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Internet holds no Terrors for Riviera English Language Bookshops

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English Language Bookshops on the Riviera

Internet holds no Terrors for Riviera English Language Bookshops
by Ted Jones

In Shakespeare’s Richard II, when the King banishes the Duke of Norfolk into exile, ‘never to return’, Norfolk’s plea for compassion is not about leaving his family or his stately manor – it is linguistic: ‘The language I have learned these forty years, my native English, now I must forego’.

Expatriates on the Riviera need make no such sacrifice. They are never far from a well-stocked English language bookshop catering for a wide range of tastes. From Fayence in the Var to Monaco, access to English books has never been easier.

While they may differ in size, style and customer demography, these shops do have one thing in common: their longevity. The average age of the shops in this study – see ’Contacts’ below – is about 20 years: even the most junior has been in business for 13 years, and one has been around for almost 26.

This ‘veteran’ is Scruples, in the rue Princesse Caroline in Monaco. Jane France arrived there fresh from a career that took in interior design with Harrod’s and the carpet business in India, and found herself in an increasingly Anglophone community that had limited access to books in English. Starting by selling books from a van to the boats in the harbour, she opened Scruples in 1980, and the rest, as they say, is history – not to mention biography, cookery, crime fiction and many other subjects.

Almost the same scenario happened in Cannes a couple of years later, where Wally Storer and his wife Christel opened up shop in April 1984.

They had come to the Riviera ‘for a year’, says Wally (in an accent that was described by Peter Mayle in Toujours Provence as ‘all the way from Sydney’) and decided to stay. Finding that they had some difficulty finding books in English, they thought they might have discovered an untapped market. So they opened the Cannes English Bookshop, and 21 years and 10 months later, they’re still there, in the rue Bivouac-Napoleon.

In the Var, the Castle Bookshop, also known as La Librairie du Chateau, at 1 rue Saint-Pierre in Fayence - a relative Johnny-come-lately with a mere 13 years’ existence - sells both English- and French-language books. Appropriately, its proprietor is an Englishwoman with a French name, Christine Buisson. She opened her shop in 1993, and finds the shop’s dual language role and cosmopolitain clientele a significant asset: in addition to buying books in their mother tongue, she says, ‘English speakers buy French books and French speakers buy English books’.

Heidi’s English Bookshop, owned by Heidi Lee, former actress and writer of children’s books, is at 24 rue Aubernon in Antibes. Heidi’s shop, 16 years of age in June, is unique in that it sells both new and second-hand books. It is also the largest in area of the English language bookshops in the region, having started with what Heidi calls a ‘cupboard’ of 12m², and grown to a cavernous 300m².

In Nice, at 30 rue Lamartine, a busy street behind the Nice Etoile shopping centre, is Cat’s Whiskers, the city’s only exclusively Anglophone bookshop. Opened 18 years ago by Linda Pickering, a former teacher of English, Cat’s Whiskers – its idiosynchratic name deriving from the shop’s logo - has by far the largest proportion (80%) of French readers among its customers than any other bookshop, much of it in the sale of English teaching materials for both adults and children. The cross-fertilization of tastes is valuable: ‘often French clients recommend works that are not well-known to Anglo-Saxon readers’, says Linda.

Among the narrow cobbled streets of the ancient town of Valbonne, at 12 rue Alexis Julien, is Jill Sheppard’s English Book Centre, which was opened in 1990. Although she was bitten by the book bug as a child in England, where her mother ran a small bookshop, Jill spent 20 years in the travel industry before coming to the Cote d’Azur, and has been running the English Book Centre for the last four years. Because of its proximity to the Sophia-Antipolis Business Park – local dignitaries like to call it ‘France’s Silicon Valley' – the population of the area is predominantly international and English-speaking: fertile ground for an English bookshop.

What of the future? What do these experienced book sellers think of the future for English language bookshops on the Riviera? ‘Challenging’, says Linda Pickering of Cat’s Whiskers in Nice. The biggest threat is without doubt the big on-line suppliers. With a base of more than 50 million registered customers, Amazon has the purchasing clout that the small retailer can only envy. Still, most booksellers would agree on the limitations of on-line buying.

Jill Sheppard says of her English Book Centre in Valbonne, ‘It’s more than just a bookshop, it’s a centre for social contact ‘. ‘There’s no substitute for browsing in an interesting bookshop’ says Heidi Lee of Antibes Books. Authors tend to agree. Michael Nelson, Riviera resident and author of Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera, believes that ‘one of the great advantages of bookshops is that books are displayed in sections and the purchaser is immediately drawn to his subject of interest, which does not happen on the internet’.

The bookshops find enterprising ways of improving awareness: book signings, for example. The late Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, former Monaco neighbour and regular client of Scruples, held a signing there of his novel Earthly Powers. (This was the author who told the New York Times, ‘possession of a book is a substitute for reading it’!).

And Wally Storer takes advantage of his proximity to the Cannes Film Festival by coinciding his (often film-related) events with the famous Festival. His signers have included Tony Curtis, Carol Drinkwater, Michael Nelson, Mel Brooks - and even this writer. As Michael Nelson puts it. ‘a little publicity on Riviera Radio, and local residents not only come to the signings, but actually buy books’. (‘Residents’ is a key word here. Expats tend to be more aware of such events because they listen to local radio and read the local papers.)

Books are the tendrils of my soul’, wrote the late Robert W. Service, the English-born and much-travelled adventurer and poet - and intermittent Riviera resident for almost 30 years. He would have been pleased to know that, in spite of the inroads of local librairies and internet marketeers, the future for English language bookshops on the Riviera is challenging, but promising.

© Ted Jones
Ted Jones is the author of The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers.

Address Book

English Book Centre
12 rue Alexis Julien,
06560 Valbonne.
Tel: 04 93 12 21 42
Fax: 04 93 12 26 43
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Website

Antibes Books
24 rue Aubernon,
06600 Antibes.
Tel: 04 93 34 74 11
Fax: 04 93 34 74 11
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Cannes English Bookshop
11 rue Bivouac Napoleon,
06400 Cannes
Tel: 04 93 99 40 08
Fax: 04 93 66 39 72
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Website

Castle Bookshop
1 rue St Pierre,
83440 Fayence.
Tel: 04 94 84 72 00
Fax: 04 94 84 72 00
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Cat’s Whiskers Bookshop
30 rue Lamartine,
06000 Nice.
Tel: 04 93 80 02 66
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Scruples
9 rue Princesse Caroline,
Monaco
Tel: +377 93 50 43 52
Fax: +377 93 50 43 52
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