i n s t i t u t i o n a l  m e m o r y  



“If the bookseller has disappeared, and is only a salesperson, it means that there is no vision.
It means that there is no knowledge. It means that, if you sell Gertrude Stein, you put Gertrude Stein
at the same level as [John] Grisham: it makes no difference, a book is a product. Thus we have seen
the leveling of the meaning of books

 For three years I have been asking notable publishers and editors about the book business, its history, and the remarkable alteration we have seen in its structure. Generously, these persons have told me how they entered the trade; spoken about writers they’ve published and declined to publish; described the (changing) class structure of their domain; talked straight about money, commerce, and corporate capitalism; described their way of practicing responsible publishing. Without exception, they are serious readers, usually of more than one language. They recognize that times have changed. They speak with wary-friendly observation of the generations coming up. They speak from the old values and traditions of book-publishing.

But, once books are published, where do they go? To the bookshop? More likely, to the chain store: Barnes and Noble, Borders, Chapters; and to Amazon, the internet octopus.

Where are the small independent bookshops, where a thoughtful reader may browse at his leisure; where an insistent reader expects to find the new titles by her favorite authors? Where can any reader go, now, to inquire of a bookseller who knows his stock, indeed, who knows books at all? These booksellers and shops exist. Serious readers all know one or two of them. They prefer to buy their books there. They resist driving to a chain store, or ordering from Amazon, which tracks their purchases – even their movements – electronically and presumes (by computer) to know their taste. A conversation with an independent bookseller would, I thought, offer another insight into the chaotic business of books and why we all still need and want them.

Excerpts of these conversations about books and publishing will continue to appear regularly in Archipelago, and may serve as an opening into an institutional memory contrasting itself with the current corporate structure, reflecting on glories of its own, revealing what remains constant amid the flux. Despite their surround of gentility, these people are strong-minded characters engaged with their historical circumstances. Out of that engagement have appeared, and continue to be sold, a number of books that we can say, rightly, belong to literature.


See also:

A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago, Vol. 1 No. 3

A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1 No. 4  and Vol. 2, No. 1

A Conversation with William Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4

A Conversation with Samuel H. Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2

Reminiscence: Lee Goerner (1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3

Institutional Memory (Download)


Odile Hellier, of the Village Voice Bookshop

In 1982, Odile Hellier opened the Village Voice to a city suddenly awake to the vitality and diversity of Anglo-American literature. Today, the Village Voice is ranked by The Bookseller, the British trade journal, as the best independent literary bookstore in Europe. In the intervening eighteen years, the world has changed; where better to reflect on it than amid Odile Hellier’s well-stocked bookshelves?

The proprietor and her bookshop can be found on a small street, the rue Princesse, off the rue du Four, in the glittering shopping district that the old literary neighborhood of St.-Germain has become. Still, she survives. Her shop is filled. On display tables are the new hard-cover titles from all the leading publishers, handsomely stacked, intelligently arranged. On the shelves, where her thoughtful hand has placed them, venerable paperbacks seem to talk to each other. They invite the browser into their conversation. Odile Helllier herself, slim, serious (until her face breaks into a warm smile), is always running. She greets you, leads you to the table of new books, puts into your hand a volume she thinks you’ll want to see, then darts off to pick up the phone, speak with a book representative, answer a question, confer with a colleague. She races up and down the stairs; she shifts cartons (which are always arriving); she checks the computer; she replies to a fax. Her colleagues run in her wake.

In the early 1980s, Odile Hellier had returned to Paris after a decade spent in the States and, before that, graduate studies in the Soviet Union. Unwilling to work in the corporate world, vividly aware of the openness of American society, she realized that Paris needed the books and authors she knew were important. (She is considered by many writers and academics the best-read person in France of contemporary American and English literature.)

Odile and I are friends. I stay with her when I am in Paris. I spend hours in the Village Voice. I arrived there four and a half years ago, after my own life had changed, with an introduction from Sarah Gaddis, an American writer who had lived for some years in France. At once I was welcomed. Immediately began our long conversation, Odile’s and mine, about books, and society, and life. When, the next year, I was organizing Archipelago, she only encouraged me, though she dislikes much about the internet. She agreed, despite her terrifically busy schedule, to become a contributing editor.

Recently, we talked over the course of an evening in January. It was an interesting moment. We had entered a new century; already, life was changing around us, in ways we wanted to chart. AOL had announced to an electrified media that it was going to buy Time Warner. The following week, the World Economic Forum would be convened in Davos, where the electronically-based “new economy” was to be the topic of conversation among world leaders of politics and business. (In the International Herald Tribune I would read that Yassir Arafat wanted first to meet Jeff Bezos!) Vodaphone, the British manufacturer of telephone hardware, was about to acquire Mannesman, the enormous German communications corporation, promising Europe an advance into e- commerce. Three months later, Stephen King would surprise his publisher by offering a new novella only as an e-book. The 44-page story was downloaded from the web in an immense number of copies, surprising his publisher even more. Thus was the direction of publishing changed; again. So everyone would say.

Meanwhile, the semi-annual soldes, the great sales, had just begun in Paris and London, and hordes of shoppers had brought traffic in St.-Germain to a halt. We sat in a quiet room surrounded by books. A bottle of wine was on the table. I asked Odile about the future of bookselling as she saw it.

Why she became a bookseller


KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would you tell about how you started the Village Voice Bookshop, and when? What was the circumstance that led you to become a bookseller?

ODILE HELLIER: It was only eighteen years ago, but it feels like yesterday. At the same time, it feels like half a century ago, because things have changed so much in the last twenty years. I started the Village Voice on returning to Paris after ten years in the States, which I called at the time an open society, with its variety, its diversity of cultures. Some of them I was just discovering: African-American politics, culture, and literature. Ralph Ellison, Baldwin, Richard Wright: these writers were an incredible discovery for me. Native Americans, who were beginning to make themselves heard; and – complement of the ‘70s – the feminist movement, which was then flourishing. All those fundamental books by women who were writing about their lives, the lives of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, about their history, their oppression. But more important, these women were giving us the tools to think, live differently. They envisioned what could be the life of free, responsible women. How exciting it was!

There was a lot of humor, as well. It was a wonderful decade, in that respect. And so I came back to France, in ’80, ’81. I had been a translator in the States, in technical matters: oil things, political things, from English into French. Coming back to France, I found a job at an international corporation. But I was not yet forty, and I knew that such a sterile life was not for me.

