There are surely as many good English-language bookstores in Paris as in all but a handful of cities in the United States. Whatever that may tell us about relative cultural priorities, it's also an indication of the American (and British) presence in Paris, the importance of American literature to literate Parisians and the large number of Americans visiting and living there.
I discovered 10 bookstores in Paris that specialize, more or less - a few exclusively - in English-language books, four on the Right Bank and six on the Left. One can visit them all in a long day's walk. For a city of its size, compared to New York or London, Paris is readily accessible by foot.
A useful place to start our walking tour would be on the Right Bank, on the Rue de Rivoli where, at Rue Cambon, one finds W. H. Smith (subtitle: The English Bookstore), a larger, more glamorous version of the stationery shops in the notable British chain. The Paris Smith's is a place to get English newspapers and The New York Times, best sellers and a wide range of English paperbacks - Penguin, Pan, Methuen, Virago. There is an imitation English tea shop on the second floor. The books, which are mostly imported from England (Penguin has a terrific list of American titles), cost about half again as much as they do in London, which means they cost about the same as paperbacks in the United States. W. H. Smith is similar to American chains like B. Dalton, a good place to pick up a recent book of no great obscurity but hardly a hangout for book lovers. Still, for a mass market store, Smith's stocks a large number of interesting paperbacks, including American titles generally unavailable in the States. The Louvre is a few minutes' walk from Smith's, though perhaps too great a distraction on this particular tour.
Walking east on the Rue de Rivoli, two blocks or so from W. H. Smith, one comes to the oldest and most elegant English-language bookstore in Paris, the Librairie Galignani. If W. H. Smith has the feel of an upscale Dalton, Galignani is reminiscent of Scribner or Rizzoli in New York. Galignani, lined with dark wood shelves and with a skylight overhead, is easy to move around in, well-stocked, a mix of shelves and tables displaying few if any best sellers. Unlike the chains, it is a store for which books are objects of respect and affection. Galignani has a good selection of poetry and a small though impressive selection of art books. Its prices are generally comparable to Smith's. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful. Browsing is encouraged. Originated in 1805, and at the present address since 1856, Galignani carries 15,000 volumes in English and 15,000 in French. It is a favorite among American writers living in Paris and a place to visit for those who love bookstores as esthetic objects in themselves.
Walking north on the Rue des Pyramides, turning left on Avenue de l'Opera, one comes to the huge, mass market bookstore, Brentano, which appropriately has a golden facade. On entering the store, customers are confronted by records, key chains and souvenirs, as if the absence of books were a selling point. If W. H. Smith is a bit of England on the Continent, Brentano might be perceived as its American counterpart, a bookshop seemingly embarrassed to display books. In the back, however, is a winding blind alley of paperbacks, a first-rate collection hidden away like a secret vice. Brentano's thousands of books in English include a travel shelf comparable to Smith's and a considerably more extensive children's books section. (The other shops on this tour are less rewarding than Smith and Brentano for visitors seeking maps and travel guides in English.) Although disguised as an upscale tourist bazaar, Brentano is, in fact, a fairly substantial store of its kind. Prices are about the same as Smith's and slightly higher than the least expensive of the Left Bank bookstores. Brentano is a short walk from the American Express offices and the Paris Opera.
The one other English-language bookstore on the Right Bank, Librairie Albion, is an anomalous presence. It is a store you are not likely to stumble on unless thoroughly lost. The way to find it is to take Avenue de l'Opera south to Rue de Rivoli, walk east for about 12 blocks along Rivoli until it becomes Rue St. Antoine and then ask directions to Rue Charles V, a street with no other shops but Librairie Albion. From a distance, Albion looks something like an English pub. The front door was locked when my companion and I arrived and an employee let us in through the back. Although Albion exists to serve the University of Paris, which is nearby, stocking French, German and Spanish texts in addition to English, it is a real bookstore - a place of books - cramped, charming, incomplete, eccentric, the expression of a personality. If you are after a particular volume, Brentano and Smith are more likely to have it, but if you are willing to discover what you might want, Albion is a sweet place to browse.
