how many more years to come?”

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