I took many walks around Paris. In the course of one of these, visiting bookshops which carried English books, the idea came upon me. The shelves and the piles on the tables looked dull to me, and dusty. Where were all those books which had opened, stimulated, my mind? Where were all those books which revealed the vitality of a country which had been able to put a stop to the Vietnam War, a country where women were making deep inroads into all fields, political, social, professional, and so on; a country where the African-Americans – the Afro-Americans as we called them at the time – were revolutionizing the country? These were ebullient times. And so, the idea literally crashed upon me: “This is it! Why not open a bookshop?”

And also, I wanted to have a café. In Washington, D. C., there was a certain café-bookstore, and I found the combination very attractive.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Oh, yes: Kramerbooks – I remember it well.

ODILE HELLIER: And so I said, “Maybe a small café-bookshop would be nice.”

Unconsciously, what I was probably trying to do was to build a cultural bridge between those ten years in the States that formed me and my new life in France, a country that, by now, I hardly knew.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You had also spent time in the Soviet Union, hadn’t you?

ODILE HELLIER: Right after college I had gone to the Soviet Union to complete my graduate studies. I had come back to France to teach Russian, but I could not wait to get away. That was a decade during which I had traveled all over, on almost no money.

And also, deep, deep in my childhood is buried a story which involves books.

In September 1940, my father, an officer in the French Army, was in Strasbourg at the time of the invasion of the east of France by the German Army. He was made a prisoner. But before being taken away, he had been able to send a message to my mother: “Take the last train to Nancy.” My mother left during the night. The house, the neighbors reported to my mother years later, was immediately taken over by some members of the German Army. But they were not too pleased by what they found in my father’s library. They found the works of Karl Marx and a large portrait of Lyautey, who was a famous officer in the French Army and a figure my father certainly admired.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But that is almost a contradictory combination, Lyautey and Marx, isn’t it?. General Lyauty was the head of the African administration of ‘overseas France.’1 He was – can one say it? – almost an enlightened colonialist. He also believed, in some way, not in self-determination – am I correct about this? – but in the voice of the local people; and yet, he turned to a policy of suppression.

ODILE HELLIER: He was a colonial administrator of liberal tendencies. At any rate, this is the story I heard in my childhood. Anyhow, Marx and Lyautey triggered the wrath of the new ‘owners,’ and they took all the books of my father’s library out on the street and set them on fire. I was not born then, but this is a story which, together with all the atrocities of the war – my grandmother savagely killed by the Gestapo, and my father, who fought in the Resistance, killed as a member of the Resistance, by a mine – has stayed with me. Hence, maybe this attachment to books. I have those memories of myself dragging everywhere I went suitcases filled with books, from Moscow, England, Yugoslavia, England, the States.

With some distance, one could almost call it a manic behavior. Deep in myself, I do believe that it was my thirst for knowledge, and it is the need I still feel today, of partaking of the experience of the authors and their vision of the world. It may sound pretentious, but this is the truth, the way I feel.

Given what I have said, it is not difficult to understand why the idea of a bookshop was so appealing to me. Of course, there is a big gap between a seductive idea and the reality, especially since business is not something I had ever thought of doing. The idea of opening a shop never, ever crossed my mind. But somehow, a bookshop was not an ordinary shop. Books made the whole difference.

And, instead of being discouraged by people around me who said, “Are you crazy? What are you going to do?”, everyone said, “This is perfect for you.” I had incredible support from my family and from two friends. I started on a shoestring. And yet, it became a success. It was the first bookstore with a café in Paris. It looked very modern, high-tech at the time. My brother designed it. Today, it is difficult to imagine that this crowded space was high-tech, but it was, at one point!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: The thing to say about your space is that it’s filled, and filled, and filled, and filled. It’s an astonishing range of books that you carry.

ODILE HELLIER: So, this is the way I started.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You had the café for several years?

ODILE HELLIER: For three years. But very quickly I could see that this was not something I enjoyed. People were coming for the coffee, for the vegetable dishes, the cappuccino, for my brownies, my carrot cake (laughter), but it was too much work. I was working at night, and crying at night, in the kitchen. I could see how I was being pushed by the accountant to develop that side of the business. There was no end to it. It was much, much too much work. And, above all, it was not why I had opened a bookshop.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: In this arrondissement are great cafés: the Flore, where publishers go; Deux Magots; Lipp. There were great, old bookstores around the Place St.-Germain. La Hune, where I used to look at beautiful art books I couldn’t afford. Le Divan. But now, La Hune has moved around the corner, Le Divan has moved – to the sixteenth! – and the old Le Drugstore, where I used to hang out, rather self-consciously, is now an Emporio Armani.

ODILE HELLIER: The Sixième Arrondissement was once a world of publishers’ offices and bookshops. Now it has been taken over, almost entirely, by smart cafés and expensive boutiques. And they all look alike.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: They do look alike: people, clothes, interiors. St.-Germain feels like South Kensington or Madison Avenue. It’s for shopping.

The Village Voice

KATHERINE McNAMARA: From the beginning your bookshop was called the Village Voice. You made an agreement with the newspaper in New York.

ODILE HELLIER: What happened was this: I called them up, and they checked into their bylaws to see if opening a bookshop in Europe was a problem. I called them back, and a woman, one of the lawyers, said: “We don’t see any reason why you could not, as long as it is not a magazine.”

The Village Voice people, right from the beginning, were very supportive. They came to Paris and brought me all kinds of little things from the paper, like the aprons. For a while, many people from The Village Voice would come to Paris to check on the Village Voice to see if everything was well and right. And from day one to this day, for the past eighteen or nineteen years, I have carried The Village Voice every single week.

Also, do not forget that this neighborhood is called le village St.-Germain, and so, there was already the image of the village.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: And also, St.-Germain is, or was, at least, the center of publishing.

ODILE HELLIER: Yes, and so the name ‘Village Voice’ made sense for more than one reason. But it all sounds better in English than in French.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What were the first books you bought to sell in the store?

ODILE HELLIER: I remember that one of my first bestsellers was THE WHITE HOTEL, by D. M. Thomas. Another one which was really, really important to me at the time was [John Kennedy Toole’s] A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Who were your customers?

ODILE HELLIER: Something happened which I wasn’t expecting, in ’81, when Mitterand came to power. With Mitterrand came a certain image of France. With Jack Lang, his Minister of Culture, came a certain idea, an image, of popular culture. On the one hand, because of the installation of a socialist government, the franc collapsed and the dollar went up. On the other hand, the novelty of the young and dynamic minister of culture attracted many young Americans to Paris. It was the last time they would be able to find inexpensive chambres de bonne, good food on a small budget, and small jobs on the sly. Good reasons for American youth to flock to Paris and imagine they were the new Hemingway or Henry Miller!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Or were Jean Seberg selling the Herald-Tribune in the streets.

