French town cannot let bookstore die

Corinne Dalloz helps a customer in a bookshop in Poligny, France, that was on the verge of closing until it was bought by local residents.
Corinne Dalloz helps a customer in a bookshop in Poligny, France, that was on the verge of closing until it was bought by local residents. (Edward Cody/the Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 16, 2009

POLIGNY, FRANCE - Just off the town square, a few hundred feet down La Grande Rue, a bookstore has been dispensing culture and entertainment to the people of Poligny for 150 years. Over the generations, residents said, it has become part of the landscape, a place where children tarry on the way home from school and their parents duck in to pick up the latest novel.

That's why, when the shop looked as if it would have to close this spring, a group of townspeople put up cash to form a little corporation, capitalized at $70,000, and bought the lease to keep it running. As a result, the New Bookstore reopened two weeks ago with a coat of fresh paint but a familiar mission: to be a haven where people feel welcome dropping by to buy a ballpoint pen or browse for books.

Poligny residents' effort to preserve an old-fashioned Main Street bookstore may seem eccentric in an age of electronics, instantaneous communication and discount giants. But not in France, a country that is unusually fixated on its centuries-old traditions and is determined to safeguard its cultural heritage.

"This place is part of Poligny's history, part of its patrimony," said Corinne Dalloz, a shareholder and the only paid employee in the bookstore, which serves fewer than 5,000 residents in this town in the rustic Jura foothills 250 miles southeast of Paris.

History and identity

Respect for heritage helps explain why France is so enjoyable -- it is the world's top tourist destination, with more than 80 million visitors a year. But it comes with a price. National and local government agencies spend nearly $1 billion a year to maintain and restore historical monuments, including funding the paint job now underway for the Eiffel Tower, according to the Culture and Communication Ministry.

The country's grand wines and celebrated cuisine also owe much to the reverence for age-old traditions. Folk wisdom, for instance, demands that good cheese come from small-scale artisans emulating their ancestors. But the old ways cost more than modern methods -- cheese, it turns out, is cheaper to make on a factory scale -- and agriculture here is notoriously subsidized.

Politically, as well, France's focus on the past often creates roadblocks. Former president Jacques Chirac famously observed that French people would not accept the changes necessary to compete in a modern, global economy, preferring a long lunch break to a higher salary and a secure health insurance system to lower taxes.

President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007 largely on a promise to break with that conservatism, vowing that French people would work more and earn more under his leadership. But public suspicion has forced him to pull back on several ambitious reforms, and there is no sign French people are working any more than they did under Chirac.

Sarkozy's latest political initiative, what he calls a "national identity debate," has again highlighted the French tendency to default to the way things were when asked how things should be.

As explained by Sarkozy and his lieutenants, the idea was to launch a national discussion on what it means to be French at a time when the population is changing -- it now includes more than 6 million Muslims -- Europe's largest Muslim community -- and a growing influx of Africans and Eastern Europeans. Most of the discussion so far, however, has focused on the need for new arrivals to adhere to values arising from France's past, when the population was overwhelmingly Christian and white.

"National identity concerns us all," Sarkozy said Thursday at a ceremony honoring victims of the German occupation in World War II. "What is at stake in industry, in agriculture, in the countryside, among artisans, is not only economic. It is also the disappearance of a form of civilization, of a heritage of values, of a culture of work."

The philosopher Chantal Delsol, in an essay Friday in the Figaro newspaper, said that being French means first of all "assuming France's past," the splendors of its kings in the 18th century but also the ignominies of its collaborators in the 1940s. She went on, however, to suggest that France must also go beyond its past because the world has largely moved on while France was stuck contemplating glories that were.

"French people can no longer rely on the heritage, the wealth of the country, its model institutions, its admired language, its universal message," she said. "All those good things are being dislocated, and we will no longer draw people to follow us on the words of La Marseillaise."

Banding together

National identity concerns were far from the minds of Poligny residents when the bookstore's previous owner started telling friends early this year that she was going to close up because her health was failing. Instead, the worry was that La Grande Rue would have a boarded-up storefront where generations had found a source of pleasure and learning.

By May, the idea of a buyout had taken form. Roughly 100 residents bought shares at $750 each, including Mayor Dominique Bonnet. That was enough to secure a loan, buy the lease and get started on a makeover of the 525-square-foot premises.

A bookstore owner from the nearby city of Dole provided advice on how to proceed. Dalloz, a recent arrival in Poligny, had an idea of what the place should look like because she had worked in several bookstores in Paris. In addition, City Hall and nearby business owners were eager to avoid a shuttered storefront on Poligny's main shopping street. Many put up money or helped with repairs during the renovation, according to Geneviève Dandelot, a retired teacher who was among the prime movers of the buyout.

"It was something we did not want to see die," said Frédérique Brelot, who runs a delicatessen across the street. "If this business were to die off, then pretty soon we're nothing, too."

Jean-Pierre Thévenin, a retired civil servant, said the Association for the Preservation of Poligny's Patrimony, of which he is treasurer, also played a role by promoting concern for cultural preservation. City Hall recently committed to restoring a medieval tower on the main square, for instance, and when an Ursuline convent's courtyard was restored a decade ago, city officials affixed a plaque to the entrance reading:

"The patrimony is among Poligny's treasures. Protect it."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company