• Paris’ venerable Librairie Galignani lays claim to being the oldest English language bookstore on the European continent.
• Despite its age — the store was founded in 1801, but the publishers of the same name date back to 1520 — it has weathered the years well and continues be an important part of Paris’ vibrant literary community.
By Rachel Aydt
PARIS: A publicist friend of mine who was staying at Hotel Costes in Paris had waxed on about the famous hot chocolate around the corner from her at Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli. Although the end of summer is stultifying — even in Paris and doesn’t usually mean the Best Hot Chocolate Weather — I decided to take my little chocoholic boy to try it out. We’d been on a bickering roll lately and I felt like offering him the ultimate olive branch instead of dragging him through yet another museum. I hadn’t even put together that Angelina’s would be across the street from Fete des Tuileries, an amazing little fair in the Tuileries Gardens with a Ferris Wheel and tons of rides and games, right across the street.
On the walk between the “chocolate l’Africain” which — at the princely price of seven euros — was actually to die for if not slightly nauseating in its richness, and the carnival, was a handsome bookstore called Galignani.
The sign outside claimed it to be “The First English Bookshop Established on the Continent.” On their website, they say it’s been in business since 1520 (as publishers), though the store was originally opened in 1801.
Galignani does boast an impressive history: “The Galignanis were among the first to use the recently invented printing press in order to distribute their books to a larger audience. Beginning in 1520, Simone Galignani published in Venice a Latin grammar (the oldest “Galignani” known)…. However, their greatest success was the Geografia by PTOLEMAUS published in 1597, an incredible bestseller in both the 16th and 17th centuries.”
Not surprising, the shop has moved locations several times in four centuries, and only as recently as 1856 has been parked in the posh arcade of the rue de Rivoli. It is still run by direct descendants of the original family.
I used the carnival as a carrot to keep my kid in check while I took a few spins around the bustling store, which is lined with enviable hardwood shelves dating back to the 1930s. This is an international bookstore, so there are of course massive amounts of titles in French, as well as other languages.
English-language book seekers should walk straight through to the back of the store (passing an incredible International Fine Arts section chock full of esoteric coffee table art books) where they’ll find a comprehensive selection of titles in English, with a strong emphasis on modern fiction and classics alike.
I was happy because my mom, who was doing an apartment swap in Anzio, had run out of books to read in English, and had requested one or two to be thrown in my suitcase for when we visited. She’s obsessed with dark Swedish mysteries, a la Detective Kurt Wallender, and it’s nearly impossible to find something that she hasn’t discovered on her own. The multiple display tables heaved with fun choices — not with any new Swedish murder mysteries — and I was able to snag a couple of lightweight (literally) choices that wouldn’t overburden my strict RyanAir luggage limit.
Small disclaimer: Those who seek out Galignani’s to soak up the atmosphere of an ancient bookshop might be disappointed, not in the selection of titles, but by the newness of the place. It’s pristine, which isn’t of course a bad thing, but I was surprised to learn how old it really was, including the wooden bookshelves. They’re gorgeous, but don’t scream “Old! Made in the 1930s!” I guess I’m always up for a mustier, dustier experience, but I certainly can’t blame Galignani’s for being as high-style as the block that it calls home. Take a look for yourself: their website offers a charming video tour that takes you right into the store (click here).
Librairie Galigani is located at 224, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris.
Rachel Aydt is a New York-based writer. She visited Paris earlier this past summer.
DISCUSS: What is your favorite English-language bookshop abroad?