ODILE HELLIER: Well, all these elements combined created an incredible vitality in Paris. Suddenly you had a flourishing of literary magazines. You had, at one point, six English-speaking literary magazines, and all of them were giving readings at the Village Voice: launching No. 1, launching No. 2 – every week, there was a launching at the Village Voice.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: It must have been thrilling, a ‘bouillon de culture.’

ODILE HELLIER: It wasn’t that I was making a tremendous amount of money; no; but it was a place where things were happening. For instance, you see that huge painting I have in the staircase: that is the work of a famous Argentine painter in exile, Ricardo Mosner. He made the painting during a bilingual reading. The bookshop was packed; and yet, he had one wall, on which he was painting. This was given to the Village Voice – I just paid for materials – as long as it would not be moved out of the bookshop. It’s been there now seventeen years, sixteen years, and it’s still as vital. I cannot put it anywhere else, and I don’t know an apartment with walls big enough to hold this, so it has to stay there!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I don’t think there is a wall anywhere outside the Louvre big enough to hold that painting.

ODILE HELLIER: So, just to give you an idea. For instance, Ray Carver came several times. At the first reading he gave, in the room were Edmund White and Peter Taylor. Another time, he read with Richard Ford. It was an incredible creuset, a bowl where things get mixed; a crux.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Did the French come also?

ODILE HELLIER: The French came also: poets, translators, university professors, students and so on.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: The ‘80s, then, at least the first half of the ‘80s, were a boom time.

ODILE HELLIER: American literature was at the pinnacle, and the Village Voice was where it was all staged.

Who were the writers?

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Who were the writers, then, whom you thought were important, and who were important, literarily.

ODILE HELLIER: Pynchon was extremely important. [Thomas] Pynchon was really at the center of all discussions.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Did he come to your store?



ODILE HELLIER: No. (laughter) People would have recognized him.


ODILE HELLIER: [William] Gaddis was extremely important. We had the opportunity to have him twice.


ODILE HELLIER: Yes. To be more precise, he talked. It was a landmark event. The first time Mr. Gaddis ‘read’ at the Village Voice, he was introduced by one of the leading Americanists in France, Marc Chenetier. Marc Chenetier is a university professor who has written extensively on experimental American literature. Mr. Gaddis was on his way back from a trip to the Soviet Union, and he talked. He talked about everything touching literature – publishing, books versus ‘products’ (already!), commercial writing versus literature. His dry humor would send the audience into fits of laughter. The bookshop was filled with people, it was a memorable evening.

The second time he came, it was for the launching of the French edition of CARPENTER’S GOTHIC. It was an official event, co-organized with Ivan Nabokov [director of foreign literature, Librarie Plon], his publisher in France. What happened was that Ivan Nabokov organized a private reading of several chapters, by two famous French actors. One of them was Dominique Sanda, who was so beautiful. An interesting evening; but I certainly would have preferred a talk by Mr. Gaddis. He came by the Village Voice a few other times, once with a huge bouquet of flowers. I was touched by this. He also attended the launching of his daughter’s novel [Sarah Gaddis, SWALLOW HARD], which we celebrated at the Village Voice.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I should mention that it was Sarah Gaddis who introduced me to you. I came to Paris after my husband [Lee Goerner, former editor and publisher of Atheneum] died. He had been her publisher.

ODILE HELLIER: She had lived in Paris while writing the book. And, as she read, it was obvious that he was a pleased and happy father.

Another person who was extremely important at the time was Ray Carver, whom I mentioned earlier. He gave two readings which could have converted the illiterate tough into a lover of literature. Richard Ford read, many times: his contribution, he would say, to “support the Village Voice.” We had Russell Banks. [Don] DeLillo came later on; DeLillo came in 1992.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: That would have been for…

ODILE HELLIER: For MAO II. He read from MAO II; it was for the French edition.

Early in the ‘80s, just before he died, Julian Beck of the Living Theater, came. Michael Ondaatje read several times. The first night he read here, he had just published this little gem of a book, RUNNING IN THE FAMILY; but he was hardly known. Through the grapevine the word went around, and people crowded in to hear him read. They immediately showed an immense enthusiasm for him.

Stephen Spender came. Mary McCarthy came to the reading by Stephen Spender, but did not read at the Village Voice because I was too shy to invite her to read. I remember that very well! Diane Johnson read. Many poets; the Language Poets; Michael Palmer, who is well known as a Language Poet. Someone who read, many times, was Robert Coover. Paul Auster came often to the Village Voice but never read, because each time he postponed it, until it was too late, because he was too famous. (laughter)

So, that gives you a little hint of what was happening. It was like a roller coaster. I am grateful to all of them, because there is no doubt in my mind that it was with their support that the Village Voice became what it is, a place with a certain aura. I am aware of the marks that all those writers have left on the place. I am deeply aware that all those books in the shelves and the tables represent layers of thought, art, civilization. At times when I am depressed by all the paperwork, the bills, the cartons which get lost, the orders which do not arrive – all the complications that make up our days – I pause and look around and say to myself: “Take the longer view. All these books: they are what count.” And I can assure you that when I say ‘all these books,’ I do not mean ‘products,’ but magical objects which contain layers of civilization. What a treasure this is. Especially when in the relatively short life of the Village Voice so many writers who had read, not only once but even several times, have died, most of them young and at the height of their creativity. Ray Carver. Michael Dorris. Matt Cohen. Alan Jolis. Kathy Acker.

The next decade

KATHERINE McNAMARA: This, then, takes us through the ‘80s. When did that ebullience began to lessen?

ODILE HELLIER: I would say in ‘89-’90. There was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly, the central attraction was in the East, and Prague became the place. France was in the process of integrating itself into the European Economic Union. Life here wasn’t as inexpensive any more. Unemployment went up. American corporations opened branches and offices as never before. Disneyland sprang up and Paris was no longer the same. The crowd of young future potential Hemingways disappeared. (laughter) They all went to Prague. And they were replaced by the business suits.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: When I first lived here, in the mid-‘70s, it was a different city than now; and when I came back for the first time after twenty years, I hardly recognized it. I had lived behind the …glise St.-Germain-des-Prés. My old neighborhood was the village of St.-Germain, and at that time it was dark, it was sweetly grubby. (laughter) Not any more. Even your little street is different, shinier, than four and a half years ago, when I first came to the bookshop.