Crossing the Seine to the Left Bank at
Pont Marie and working one's way past Notre Dame, the walker comes to the Rue de la Bucherie and Shakespeare and Company, namesake and self-styled spiritual heir to the legendary Sylvia Beach bookstore of the expatriate 1920's. Shakespeare has stalls in front selling used books, starting at about 60 cents. There may be books of interest among the long forgotten popular novels, mysteries and outdated anthologies, of interest to someone - there are always browsers on display - but I found virtually none. The crowded interior, an olio of old and new books, seems somewhat more promising, though chaos seems to be the shop's reigning principle of organization. Run by George Whitman, a theatrically bohemian septuagenarian with an avowed sense of mission, the store regularly sponsors readings, offers free shelter to young writers (and potential writers) in its apartments upstairs and invites selected visitors to browse in its private library, reputedly totaling 50,000 volumes.
It is, in its own way, a service bookstore, a haven to the errant literary spirit, a place to rub shoulders with literary ghosts. Most of the writers in Paris I talked to thought Shakespeare and Company, for all its good intentions, was of negligible use. Originally called Mistral (one of the celebratory articles I was shown called it Mistrial), Mr. Whitman's shop changed its name to Shakespeare and Company in 1964 to make connection with the original in which, legend says, James Joyce wrote ''Ulysses.'' The 13-room house that Shakespeare occupies, a beautiful building in bohemian disrepair, was, in one of its lives, a monastery and in another an Arab grocery. Today it is a kind of shrine in the guise of a bookstore.
Moving south on Rue St. Jacques, crossing the Boulevard St. Michel, then turning left on Rue des Ecoles, one arrives at Attica, in the Sorbonne district, a former avant-garde bookstore domesticated by the needs of survival. French intellectuals are particularly interested in new American fiction and Attica reflects that interest. There are more books from American publishers here and more small-press books than in the Right Bank supermarkets. Visitors who remember with great affection the haphazard and highly personal collection at Attica's original store will be somewhat disappointed by the relative impersonality of its present quarters. What started out as an obsession of the owner, Stephan Levy, has metamorphosed into a better than average English-language paperback bookstore, a good example of what you might find in an American university town. The difference is that English is not the primary language of Paris. Browsing is welcome. Prices are reasonable. Next on the tour is the Librairie Internationale on the Boulevard St. Germain. To get there, one backtracks on the Rue des Ecoles to Boulevard St. Michel, turns right toward Boulevard Saint Germain, going by the enormous Chez Gibert (a good place to buy inexpensive maps and travel guides - in French), and arrives after a five-minute walk. The elegant Librairie Internationale, which has a high-tech look, specializes in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish books, the English texts making up 40 percent of the stock. The place has achieved a certain notoriety among some writers. Two American poets were evicted from Internationale for having taken books off the shelves to look at the texts. A visit to the shop readily conjures the scene. The manager, a former finance specialist, presides over the store like a grim schoolmaster. Although Internationale has an impressive stock of almost 50,000 books, it is a place without definition or focus or passion. The shop has books on economics (in English) and philosophy that are probably not available elsewhere in Paris. It is, clearly, not a place to browse.
One continues on the Boulevard St. Germain, turning left on the Rue de Rennes, and arrives after about a half-mile at the main branch of the department store FNAC. Among its seemingly endless stock of French books are a half-dozen English-language shelves, broken up into the rubrics: Policiers, Science Fiction and Literature. It is an efficiency bookstore without pretensions, an amusing place to browse and shop. Moreover, it is air-conditioned; it was the only bookstore I visited with the air-conditioning switched on. The selection is smaller than at Smith or Brentano, but in a sampling I took the prices were two to five percent cheaper. FNAC is a part of a chain that sells electronic and photographic equipment and develops film overnight.
Going right on the Rue de Vaugirard, taking the occasion to cross the Jardin du Luxembourg - a particularly pleasant walk - to the Boulevard St. Michel, the stroller turns south and comes to the Nouveau Quartier Latin, a large, sprawling store that, like Attica, serves the students and faculty at the Sorbonne. The Nouveau also distributes English-language texts to most of the other bookstores. An inelegant, spacious shop of some 50,000 volumes, it is particularly good for hardcover cinema books and for coffee-table books on American popular culture. It is neither mass market, like Smith and Brentano, nor literary, like Attica, but something in between, a solid middlebrow way station, an Americanized French-English language bookstore. The service is low key and helpful. Browsing is acceptable and prices are somewhat lower than those of the Right Bank shops.
