In the Latin Quarter, Paris' intellectual heartbeat grows fainter
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In the Latin Quarter, Paris' intellectual heartbeat grows fainter
A film crew on Feb. 26, 2021, in Paris in the Latin Quarter. The neighborhood's charm increasingly draws wealthy people from around the world, pushing more bohemian residents to the suburbs. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times.

by Constant Méheut

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- 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 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.

“It closes down,” she said, “and with it a part of the neighborhood collapses.”

The fate of the Gibert Jeune bookstores, some of which date to the late 19th century, is just the latest in a series of emblematic closings that have eroded the cultural identity of the Latin Quarter as the hub of Parisian letters, home to countless writers, philosophers, artists, revolutionaries and students.

The gentrification that many Parisians fear is 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 urban planning agency Apur show that 42% of the Latin Quarter’s bookstores have vanished in the past 20 years, and Paris’ 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.

“It is this bookstore that best embodied the spirit of the Latin Quarter,” said Éric Anceau, a historian teaching at the Sorbonne, the renowned university founded in the heart of the Latin Quarter in 1253. The name of the area derives from the use of Latin as the language of study by Sorbonne students in the Middle Ages.

Located on the left bank of the Seine, the compact Latin Quarter was spared the razing that created the city’s grand boulevards in the 19th century, its narrow, crooked and cobbled lanes retaining a fragment of medieval Paris. It holds a constellation of tiny movie theaters where, pre-pandemic, people squeezed in to watch classics for just a few euros, along with the antique bookstores whose dusty windows display yellowing books stacked up to the ceiling.

“It’s culture, accessible to all!” Anceau said, adding, “We will lose that spirit when we lose Gibert.”

On a recent afternoon, Ingrid Ernst, an energetic retired urban planner, was touring the area. Every street corner she stopped at was an opportunity to point to a cafe that had made way for a supermarket or to a record dealer turned luxury hotel.

“It’s the classic gentrification process,” Ernst, 69, said as she grumbled about the proliferation of elevators in the nearby buildings, a sign of “full-speed gentrification.”

Ernst said she would no longer be able to afford the small attic studio she rented when she settled in the Latin Quarter in 1972, when it still bubbled with the energy of the student-led “May 1968” protests that took place there.

The Latin Quarter is home to many universities but fewer and fewer students. They have been driven away by the neighborhood’s housing prices, some of Paris’ highest, and by the creation of new campuses on the outskirts of the capital to meet greater demand.

“It’s almost impossible to live here as a student,” said Constance Pena, 19, sitting on a bench near the Sorbonne, who had come all the way from a western suburb to study in a nearby library.

Gone are the days when 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.

Ernst said that new residents were attracted by the neighborhood’s cultural atmosphere but “do not participate in it.” The students who used to flock to the sidewalk cafe terraces bordering the Luxembourg Gardens have been gradually replaced by the global affluent, she said.

What’s more, the strong desire of many stores to preserve their distinctiveness has prevented them from modernizing and left them defenseless in the face of new, digital competition, as evidenced by the Gibert Jeune bookstores.

Their stalls of colorful secondhand books on the sidewalk have done little to counter the threat of Amazon, and their aging, ramshackle interiors promote nostalgia more than consumption.

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Ernst, who, along with other local residents, has formed a 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.

Anceau, the historian, said the atmosphere in the neighborhood had been “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 prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who died last month, read: “For Le Champo! So many years later … and how many more years to come?”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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