A old shop in Paris is holding onto its place in the city by embracing new technology.
In the digital age, bookstores aren’t going down without a fight—or at least, a small stroke of genius.
The Libraries des Puf—a shop in the Latin Quarter of Paris, run by University Press of France (or Les Puf)—has turned literary retail on its head by filling its space not paperback, but with a few sleek shelves and one large printer. The Espresso Book Machine, as it’s called, sits awaiting the customer’s request for a title, which it prints out within five minutes, The New York Times recently wrote. In that time, patrons sip coffee on nearby stools, or flip through the digital catalog of available books on tablets lining the shop.
The first Espresso Book Machine was installed in the New York Public Library in 2007. Since then, the printers have cropped up in a handful of libraries and stores in cities throughout the world. On Demand Books, the manufacturing company, has acquired the rights to three million books from 10 major publishers; in the Parisian store, Les Puf’s 5,000 titles are available for printing as well. McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore nestled in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, stocks physical books, but also has an Espresso Book Machine. It’s been there since 2011, and mostly, customers make use of it to self-publish books or create materials for one-off events, one of the bookstore’s on-demand printing experts tells CityLab.
Alexandre Gaudefoy, the Libraries des Puf’s director, told the Times that customers are initially thrown off by the lack of actual books in the shop, but they soon adjust. It is, after all, still a bookstore, and one whose selection extends beyond the confines of a typical brick-and-mortar shop. This one in particular is standing its ground against the waves of change that have shuttered independent booksellers across Paris and throughout the world.
The Libraries des Puf first opened in a much larger space close to the Sorbonne in 1921, where it drew crowds of students and intellectuals until closing a decade ago. The Times, pulling from a 2015 Paris Urban Planning Agency Report, noted 28 percent of Parisian bookstores closed between 2000 and 2014, forced out by rising rents and e-commerce competition. In an effort to preserve the character of the Latin Quarter—the city’s most bookstore-dense neighborhood—the Paris City Council introduced its Vital’Quartier program in 2008, and began buying up retail space and leasing it out to culturally significant vendors at rates far below the going market price. Through the initiative, the Libraries des Puf acquired a space just a few blocks from its original location; it reopened its doors in March.
The store’s modernized format has kept operating costs low, and the novelty of an on-demand book has so far kept profits steady. While still a fledgling venture, the Libraries des Puf’s success so far is a testament to the fact that there’s still a space for the unique, small businesses that have long defined urban cultural centers. Adaptability is crucial, and it’s a lesson that other niche vendors have also had to learn on the fly. My colleagues Jessica Hester and Linda Poon previously wrote about how a seltzer salesman and a mobile knife-sharpening unit have kept their businesses afloat in New York through an appeal to nostalgia, coupled with the ease of on-demand delivery.
Even beyond Paris’ Vital’Quartier initiative, it seems cities are beginning to realize how essential bookstores are. The New York Times article nodded to a London-based mobile app, NearSt, which directs users to close-by independent bookstores. This past year, the Times reported that sales in physical bookstores rose 2.5 percent, the first increase since 2007. As CityLab reported in April, more than 450 bookstores across the U.S. participated in the second annual Independent Bookstore Day, full of readings, signings, and giveaways.
While the tides are turning back in favor of independent bookstores, it’s often not enough for them to subsist on books sales alone: They have to provide an experience. A book printed out just for you while you wait with your coffee certainly is that.