ODILE HELLIER: We started to see a different kind of clientele. Today, I would say that my clientele is the intellectual middle-class.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Is that a large clientele? Is it shrinking? Is it changing in age?

ODILE HELLIER: It’s difficult to assess. We still have Americans, tourists, of course, but I feel that we get more people who are used to dealing with books: professors, writers. I would say that French people – again, professors, students, researchers, journalists, professionals – make up sixty percent of our business.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: And, certainly, every writer who comes to Paris comes to you.

ODILE HELLIER: They come, yes.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Whether they buy books is another question.

ODILE HELLIER: Often they do.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Nikki Gemmell [who had given a reading the day before] was buying books this morning that, she told me, she couldn’t get in England.

ODILE HELLIER: She bought a nice pile of books. Richard Ford buys books each time; so does Michael Ondaatje. And what I appreciate most is that they pretend they are buying books they had meant to buy, but could not find elsewhere. An elegant gesture on their part

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But it does feel that way. You have so many books there that I would have expected to find at Books & Co., in New York; but that bookstore is closed. If I see them in the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, I can ask my local bookseller to get them, but she wouldn’t necessarily carry them in her shop. If I were closer to your bookshop, I would pay your rent with the books I would buy.

ODILE HELLIER: You know, this past year, more than any year before, a number of customers, mostly Americans, have come to us asking, “Who buys the books? How do you make your selection?” It is a compliment which warms my heart. I don’t do anything special. I just do what other booksellers and buyers do: that is, read and make notes. For instance, this is Monday night. I will read the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, my Publisher’s Weekly, the London Review, the T[imes L[iterary] S[supplement]. Basically, each week I have five magazines, plus my [book company] representatives, plus the customers. The customers will always tell us, “You don’t have this book, but I think you should have it, this would be interesting for you,” and immediately we react. I know that the customers who appreciate our selection are the ones who share the same interests as we do.

I also get from customers acrimonious remarks: How is it that we do not have a better selection of comics, science fiction, et cetera? One cannot, given the space we have, and the means, make everyone happy. One of my criteria is that I and my colleagues should love the books we sell. New books arrive every day, and every day we feel an incredible appetite for all the new releases we display on the tables.

Writers of the last decade

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Turning back to America and England during the ‘90s, I wonder what writers – how can I put it? – what writers do you read with renewed pleasure; do you find your customers wanting to read? Who are writers whom you think have added something to literature?

ODILE HELLIER: Don DeLillo comes to mind. Russell Banks comes to mind. Gaddis, definitely. Ondaatje, who is not American but Canadian: Ondaatje is read all the time. Now, Hemingway is selling again. [Saul] Bellow, [Philip] Roth: it’s incredible, how they sell. Roth – the last three novels he wrote are a marvel. I would say that people like D. H. Lawrence are in a phase where they are not much read; Malcolm Lowry, not much read.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I always thought that UNDER THE VOLCANO was one of the four or five American books of the century; but it went out of print!

ODILE HELLIER: I know that it’s going to be back in print. But to me it’s inconceivable that, simultaneously, it is out of print in both England and the United States. [It is being republished in April 2000 by HarperPerennial.]

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What English writers do you pay attention to? And what writers who are not English but who write in British English.

ODILE HELLIER: [Salman] Rushdie is one of the top authors. We sell many books by Hanif Kureishi: he is very, very popular in France.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: What younger writers, would you say are notable; or, if not younger writers, those whose star rose in the ‘90s?

ODILE HELLIER: I would phrase it differently. I could, for instance, speak about books which were important to me in the past years. They are very eclectic. I would say that FUGITIVE PIECES, by Anne Michaels, was very close to me. THE UNTOUCHABLE, by John Banville, struck me deeply.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Indeed. It’s an astonishing book, isn’t it? The bravery of that writer assuming the voice of a character so unlike himself, even a sort of enemy.

ODILE HELLIER: TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE, by [Bohumil] Hrabal, is a book that is necessary for me. It’s a metaphorical book, about a kind of Kafka-esque character who works in a factory where books are being burned.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Oh, that’s an extraordinary book. His spirit, grave and ironic. The irony of the compassionate man who knows the world is a vale of tears.

ODILE HELLIER: Another one which is a very strong book, is by the Austrialian writer David Malouf book, AN IMAGINARY LIFE. THE HOURS, by Michael Cunningham, was dear to me.

Another book, in a totally different spirit, is by Mordechai Richler: BARNEY’S VERSION; a very good book. Of course, to me, this year the important writer would be [J. M.] Coetzee.


ODILE HELLIER: DISGRACE: And all of Coetzee. He ranks very high.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I read DISGRACE a few months ago. It doesn’t go away. As I recede from it, it grows – not so much solid: it’s too bony to be ‘solid’ – it grows and becomes indestructible in memory.

ODILE HELLIER: It means that it is part of your life. And this is what I mean by books that change your life: they become part of your mental make-up…

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Your mental landscape. Your nourishment.

ODILE HELLIER: For the past fifteen years I have been saying that I would like to add more space. Now, I feel that my strong point is selecting, as much as I can, and having fewer titles: but titles I believe in. Over the years we have, I would say, created a sort of ‘Village Voice list’ of books we love and which we try to keep in stock. Some of these, besides those we’ve mentioned: Cyril Connolly’s THE UNQUIET GRAVE, David Malouf’s AN IMAGINARY LIVE, Coetzee’s WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, Ondaatje’s RUNNING IN THE FAMILY, and, of course, Hrabal’s TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Perhaps you haven’t fewer titles than before – I don’t know – but they are strong. On every shelf – on every shelf! – I can find five books I would like to have and read.

ODILE HELLIER: It’s the same with me. But where is the time to read as much as we would like? I easily spend twelve hours a day in the bookshop, and there is all the professional press to read. The work is endless. I manage to read an average of two books a week, and my colleagues the same. But by the time we have read and fallen in love with a book, the fashion has already died away. THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, by Washington Irving, is an example. There was a movie based on it [“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” directed by Tim Burton]. The book sold very well – for two weeks. The movie is over, the book is dead.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But do you ever find that your customers seek unheralded or nearly-forgotten writers? Writers re-discovered without advertising?

ODILE HELLIER: There are book addicts. There are not many, but they still exist. I can find them books; they do not have to leave with empty hands. But it is a question of drawing on classics, of drawing on older books. For instance, recently we have been selling a lot of Malaparte.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Malaparte? How unexpected. I know the name of this author, but …

ODILE HELLIER: Yes, Malaparte. CAPUT and THE SKIN: we reorder them every week.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I don’t know his work. Do you have any idea why this is happening?

