France Rates Top Indie Bookshops Like Wine

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije


Independent bookstores in France—much like the country’s wine—can now qualify for a label indicating high quality. The long-awaited “Librairie Indépendante de Référence” (“Recommended Independent Bookshop”) label, which was part of a 2007 “plan livre” launched by former culture minister Christine Albanel, is now a reality and, as of September, 406 of France’s 3,000 independent bookstores qualified for the designation.

In order to qualify for the LIR label, which is valid for three years, bookshops must fulfill six conditions, among which are that the bookshop play an important cultural role in the community, organizing readings and cultural events; that it have employees who contribute to the quality of the service and that the bookstore’s owner be responsible for buying stock; that the store maintain a large selection of books—typically at least 6,000 titles, the majority of which have been in print for a year or more. In its first year, two out of three stores that applied for the LIR label were deemed worthy.

Bookshops that win LIR designation receive tax breaks from the government and special subsidies administered by the Centre National du Livre (CNL), including interest-free loans for store improvements and money to support readings and events. Some €500,000 euros are designated for the LIR-related projects, while the government estimates the tax breaks offered will exceed €3 million in value.

The LIR project is complementary to the 1981 Loi Lang (Lang law) which established fixed book prices in France, which, in practice, limits discounts to 5% off of list price. The Lang law was initially criticized for obstructing free competition. Now, 28 years later, it is widely considered a success. The law has amounted to a sustainable development project that has boosted the industry.

Today, many credit the law with having enabled France to sustain a large, high-quality network of 3,500 independent bookshops and some 6,000 publishers. Of course, in this era of the Internet, when the ongoing worldwide recession and the advent of digitization poses new challenges to the industry, anything that can be done to help sustain the publishing and bookselling industries is welcome. “Librairie Indépendante de Référence” is an extension of that mission.

Booksellers believe that the LIR designation can only help. “For the moment the label is just like a chocolate medal,” says Dominique Mazuet, manager of the 60 sq.-meter Tropiques bookshop in Montparnasse. “Eventually we’ll see the benefits from tax exemptions and subsidies…the cultural milieu is going through a very difficult period right now, but in France we are well protected.”

Of course, Mazuet knows that his small store and its ability to sustain three full-time employees is itself dependent on the Lang law as well as the goodwill of his customers who continue to shop with him. “Luckily,” said Mazuet, “for the moment we have escaped the current government’s ‘modernization’ plan. If there is still enormous diversity and numerous independent bookshops in France, it is because people have turned their backs on economic trends.”

VIEW: The list of conditions for qualifying for the LIR

READ: An interview with Benoît Yvert, CNL’s director of books and reading about the LIR (in French).

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.