The last stop on our tour is the cafe-bookstore on the Rue Princesse, a side street off Boulevard St. Germain, a place called the Village Voice, which provides a center for much of the American literary activity in Paris. On my visit, I was shown three recently established literary periodicals, ''Frank,'' ''Paris Exiles'' and ''Moving Letter,'' containing work primarily of American writers living in the city. A reading given by the contributors to ''Paris Exiles'' while I was there - Village Voice sponsors six to eight readings a month - drew a crowd that overflowed the store. The owner and proprietor, Odile Hellier, a translator, has made Village Voice into the kind of place Shakespeare and Company merely imagines itself to be. Although small, the cafe-store has an impressively varied collection of large and small press publications. It carries The Village Voice (no relation) and The New York Times Book Review. In existence less than three years, Village Voice best exemplifies the new literary vitality among Americans in Paris. Alone among English-language bookstores there, it also carries European literature in translation.
It is a telling paradox that the United States is a source of some of the most exciting serious literature available in France. Largely this is thanks to English paperbacks, the intermediary in what is a fairly complex cultural transaction. A further reason to visit this beautiful city - as if one needed one - is to discover the vitality of one's own culture when separated from it by over 3,000 miles and hundreds of years of tradition.
The following is a postscript, a separate tour, a rundown of French-language bookstores of passing interest to the visitor. The Librairie Dupuis on the corner of Rue St. Jacques and Boulevard St. Germain is a shop devoted solely to cartoon books, a hot item in Paris. Some are wonderfully inventive while others seem merely excuses for avoiding the written word. There are two fairly good movie bookstores, Le Minotaure on Rue Beaux Arts (near Rue de Seine) and City Lights, Rue de la Gaite. For chess enthusiasts, the Librairie St. Germain on the boulevard is a place given over to chess books and texts dealing with games of strategy. According to ''Passion,'' the English-language magazine of Paris, Librairie Ulysse on the Ile St. Louis is the best travel bookstore in the city. And for bookstore aficionados I recommend a visit to La Hune or Le Divan, both on the Boulevard St. Germain, to see what a serious French bookshop is like. For the book lover, a browse through the beautiful Hune is a two-star meal. La Hune has a large, perhaps complete, collection of French art magazines and literary journals. I had the feeling, browsing in the hospitable store, that there is not a book on its shelves or tables that is not of some interest to the serious reader. A reader's guide Right Bank W. H. Smith (English Bookstore), 248 Rue de Rivoli (1st arrondissement). Telephone: 188.8.131.52. Metro: Concorde. Hours: 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday.
Librairie Galignani, 224 Rue de Rivoli (1st arrondissement; 184.108.40.206. Metro: Concorde. Hours: 9:30 to 6:30; closed Monday.
Brentano, 37 Avenue de l'Opera, (2d arrondissement); 220.127.116.11. Metro: Pyramides or Opera. Hours: 10 to 7 daily.
Librairie Albion, 13 Rue Charles V (4th arrondissement); 18.104.22.168. Metro: St. Paul or Pont Marie. Hours: 9:30 to 7:30 Sunday to Friday; 10 to 6 Saturday. Left Bank Librairie Internationale, 141 Boulevard St. Germain (6th arrondissement); 22.214.171.124. Metro: St. Germain-des-Pres-Mabillon. Hours: 10 A.M. to 1 P.M., 2 to 7 P.M. Tuesday to Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.
Village Voice, 6 Rue Princesse (6th arrondissement); 126.96.36.199. Metro: St. Germain-des-Pres-Mabillon. Hours: 11 A.M. to 8 P.M. Tuesday to Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday.
Librairie Attica, 34 Rue des Ecoles (5th arrondissement); 43.26.09.53. Metro: Maubert Mutualite. Hours: 2 to 7 P.M. Monday; 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. Tuesday to Friday; 10 A.M. to 1 P.M., 2 to 7 P.M. Saturday; closed Sunday.
Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue de la Bucherie (5th arrondissement); no telephone. Metro: St. Michel. Hours: Open every day, noon to midnight, approximately.
FNAC, 136 Rue de Rennes (6th arrondissement); 188.8.131.52. Metro: Montparnasse. Hours: 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday.
Nouveau Quartier Latin, 78 Boulevard St.Michel, near Rue Auguste-Comte (6th arrondissement); 184.108.40.206. Metro: Port-Royal or Luxembourg. Hours: 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday.
Hat tip: Edward J. Cunningham