ODILE HELLIER: Well, he’s a rediscovered writer, a writer who was forgotten, a little bit. He is a writer of the First World War. He describes the war in Italy. He is raw, violent, very strong.

The rules of commerce

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Let us talk now about the structure of your profession and how it is changing. You are the proprietor of the best independent bookstore in Europe selling English and American books, according to The Bookseller, the British trade journal. We are in a new century; there is reason for optimism; and yet, you’ve told me over the last year or so that you aren’t entirely optimistic about the future of bookselling. Would you speak of that?

ODILE HELLIER: This is a question which covers many different aspects of bookselling. I will start with the obvious: that many independent bookstores have disappeared in the States, are disappearing a little bit everywhere in the world at an alarming rate.


ODILE HELLIER: In France, booksellers are still relatively protected. But for how long? Under the Loi Lang, a law that was passed in 1981, in the first year of Mitterand’s government – it was named for Jack Lang, his minister of culture – books could not be discounted more than five percent. This allowed every bookseller – chains such as Fnac and independents, alike – to have theoretically equal chances. I stress the word ‘theoretically,’ for the situation is much more complex.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How so? You import books, you don’t sell French titles.

ODILE HELLIER: For booksellers like me, those who import books, the law is full of arcane twists and loopholes. In theory, once I have put a price on my books, I cannot discount it as I wish. For example, a few years ago, I was selling English textbooks to a French university, with a ten percent discount offered to the students, just on the day I was there. A local bookseller, although he did not sell English books, as I did, used the Loi Lang to start a lawsuit against me. He tried, without success, to take that business from me! Yet, at the same time, given the competition in the field, importers of English books practice all kinds of discounts. Because of this, a university professor came one day to announce loudly to me that I would never get his business, since he was getting a twenty-five percent discount from one of my competitors.

Now, since it is the importer who sets his own prices, we have to define what it is we chop ten percent, twenty-five percent, off of. There was a time, not so long ago, when the exchange rates practiced by some importers were so outrageously high that they could very well afford to give a twenty-five percent discount. I tried to explain to this professor that it is the importer who fixes the price, and that this importer, my competitor, may have used a different rate of exchange – multiplying, for example, every dollar of the cover price by ten, instead of seven or eight, francs to cover transportation and VAT. You see, he was discounting from a higher selling price, to begin with. But the only thing our loud teacher could grasp was whether the discount he received would be five, twenty, or twenty-five percent. So, as you can see, for importers the Loi Lang is far more complex. But as far as French booksellers are concerned, this loi du prix fixe has been very positive.

Now, to come back to the question of optimism, or pessimism: two recent events have badly shaken the foundations of the French system. The first is the death in England a few years ago of the Net Book Agreement,2 a real Trojan Horse on the European landscape of bookselling. With its end, the fixed price disappeared, opening the gates to the installation of giant American discount stores, with all the consequences that we know. And the second is the spread of electronic commerce.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah, we are in new territory.

ODILE HELLIER: Now, don’t get me wrong: business is business, capitalism is capitalism. If you are going to be in business, you know that you will be confronted by competition, and you accept the risks.

However, until the emergence of what is called the ‘new economy,’ which includes e-commerce, the rules of commerce were the same for everyone, except – oops, what comes to mind is the Mafia, which was involved in big business and never bothered to abide by the rules. But at least we can say that, officially, on the surface at least, they were not part of mainstream business.

Basically, it used to be that, if you bought goods and resold them, you had to make a profit and pay taxes, which are of three kinds: a local tax which is the equivalent of the European VAT, the value-added tax; a tax on profit; and taxes on labor, for social security. In France, the great majority of people still wish to benefit – each individually – from the various tax-funded public institutions, such as for those for education and public health, or, for retirement, their pensions. But now, the novelty of e-commerce is that this new form of doing business gets around the necessity of paying those taxes, while traditional commerce continues to pay them. As we say, Deux poids deux mésures.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You’re speaking of Amazon now.

ODILE HELLIER: I’m speaking of any kind of business. All books bought on the internet are exonerated from the VAT, which represents for the buyer some sort of discount. In a bookshop, he would have to pay that VAT as part of the price of the book, and each month, by the nineteenth, the French bookseller must pay le Fisc, the Internal Revenue, five and a half percent of all his previous month’s turnover. Given the ruthless competition which is going on because of the huge discounts granted on the internet, we often do not include in our selling price the five and a half percent VAT, but still we have to pay it. In other words, we can say that the VAT reduces our margin and is yet another drain on our cash flow – a tax the e-commerce ventures do not have to bother about.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: And, your tax burden is quite a large percentage of your gross income.

ODILE HELLIER: It is. Plus the fact that, in France, we have to pay those huge taxes on labor, which explains the high unemployment rate here. It is between ten and eleven percent of the population. Of course, there is tax on profit, but it is not as huge as tax on labor. And the third element is, as I’ve said, the VAT.

But this VAT business is only the tip of the iceberg. E-commerce, and also the superstores, practice discounting on a scale unheard of before. What business practices do those discounts reveal? We are speaking, of course, of discounts on new books, new releases, which can vary from fifteen to fifty percent! Either, publishers grant those giant ventures huge discounts, or, those ventures do not make a profit. If publishers do in effect grant huge discounts to those ventures, then their practices are unfair toward independent booksellers, and they are, in the end, responsible for the chaos which has turned the bookselling business upside down.

If it is not the case, then it means that the ventures are selling at a loss. And if they sell at a loss, they are not going to pay taxes.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Because you pay taxes on your profit. And, depending on how your form of incorporation is structured, you must make a profit, at least where I live, to be considered a legal corporation.

ODILE HELLIER: As I said earlier, one of the tenets of commerce is that you make a profit. How is it then that, year after year, e-ventures show losses – and the greater the losses, the stronger they are on the stock market? All this, of course, is new: the ‘new economy,’ the economists call it, and it is detrimental to independent and traditional businesses.

For us booksellers, what it comes down to is that the rules of commerce have radically changed over the past few years. In the past, the rules set the framework within which we all could practice a profession we had embraced out of our love for books and knowledge. Today, traditional business continues to be taxed, while e-commerce escapes all of it. You can now be a capitalist and possess no capital, make zero profit, and still continue in business and be universally admired! The market has become a jungle where bullying is the code of behavior, leaving hardly any place to books – I am speaking of real books, not ‘products’ – and even less to book-lovers.

