The first in what may be a series of interviews.
What does a town or neighborhood need to make it livable? There’s no shortage of thinking and writing about this issue, but in my experience it starts with some sort of pleasing centrally located square (place, Platz, piazza), a pedestrian only area; some landscaping, shrubbery, or topiary to go along is fine; nearby are halls or auditoriums for music and art and science; and rounding it out: commerce – restaurants and cafes of a certain quality, and stores: hardware stores, a record/cd store, cigar store + head shop, a sports store, and a bookstore. The bookstore might be one of a chain: I think Barnes and Nobles is the only significant chain left in the United States, and recently, in Amsterdam I went for the first time into a Waterstones, a chain with most of their stores in the British Isles. Or the bookstore might be independent, and therefore much more interesting: Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, the Green Apple in San Francisco, or The Word Bookstore in Montreal are a few examples, but regardless, a bookstore is a prerequisite for any sort of town. To expand for a moment: Burlington, Vermont and Heidelberg, Germany both conform to my vision of what a town should be, but there can be variations on the theme: Hoorn, the Netherlands is one, and another is Annapolis, Maryland, and with the U.S. Naval Academy and St. John’s College, it can certainly be classified as a university town.
Now La Garde: walk out the front door, walk twenty seconds down the hill into town, and within two hundred meters there are: five bakeries, two tattoo parlors, six banks, two electronic cigarette stores, five real estate agents, numerous bad sandwich shops, two kabob shops, five pizzerias, two butchers, two opticians, one wretched Viet-Names restaurant, two pharmacies, a driving school, a sort of stationary store that sells mostly magazines and lotto tickets, a tabac that sells cigarettes and lotto tickets, eight hair stylists, and several dingy bar/restaurants. There is a sort of main place, but it lacks the certain je ne sais quoi – there are cars driving around it and it is ugly. I don’t know who at city hall is responsible for all this, especially all the banks, real estate agents, and hair stylists, but it’s a travesty.
Okay, take a breath: it’s not Menlo Park, it’s not Montpellier (either one), it’s not Montreal. It’s Turlock, it’s Tucumari, it’s La Garde. Assume that in addition to whatever muddling the local city hall does to attract and retain desirable businesses, there are some bona fide market forces that create demand for all that hair cutting and lotto tickets. What I expect in a town differs from what other people want.
But happily there are contrarians, there are still surprises: one day I walked by something that shouldn’t have been in La Garde, a bookstore – a new bookstore selling children’s books, nothing to do with hair, no lotto tickets. Two thoughts: that person must insane, and finally!
Brigitte Gailhac is not insane. She is the brave owner of L’Atoll Imaginaire Book Store, a children’s bookstore, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed (indeed, the speed of her email response to my interview request was on par with the screen locked drones of Silicon Valley – instantaneous). Certainly it was fitting that a bookstore owner should be my first interview. As a writer, perhaps one day to be published, perhaps not, books and everything about them I find meaningful.
Our interview was on a Tuesday afternoon at the bookstore, and Angela Green, a friend who happens to be a translator, agreed to translate during the interview. As it happened Brigitte recognized Angela from a previous event, where Angela was the translator at a local talk by British author Tim Willocks. And here I must note that because I could not conduct the interview directly with Brigitte, the replies are not verbatim, but rather my summary. Any inaccuracies are my error, and not those of Angela or Brigette.
How long have you been in La Garde?
I’ve been back in the area for two years. I now live in La Valette, but I am from La Garde originally.
Where else have you lived in France, and for how long?
I lived in and around Paris for many years. I moved there for my work.
What did you do in Paris?
I worked for ten years as a graphic designer for several different advertising agencies. Then, I left the workforce for six years to focus on raising my children
What happened when you decided to return to work?
I applied for a three month contract doing data entry at a library. However, fifteen days into my contract I was offered a full time job, and ever since then have been involved with books. I went back to school for additional library studies. My last job before moving south was as the director of the municipal library in Ballancourt sur Essone.
Why did you decided to open a bookstore?
There are several reasons. I wanted to work for myself and be independent, to have my own business. After my previous jobs, the timing felt right for me to try my own business, for a new challenge. The second reason is I love the domain of books, even before when I worked as a graphic artist. Last, having my own business gave me a chance to come back to the south of France and live in La Garde.
Why a children’s bookstore?
The color, the imagination, the animation, the innocence in children’s books is very appealing to me. In particular, today with so much electronic reading, the printed page remains important and superior to reading electronically, and having this bookstore is a way for me to pass on my passion for reading.
Did anyone try to dissuade you from opening the bookstore?
Other bookstore owners in Paris because they had experience in the field, and know all the difficulties. Books are expensive and the profits are so small – it’s a difficult business.
When did you first open?
Almost one year ago, on December 8, 2014.
What were some of the obstacles you faced when opening your store?
All the usual things when starting a new business: rent, fees, financing, administrative work, and so on. However, I also benefited from training by the Var Chamber of Commerce, which provided useful information for me in establishing my bookstore.
How do you decided what books to stock?
Some of my decisions are based upon my experience working in a library. But also, every day I spend several hours reviewing professional journals and web sites about new and upcoming books. With thousands of writers and editors in France alone, it requires a great deal of time to stay on top of the market.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I came from a modest background and therefore we did not have many books at home. In general I enjoyed books about animals and science. And I remember discovering Marcel Pagnol at the library at my elementary school, Michel Zunino.
What are some of the books every French child should read?
Books by Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, Michael Morpurgo, Phillip Nessman, Anne Marie Desplat Duc, Marcel Pagnol, and also books drawn by the artist Antonie Guilloppe.
What are the books or authors every French adult should read?
Books by Henri Loevebruck, Karine Giebel, Yasmina Khadra, and Eric Emmanuel Schmitt.
What French books do you recommend for foreigners (to understand France)?
Eric Schmitt (already noted above), Gregpoire Delacourt, and Bernard Minier.
What are you reading right now, and what do you like to read?
I’m reading a local author, Carole Theunis, who will also be doing a local books signing here on October 10th. She’s a writer and teacher in Var, and her third novel is set in the Var. For myself I particularly enjoy reading science fiction. I enjoy books by Raymond Feist, Gabriel Katz, and Serge Brussolo.
What is your favorite bookstore?
The Cook and Book Store in Belgium. It carries many foreign books and translations, and the layout and design of the store are wonderful. In my experience foreign book stores often do a better job of those in France in displaying books and creating the right atmosphere. Also, another store I like, closer to home, is Le Bleuet in Banon.
Why are books important?
Because they contain all the knowledge in the world.
Where are you in five years?
Still in business, of course, but with a larger store. I’d like to expand from just children’s books into other genres, including adult fiction and non-fiction. In addition I’d like to expand my offerings of books in braille and books for dyslexic children. These books are harder to find, and also if you’re shopping on the internet, a parent can’t look through a book to see if it’s the right one. That’s the advantage to having the actual book here in the store. In addition, I’d like to have a cafe added to the bookstore, much like that of Shakespeare and Company’s in Paris.
Need a translator? Angela Green can be reached at email@example.com.
Author Carole Theunis’s website is here.
The Cook and Book Store is here.
Le Bleuet’s website is here.