An American Voice in Paris
Kathie Bergquist -- 2/19/01
Village Voice Bookstore celebrates 19 years of serving the expatriate community in Paris

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Nestled on tiny rue Princess in the St. Germain neighborhood of Paris, amid the expensive boutiques and tourist-filled cafes that now characterize the area, Village Voice Bookstore has staked its claim as an "Anglo-American Bookstore" for 19 years. The area, a former stomping ground of Sartre and Joyce, has a rich literary history and continues to be a publishing hub in Paris.

At a recent reading at the store, Edmund White, Village Voice loyalist and former Paris resident, compared the store's owner, Odile Hellier, with another literary legend, the American bookseller
Owner Hellier loves
American diversity.
in Paris Sylvia Beach. It's true that both Beach and Hellier have played host to many of the most significant expatriate writers of their times, and like Beach, Hellier is fiercely passionate about her chosen trade. But while Beach was an American, Hellier is French.
What would inspire a Frenchwoman to devote her life to the business of selling American books to an Anglophone clientele? PW posed this question while chatting with Hellier in a nook of the store crowded with yet-to-be-unpacked book cartons.

For Hellier, the path to rue Princess was a circuitous one. Initially trained as a teacher of Russian, Hellier soon became disenchanted with the restrictions of the French educational system. She decided to retrain as a translator and went abroad to learn English, first to England, and then to Washington, D.C., where she stayed for 10 years.

In America, the explosive literary scene immediately impressed Hellier, as did the political scene of the 1970s, when many campuses and bookstores were energized by the equal rights movements of African-Americans, gays and lesbians and women. "It was an incredible time to be in the U.S.," Hellier told PW.

In 1980, a family situation forced Hellier's return to France. Browsing through French bookstores, she was disheartened by what she considered the staleness of French publishing, calling it "a frozen body of literature." At a crossroads, Hellier decided to please herself, "a very naïve and almost stupid concept," by trying her hand at bookselling in an effort to bring the diversity of literature that she loved in America to France.

Hellier's connection to the political side of literature began much earlier than her decision to try selling books. The story has become part of the store's mythology. When Hellier was an infant, her family lived in Strasbourg, and her father was an officer in the French military. When the Germans captured him during World War II, Hellier's mother fled Strasbourg, carrying only a valise and her infant. Hellier's father managed to escape the Germans and joined the French Resistance, but was later killed.

After the war, Hellier and her mother returned to Strasbourg to see what remained of their home, which had been ransacked. Neighbors who'd stayed told of Nazis who had taken all the books from the house and burned them in the yard. That story, Hellier said, has always been a part of her subconscious. "Naturally, the burning of books for me created a special awareness and love for books," she added.

Village Voice opened its doors in October 1982, as a single storefront with 2,000 titles. In addition to the bookstore, a cafe featured American specialties like carrot cake and brownies. Besides herself, she had one employee, who worked at the cafe. After the bookstore was able to sustain itself, she was happy to close the cafe and devote its space to more books.

It was a dynamic time to open the store. The impact of Reaganomics on the American arts community, combined with France's election of socialist president François Mitterrand and a very strong dollar to a very weak franc, created an exodus of American writers and artists flocking to Paris. Their presence immediately injected energy into the fledgling store and Village Voice quickly established itself as the epicenter of that community.

"Each time there was a new magazine or literary journal, it would be launched at Village Voice," said Hellier. "Very often in the same room you would have Peter Taylor, Ray Carver, Edmund White, Russell Banks, Bruce Chatwin.... It was incredible: the concentration of brains and talent."

Over the years, the store expanded up a level with a stock averaging 26,000 titles. Hellier and her staff stay on top of new releases in the U.S. and U.K. primarily via book reviews and two outside databases, although they are repped by most of the major houses. The store has come to reflect, more and more, the tastes of Hellier and her staff of three. There is a two-year school for booksellers in France, and all four are graduates.

Getting the Jump on Books
Focusing on literary fiction, Hellier shows her merchandising savvy by featuring in the front of the store Paris-based fiction and nonfiction that would appeal to a literary traveler. On a recent visit, these titles included the bestseller Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick(Random) and Howard Engel's literary mystery Murder in Montparnasse (Overlook).

The entire first floor of the store is devoted to fiction (French literature in translation has its own place in the makeshift mezzanine on the second floor staircase landing). The second floor features nonfiction, with more history and cultural studies than pop psychology. Currently, Hellier's favorite handsell titles are Being Dead by Jim Crace, which will be released by Picador in the U.S. in April, and The Eclipse by John Banville, which Knopf will make visible in North America this month.