Poor publishing; poor bookselling

ODILE HELLIER: I would also say that two other elements come to my mind. One is that publishing of good books is becoming very poor, I feel.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you mean, poor?

ODILE HELLIER: Poor in the sense that the range, the diversity, the quality of books are shrinking. You know that, if a book is working well, suddenly you are going to see seven books on the same subject, from seven different publishers. They are commissioned books. They are not books created by inspiration, springing from the soul of an author. I see a huge deterioration in the quality of the content of books. I would not say in the quality of the form, because so many people attend writing seminars and schools that, in fact, people write very well these days. But inspiration: where is it? Where are the books to get passionate about? They are rare. They are few and rare.

But they are there, you know, they are there. But in comparison with the huge heaps of books being published––. When I go through all these catalogs with representatives, of course I may find a pearl. But how many such pearls are there? This is my work, the work which I feel is extremely important for me to do: to get the pearls out of the heaps.

This is where I feel that my optimism comes into play. The heaps are going to be everywhere. The thousands of titles are going to be there, on the internet, in the big bookstores, and so on. But: the selection has a raison d’être, a reason for being, and only a bookseller can do it. Not a salesman: not a salesgirl: a bookseller. And it is true that the business is becoming like any other business. You have products and you have salespersons….

KATHERINE McNAMARA: …instead of a bookseller.

ODILE HELLIER: Instead of a bookseller. And that is my second point. That is, a bookseller is someone who has learned a little bit about books, who has read a lot, but also, who has a certain mind, a certain taste. You have as many selections as you have booksellers, and this is what makes it interesting. In the past, you would go to a certain bookseller, or a certain bookshop, because you would know what kind of selection you would find there. It is the variety of selection through the prism, through the mind, through the knowledge of that bookseller which is interesting. And this is disappearing.

It’s no fun anymore to look at book catalogs

KATHERINE McNAMARA: I’ve heard other booksellers – independent booksellers – say that it’s no fun anymore to look at book catalogs.

ODILE HELLIER: It’s not simply ‘no fun,’ it’s often embarrassing. Representatives make the effort of coming to visit us. They come from afar, from the U. S., the U. K., Germany, the Netherlands, and, obviously, they come to sell us books. We open the catalogues, and with dread we turn page after page of drivel. Recently, in an article in Le Monde, André Schiffren [formerly the publisher of Pantheon; now of The New Press, a non-profit house], observed that, reading through the seasonal catalogues of the three major U. S. publishing corporations – Random House, which is really Bertelsmann, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins – out of five hundred titles, there was not one French translation, not one serious book of history, not one serious scientific investigation, and no philosophy or theology. All these are subjects which used to be the core of publishing. And I can only agree with him. There are still very good books, of course, but although they may be published, they are not visible even to a bookseller. They get lost in the slush of books which repeat ad infinitum the themes of a handful of bestsellers. How utterly boring!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You buy a great number of books from smaller trade and independent publishers.

ODILE HELLIER: The problem with small-press books is that they do not always get reviewed in the media, and therefore the public is not aware of them. Now, it used to be that the role of the bookseller was to bring the books to the reader. It still is. But the power of the media is such that the public tends to trust the review they have read in The New York Times, the Herald Tribune, or in one of the weeklies, and not so much the personal taste or recommendation of the bookseller. Now, that being said, I have wonderful stories to tell about readers who thank us profusely for bringing into their lives a book or a writer. This is how it should be.

Quality v. entertainment, and return on investment

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you think the number, of good, or interesting, or necessary books is smaller than it used to be? Or does it just seem smaller in comparison to this flood of sort of mass-sensibility or entertainment books?

ODILE HELLIER: It is difficult to say. Good books continue to be published; otherwise, we would not have the selection we have. However, they are lost in the clutter of hundreds of titles which I will compare with the kind of food which fills you up but does not nourish your body. I will even go further and say: which slowly but surely poisons your system. Likewise with books: hundreds and hundreds of them read very much like magazines at best, tabloids at worst. What counts is not the expansion of the mind, but ‘entertainment,’ the sacred word.

And as everyone tells us, this is what people want: entertainment. What we are not told is that it is easier to sell a few titles, made into bestsellers, from which the publisher gets a high return on investment, than to publish a wide variety of books, whose return on investment will average a mere four or five percent, the regular rate in the trade.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: When I’ve spoken about this with publishers in this series of conversations, they have all said to me quite definitely that book publishing is by its nature a business in which you cannot expect a high rate of return on investment; and, if you need such a return, you had better not own a publishing company.

ODILE HELLIER: The fifteen, sixteen percent return on investment set as a standard by the book industry is totally unreal. In the process, it is killing the trade as we’ve known it. According to André Schiffren, in the article I mentioned, the German publisher Klaus Wagenbach divines the fifteen percent level of return on investment as the todeszon, the death-zone, where no publishing of value can survive. This same publisher was quoting Hans Magnus Enzenberger as saying that over the past forty years he has not found in the Bertelsmann catalogs a single title that would last.

This economic pressure of raising at all costs the level of profitability has affected everyone involved. For the independent publisher who is either pushed out of business, or is bought up and cannot, within his ‘own’ house, exercise his intelligence, his discrimination, his taste, and has to publish according to criteria which have nothing to do with excellence, but which have to fit the economic plan of the corporation. For the editor who becomes a simple cog in the machine. For the writer who will not be considered unless his book will sell well enough to reach the magical mark of fifteen percent profitability. To sell in huge quantities, a book has to be scandalous, one way or another: horror, sex, violence, personal horrifying stories. And – or – the writer has to have a saleable face or body, something in his look which will appeal to the viewer’s thirst for glamour; or, the opposite, something outrageous, weird, shocking, ugly.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Yes, so often it does seem that way. But let me point out the unexpected successes of several books in the last few years. Dava Soble’s nice little LONGITUDE, which is non-fiction. The novels SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, by David Guterson, and COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier. Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It was booksellers who sold these books, we’re told. Their success took their publishers, or at least, the marketers, by surprise. On the other hand, I know of a novel by a well-known, respected writer – and it can’t be the only one this has happened to – which was practically killed by a bad review in The New York Times, because Barnes & Noble immediately cut back their orders and returned the books they had in stock. The writer, who was shocked, said to me, “What is the life of a book – two weeks?”

ODILE HELLIER: It seems that the first two weeks are vital for a book. In the past, I used to order new releases in relatively small quantities. I preferred to re-order rather than have huge stocks sitting in the bookshop. But several times, when I re-ordered a book immediately, I would get in reply an O/S, Out of Stock, or R/U, Reprint Under Consideration. How could this be possible? There must be a mistake. Finally, I understood what was happening. I was told the story by an insider in the trade. The print-run is based on the figure given by the pre-orders. Once the book is published, the copies are dispatched to the selling points, and the lion’s share goes to the chains and wholesalers.

