Sipping maple syrup-sweetened coffee, the smiling Canadian fondly recalls stumbling across rue de la Parcheminerie, the narrow lane where his Anglophone bookstore is nestled.
This was once the heart of the Parisian book trade. Originally named rue des Ecrivains for the scribes who copied manuscripts here, the street was renamed after their trade was replaced by parchment makers in the Middle Ages. Just up the street stands the famed Shakespeare and Company, a bohemian hub for English literature.
“Perhaps no other city values bookstores the same way Paris does,” Spence says. “We’re very spoiled.”
His is one of nearly 700 bookshops scattered across the city, which boasts an impressive one “librairie” for every 4,000 people. Independent bookstores are something of a national treasure, considered an important repository of French language and culture.
Purveyors of poetry and prose are part of the traditional way business is done in France, where the small shopkeeper is cherished. Various neighborhoods are dedicated to furniture makers, fashion traders or other single trades. Historically situated in this university area, booksellers are part and parcel of the social fabric.
For the time being at least: In the age of Amazon, the institution is under siege as web-based retailers threaten the livelihood of small business owners by offering cut-rate prices online.
Independent booksellers have suffered over the past three years as the market declined between 3 and 9 percent from 2010 to 2012.
The French aren’t treating the outcome as inevitable, however. The government is fighting back by taking measures to safeguard independent bookshops. Among its efforts is the introduction of a bill that would prohibit companies from offering free shipping of books along with discounts.
Already in 1981, a regulation called the Lang Law barred discounting books by more than 5 percent of the price set by the publisher.
The new legislation, approved unanimously by France’s lower house of parliament last month, is expected to sail through the senate later this year, greeted with rare consensus in a time of partisan bickering.
Although some view the law as a demonstration of national solidarity against the commercial encroachment of American multinationals, it also reflects the general belief that protecting cultural heritage transcends party lines.
Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti, who’s led the charge to save independent bookstores, accuses Amazon of “dumping.” She accuses the company of reducing shipping prices in order to gain a foothold in new markets, only to increase them after having established monopolies — something Amazon.com recently demonstrated in raising the threshold for free shipping in the United States from $25 to $35.
“Once they’re in a dominant position and have wiped out our network of bookshops, it is a strong bet that they will raise their delivery charges,” Filippetti, who is also a novelist, said during a debate in the National Assembly.
Amazon has criticized the new law, saying that the government will hurt French consumers.
“Any measure that aims to increase the price of books purchased online will penalize French internet customers,” the company said in a statement. “The impact of this would be huge on the availability of the widest selection of books, and on people for whom the internet can drive a large part of their business.”
Guillaume Husson, executive director of Syndicat de la Librairie Française, a group that represents independent booksellers, counters that the bill’s goal is to help level the playing field for bookshops selling online.
“None can offer the same benefits as Amazon, which leads them to sell at a loss,” he says. The book bill would restore fair competition and allow hundreds of bookstores to achieve more sales on the internet, he adds.
Spence believes that the bill would be good for boosting morale among booksellers, at the very least.
“It also reaffirms in the mind of the consumer that Amazon isn’t viewed by the government or society as a positive factor in French business and culture,” he says.
Last year, 17 percent of all books sold in France were purchased on the internet, according to market research firm Xerfi. That was up from 2010, when online sales accounted for 13 percent of all printed-book sales while bookstores made up 23 percent, according to a government report.
Large retailers such as FNAC, a books and electronics megastore, dominated the rest of the marketplace.
The trend may appear insignificant compared to the dynamics in the United States, where Amazon alone represented an estimated 30 percent of all book sales in 2011 (a figure that’s now closer to 40 percent). But it’s still worrisome to small retailers in France, who say they can’t compete with the free shipping and discounts some websites offer.
For his part, Spence has pledged to stop purchasing books from Amazon.
“It’s just one way that a bookstore can make a stand and be uncompromising when it feels that there’s just too much concentration in the hands of one business,” he says.
He’s witnessed the evolving market firsthand since opening his store in 1989, from the rise and fall of large book retailers to the online market’s expansion.
The internet trade’s demolition of chain bookstores — a trend that’s savaged companies such as Borders in the United States — is also evident across France.
Virgin, the music and media retailer that also sold books, closed in June. Major big-box stores such as FNAC have experienced losses in market share and closures. French book chain Chapitre announced in September that its 57 stores would be put up for sale and face liquidation if no buyers are found by next summer.
The government has maintained its dedication to independent bookstores amid that unstable climate, its actions considered a natural extension of France’s “exception culturelle,” or cultural exception — which allows subsidies and tax breaks to support television, films, and music.
To help preserve the Latin Quarter’s storied bookselling tradition, a government agency called Semaest is snapping up commercial space in the neighborhood for renting exclusively to book-related businesses. The aim is to combat the rising rent costs that are pushing many independent bookstores out of the area.
Among the real estate it’s eyeing, Semaest is looking to purchase Spence’s space from his landlord.
“There’s cause to be optimistic,” he says. “And much of it is thanks to the government.”