English-language bookshop in Paris looks to a bright future

The San Francisco Books Company is among the last in the capital to sell used books in English, but its owner insists business is very healthy

Bookshop employee Jack Sondag reads behind a wall of books at San Francisco Books Company in Paris’s Odéon district
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“Oh, this is actually tidy,” says Jack Sondag, surveying the books stacked tall on his desk and piled metres high on and against the shelves throughout the shop.

The San Francisco Books Company, the English-language bookshop where he works in the heart of Paris’s Odéon district, has the comforting smell of ink on paper from all these pillars of knowledge.

Charmed customers invariably end up buying books they had not considered before stepping into the store.

Shopper Anna Aubin, a 22- year-old student at Panthéon-Sorbonne, who was originally after a Stephen King novel, said: “It’s like a hardware shop.

‘You come with an idea and you leave with something else’

You come with an idea and you leave with something else.”

The same thing happens to César Tresca, a 27-year-old filmmaker, who was looking for George Mikes’ How to be a Brit but who left with Italy for Beginners under his arm.

The shop’s owner is Jim Carroll, a 74-year-old American who established it on rue Monsieur le Prince in 1997.

At the time, Mr Carroll was a respected bookstore owner in San Francisco.

Carroll’s Books had opened in 1989 but closed in 2004 when he moved to Paris full-time.

“I decided to go with ‘San Francisco’ in the name because everybody loves San Francisco,” he says.

He included ‘company’ to copy Shakespeare and Company, another popular English-language bookshop in Paris, famous for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses.

More than just the anglophone community

However, the San Francisco Books Company welcomes more than just the anglophone community, pulling in the occasional tourist from Asia, as well as from northern, Baltic and eastern European countries.

Reasons include the growing number of students choosing English as their second language, as well as the premises’ hard-to-miss shopfront, painted blood red.

Pic: Théophile Larcher

It is also because the shop is one of the very last bookshops in Odéon specialising in used English books.

The historic Gibert Jeune outlet in this district, once familiar to every Parisian student, stopped stocking them back in 2008.

The shop has also benefited from a recent expansion online.

During Covid, 30% to 40% of sales were made on the internet.

“There is this idea that the industry is going down, but in fact it is going up again.

Book industry ‘very healthy’

The book [industry] here is very healthy,” Mr Carroll says.

It has not always been the case. When he first opened his doors in Odéon, attracted to the area’s intellectual vitality and proximity to some of France’s most selective and respected universities, bookshops were already struggling.

The downward spiral continued, with Paris bookshops decreasing by 33% from 2000 to 2020, according to a survey from the city’s chamber of commerce. While Gibert Jeune and Boulinier, another Paris bookshop stalwart, were able to hang on, just about, other English-language stores have not been so lucky.

Berkeley Books, an English-language bookstore opened by a former employee of Mr Carroll in 2006, closed in 2019.

It left San Francisco Books Company almost the sole purveyor of English books, with the notable exception of Shakespeare and Company.

Bright future

However, the future looks bright for Mr Carroll.

The Connexion met him at another location he asked not to disclose.

There, he and two students were cataloguing 20,000 books he had bought from a collector who died recently.

Most of Mr Carroll’s time is currently spent like this.

He hopes to list all the books on his website by the end of the year.

They are in addition to the 15,700 books already in his inventory.

The next Ms Aubin and Mr Tresca alike are advised to keep looking at the bookshop’s website and Facebook page, where new titles are posted daily.

Buying online means forgoing the quirky ‘Yes, all the books are in English’ bookmark that customers receive in the shop.

It also depicts a stylised version of Mr Carroll carrying a stack of books.

The image is a pertinent one – the books just keep on coming.

“That’s the thing with books.

You always end up with more than you need,” he says wryly.

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