Just this week, I sent an express order for a certain title which got lost in transit. I was told two weeks exactly after the publication of the book, and one week after the book made the cover of The New York Times Book Review, that the publisher did not have a single copy left, and there was no reprint in view. I could only get it from a wholesaler. – Yet, after a certain length of time, many, many copies – the returns – will flood back into the publisher’s warehouse. But in the meantime, bookshops like mine cannot obtain the book from the publishers they work with.

Yet the credit departments are never slow to claim your payments. One moment past the last day of the month, and their computers send you threats. When we ask them to apply the same efficiency to shipping books on time, they reply dryly, “Not our responsibility.”

Another thing that is worrisome is that many authors are not published anymore, many voices are unheard, because they do not conform to the criteria I listed. Many are the believers in the miracles of the world wide web who reply: The answer is on the internet! Very well. An internet magazine like this one is a feast. But how, across the internet, is one going to sort out what is good, and what is mediocre? One can imagine hours and hours being spent surfing over the waves looking for the right text. What I do know is that quite a few failed writers have succeed in being published on the internet, and now pretend to be published writers!

That reminds me of a wonderful quote about Auden, which fits perfectly here in our discussion. I found it in Shirley Hazzard’s memoir about Graham Green on Capri. [She goes to find the book.] Here it is:

Shirley Hazzard writes: “Creative writing, which, alone among the arts, seems delusively accessible to every articulate person, has immemorially attracted that confusion of esteem and envy, centered on the independence in which it is conceived and composed: a mystery of originality that never loses fascination for the onlooker, in W. H. Auden’s view.

“This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal, something nearly all human beings, by virtue not of some special talent, but of their humanity, could do if they tried.”

Could we not say this is a perfect definition of one reason why the internet is such a success? The illusion that, if you are writing something on a screen, you might be read by millions of potential readers and become visible? One of the roles of the editor, and of the bookseller, likewise, was to sift through the pebbles and give the gem to the reader. Now, anything goes, and everything is equal: equally good, equally bad. It does not matter, since all tastes are equal. The internet – the great equalizer!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah. Well. In principle, I don’t disagree with you. I’ve heard would-be writers speak this way. They are hungry for – what? That connection? They want to appear in print, on paper, and are denied that chance. A friend of mine who is a publisher called the matter of being published a “lottery.”

But I know, equally, that the internet was invented to allow for fast, direct communication among scholars, especially scientists, who needed to see each other’s work without having to wait for publication, because discovery came so fast. I know, also, that much interesting, specialized work is available at particular places on the web. I speak of the uncommercial sector of the web. And I know, very well, that serious publishing is serious publishing, no matter the medium used. For myself, I was so dismayed by the state of book publishing, and by its brutal treatment of so many serious writers, that I wanted to act. When an editor suggested to me that I put my incipient journal, in which I meant to publish ‘shadow’ literature, the kind of writing that was being turned down in New York, on the world wide web, I thought: There are serious readers everywhere in the world. If I can put literature on the internet, they will find it. That has been true, I would say.

But, I admit, I spend as little time on the web as possible. I tend to go only to sites recommended by people whose taste I like. I see it as a means of distribution, and it serves me well. But I know that – because it is amorphous – it allows anybody to post anything they want, and claim ‘millions of readers.’ Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.

ODILE HELLIER: I would say that, with the spreading of the chains, and the fast development of e-commerce, a page has definitely been turned in the book trade, and it will never be the same. Yet, the last word has not been said.

[In early March, about six weeks after this conversation, Steven King’s novella RIDING THE BULLET was published as an e-book exclusively on the web. More than 500,000 copies were reported to have been downloaded. It was reported, as well, that the sales of e-books by other writers and publishers rose accordingly.]

The bookseller, the publishing industry, and the book as product

KATHERINE McNAMARA: You spoke earlier of what you thought a bookseller was: a person whose taste, intelligence, immersion in certain kinds of books makes her shop, his shop, its own place. How has the role – or, perhaps better, the treatment – of the bookseller changed, especially in the ‘90s?

ODILE HELLIER: It changed the moment the book became a product, no different from any kind of other products. It was then that publishing business became the publishing industry.

And now we go back to the negative point of Amazon: a book at Amazon is just a product. Amazon was not created for the sake of books. It was created because the book was a product saleable and marketable on the internet. There was a market survey done, and the book came first on the list as the ideal product to be sold on the web. So, it’s not sold because it’s a book.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: But because it’s a portable product. The book was already a ‘product’ before Amazon came along, however.

ODILE HELLIER: Yes, it was. But it was certainly not as much a product as now.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: When did that happen, do you think?

ODILE HELLIER: I would say, in the past five years. Book publishing is an industry, like Hollywood. The bookseller has become the salesperson.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Ah. And that, also, in the last five years?

ODILE HELLIER: In the last three years. The bookseller is not perceived as someone special. We have requests all the time from people who want to work as salespersons. I get c.v.s from people who have never read a book!

KATHERINE McNAMARA: So many of us have gone into these chain stores where the salespeople have never read books, they don’t know books.

ODILE HELLIER: Yes, but this is part of the industry. I speak about Amazon, but the chains have absolutely helped this process to accelerate. If the bookseller has disappeared, and is only a salesperson, it means that there is no vision. It means that there is no knowledge. It means that, if you sell Gertrude Stein, you put Gertrude Stein at the same level as [John] Grisham: it makes no difference, a book is a product. Thus we have seen the leveling of the meaning of books. There is no difference between this and that. Of course, if you want to make money, you are not going to carry Gertrude Stein, you are going to carry Grisham, because then, what counts are the figures. The product dictates the figures, and the figures are Number One, now. It’s an industry, you are a salesperson, and you have a product. So, you have not only the content of the book to take into account, if you are in the business, but you have the figures, also, to take into account.

So, figures are primary. A representative comes to us. First, before starting to discuss and be shown books, we are shown the figures over the past few years. A book is presented to us based on the money which is going to be involved in the promotion of the book.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Yes, I see them announced that way in Publisher’s Weekly, also.

ODILE HELLIER: So much money is going to be put into the promotion of the book because the advance was so much. You have to recoup the money. So, you are not going to promote a book when you have paid nothing to the young girl who wrote it. You have to recoup the money when you have paid $17 million to, to—

KATHERINE McNAMARA: —to Grisham or Tom Wolfe or Steven King—


KATHERINE McNAMARA: I noticed you had some paperbacks by Steven King. I didn’t notice if you had any John Grisham.