Being able to sell British books before they are released in the U.S. (she's been handselling The Eclipse for almost two years) or American books before they are released in the U.K. may seem an enviable perk to American or British booksellers, but distribution and territorial rights problems are a huge thorn in Hellier's side. For example, a North American distributor may have
The first floor is devoted to
fiction, nonfiction is upstairs.
copies of a book in stock that she needs for a special order, but because of territorial licensing laws, she must get the book from the British distributor, who d s not have it in stock. As a result, "It is not reasonable to hope to get books in two weeks. It is more often three." She adds, "Nothing is impossible, but the times and conditions are not reliable."
While maintaining a romantic idealism about bookselling as "a noble profession," Hellier has learned to become a businesswoman, with her eye on the bottom line. Earnest and expansive when discussing her mission, she believes the key to her success is staying small. "We cannot compete in the world of globalization, where everything is measured by quantity. The only way is by focusing on quality. Being small, we have no dictate from the top. We can focus on selling what we love."

The day that PW spoke to Hellier, many stores were staying open until midnight for the French release of the fourth Harry Potter book, an event going by virtually unnoticed at Village Voice. Hellier cites this discrepancy to illustrate her point. "The book might be very good," she said, noting that she enjoyed the first volume of the series. "But this is a marketing operation. It has nothing to do with books."

Reading Programs
The reading program at Village Voice continues to be one of the cornerstones of the bookstore. Indeed, the list of authors who've read their work at the store is a veritable who's who of contemporary literature: Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, John Asbury, Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison, to name a few. The programming is inseparable from the image of the store, but it takes a toll on Hellier. "In a way, all these events kill me," she confessed, referring to the level of stress and anxiety.

At those times, she takes refuge in the books around her. "I take the long view," she said. "All those readings--their voices continue to echo within these walls. There are layers of voices. To me, this is part of the picture of the store."

Chicago Bookseller Helps Build Competition

It's not unusual for one bookseller to help another, but it's a rare bookseller who designs and helps build another bookstore in his own community.

In 1998, Doug Phillips left his family's insurance business. As a longtime collector of rare and first edition books, he was determined to open a world-class antiquarian bookstore in downtown Chicago. While walking through Chicago's historic Printers Row district, Phillips came upon the Prairie Avenue Bookshop.

"I peered in and couldn't believe how elegant and old-world the store was," Phillips told PW. "It's how I envisioned my own shop. It's just a beautiful design, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to find the designer."

That was architect Bill Hasbrouck, who also owned the 39-year-old Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which houses more than 14,000 titles. According to Hasbrouck, it is one of the largest bookstores of architecture books in the world. But it wasn't the size of the store (10,000 square feet) that took Phillips's breath away. It was the atmosphere.

Prairie Avenue is a two-tiered, cavernous athenaeum, drenched in the warm light of old-time banker's lamps. Vintage jazz plays over house speakers as patrons hunker down in original furniture designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. It's the kind of shop that would make shoppers at the Restoration Hardware store drool with envy. All the furniture in the store is the real thing--no repros, fauxs or retros.

"I just loved the shop the minute I saw it," said Phillips.

When Phillips approached Bill Hasbrouck to design his new antiquarian bookstore--Printers Row Fine & Rare Books--he had already purchased a space in an old printing building just a few blocks away from the Prairie Avenue store. The location was rich in history, as the first edition of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been printed there 100 years earlier.

"There's been a need in downtown Chicago for a first-rate antiquarian shop for a long time," said Phillips. Although Hasbrouck had retired as an architect, it didn't take much for Phillips to enlist his help. "When Doug told me that he wanted a brand-new 100-year-old bookshop, it sounded like too much fun to pass up," Hasbrouck told PW.

To create a Victorian-era bookstore, Hasbrouck started combing architectural salvage warehouses. He unearthed leaded-glass cabinet doors, a fireplace mantle from a turn-of-the-century funeral home--even a grand oak bookcase from an old English pub.

Phillips also envisioned a viewing room, where customers could inspect pricey volumes in complete privacy. Hasbrouck and Phillips worked as a team, creating the old-fashioned environment. With more than 10,000 rare volumes, Printers Row Fine & Rare Books specializes in 19th- and 20th-century fiction. Most of Phillips's titles are first editions and many are signed.

"I owe so much to Bill," said Phillips. "Literally, I couldn't have opened my store without him."

The Prairie Avenue Bookshop can be found on the Web at Printers Row Fine & Rare Books is located on the Internet at
--Sam Weller