ODILE HELLIER: Oh yes, I do, of course.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you have the new book? How does it sell in comparison to others?

ODILE HELLIER: Of course. Usually I take a few copies of Grisham in hardcover, because I know that I will sell a few copies.

But let us go back to figures. Either the bookseller disappears altogether, because he is not recognized, because he is like any other salesperson; or, with dinosaurs like me, you still believe in how a book can change a life. And for me, I know that my life would have been different, and much sadder, a life of greater solitude, if I had not had books to talk to me, change with me, to nourish me. And I know other people like me, because so many readers have sent me letters, or have called me, and said, “I thank you so much for the book you gave me to read. You cannot imagine how important it was.”

I think, also, of what William Gass said. He said, All the books you see are the thoughts of people who have lived. They contain the experience of people who have lived. They contain their thinking, their beliefs. And when you have shelves of books, like in the bookstore, like in the library, like in the house where there are books, they are not just books, but layers of civilization. Thought is there. Life is there. How is it possible to imagine a book as just a piece of entertainment to spend eight hours with on a plane? That way of thinking can exist, but it cannot be the only way.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: This week, AOL announced that it is going to buy Time Warner. Their intended conglomeration has caused huge reverberation on both sides of the Atlantic. I want to read to you something rather terrifying in today’s Herald Tribune. This is from an editorial column by Jeremy Rifkin.

ODILE HELLIER: Jeremy Rifkin wrote AGE OF ACCESS, the book I mentioned to you several days ago.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: The headline is “The New Capitalism Is About Turning Culture into Commerce.” Here is what he says:

A great transformation is occurring in the nature of capitalism. After hundreds of years of converting physical resources into goods, the primary means of generating wealth now involves transforming cultural resources into paid-for personal experiences and entertainments.

The announcement of the merger between America On-line and Time Warner [in fact, America On-Line bought Time-Warner, which is another story altogether – KM] underscores the shift to a new form of hypercapitalism based on commidifying human time.

AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and Sony Corp. are not just media companies. They are global arbiters of access to a vast array of cultural experiences, including global travel and tourism, theme cities and parks, destination entertainment centers, wellness, fashion and cuisine, professional sports and games, music, film, television, book publishing and magazines.

The capitalist journey is ending with the commodification of human culture itself.


By controlling the pipelines that people use to communicate with one another, as well as shaping much of the cultural content that is filmed, broadcast on television or sent over the internet, companies like AOL-Time Warner are able to affect the experiences of people everywhere. There is no precedent in history for this kind of overarching control of human communication.

Social critics are beginning to ask what will happen to the rich cultural diversity that makes up the ecology of human existence. When a handful of information, entertainment and telecommunications companies control much of the cultural content that makes up our daily lives…. (IHT, January 17, 2000)

ODILE HELLIER: Yes. I am aware of that. I am aware of it every single day, and that is why I want to fight. I want to be there, to survive there: not just for my own sake, but because I believe in a life of books. Small places like mine, like the Village Voice, can be a pocket – not of the past, but of the future. If we, because of a certain knowledge, experience, vision – and I would say ‘vision’ is the essential word – can survive, I feel there might be a resurgence of the the humane person we envision. I know that there is still a certain kind of person who is going to need the book, not to be entertained by it, but to live with it. I believe there will still be those readers who thank us for having found them the book which made a difference in their lives at that moment. It seems to me that this vision can co-exist with that other, in which all cultural life is processed.

What I have said may sound elitist, in a way, but not because of social background or money. If I sound this way, it is because of reflection. If I have become ‘elitist,’ I have a certain right, because I work to get there. I work to have the right to think as I think, and not to think in the processed way controlled by the entertainment companies which Jeremy Rifkin writes about.

This is what THE RESURGENCE OF THE REAL, by Charlene Spretnak, deals with. The Rifkin book, also, is strong. Richard Sennett’s THE CORROSION OF CHARACTER, about the effect of the new kind of work on us, is very good. Many people are trying to think differently. Of course, it’s not because they are trying to think differently that they are going to change the course of history. The course of history is AOL and Time Warner, it’s Amazon, it’s definitely the internet. But the human mind may also rebel against this. The human mind is, in the end, what is stronger.

The next two or three years are going to be difficult. But, I feel, people will become tired of consumerism. It seems to me that they are going to look for something different. And that’s why small ‘pockets’ like mine don’t have to be huge, but they have to exist, and to continue to exist. The future of the literary, convivial, neighborhood bookshops may still be rosy. As the owner of such a bookshop, I can only hope for the best.


1Louis-Hubert Lyautey 1854–1934, colonial administrator and marshal of France. Cf. André Maurois, MARSHALL LYAUTEY. Tr. Hamish Miles. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1931. 
Alan Scham,

2 “The net book agreement prevented English booksellers from discounting the price of new books; it collapsed in September 1995, when several large publishers and a major book retailer withdrew from the agreement; other publishers soon followed. In 1997, suit was brought by the government’s Office of Fair Trading to abolish the agreement, as it was now ineffective. A defense of the agreement was mounted by a number of publishing and literary figures, including John Calder. In the meantime, Waterstone’s and Dillon’s, the two largest booksellers, have launched web sites; a British-based on-line bookstore now exists, as well as Amazon, the US-based on-line book service. The British sites will also offer books published in the US, before they appear in England. In 1996, 101,504 new titles (including 9,209 new works of fiction) were reported to have been published in Britain, compared to 95,064 in 1995.” – see A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago Vol. 1, No. 3.



Odile Hellier 

Village Voice Bookshop

6, rue Princesse

(Métro: Mabillon/St.-Germain-des-Prés)

75006 Paris

Tel: 01 46 33 36 47 Fax: 01 46 33 27 48

See also:

A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago, Vol. 1 No. 3

A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1 No. 4  and Vol. 2, No. 1

A Conversation with William Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4

A Conversation with Samuel H. Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2

Reminiscence: Lee Goerner (1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3

Institutional Memory (Download)

Authors and (selected) books of the time, mentioned in the conversation:











SINCE 1960


the Paris Notebooks; THE BOOKSELLER





Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN; JUNETEENTH (ed. by John Callaghan)


Charles Frazier,COLD MOUNTAIN

Sarah Gaddis, SWALLOW HARD



Nikki Gemmel, ALICE SPRINGS (published in England as CLEAVE); SHIVER











































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