Before I moved to Paris in 2013/14, one of the most popular English language bookstores closed in 2009. Penelope Fletcher assures friends that it was for personal reasons and had nothing to do with Internet competition. Now that it has reopened nine years later, the outpouring of love and gratitude for the return of the Red Wheelbarrow got me investigating Penelope and her bookstore.
The name comes from a sixteen word poem by William Carlos Williams entitled The Red Wheel Barrow. I have yet to learn what the significance is. I sense it is important. When Penelope and her associates first opened the bookstore, it was located in the Marais. It has now re-opened at 9, Rue de Medicis across from the Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement. “People like Umberto Eco lived here,” says Fletcher. “There’s this very rich community of writers and characters here. I didn’t realize it still exists.” This location is poignant in Paris’s bookstore canon; the store’s building has been a bookshop since 1930, and before Fletcher and her associates acquired it last year it was the last remaining secondhand science bookshop in France.–Paris Update, Nov. 6, 2018
I first learned about TRW because, from the minute it re-opened, it became the partner bookstore for the evening events at the American Library in Paris. One or two times a week, Penelope shows up on her bicycle with bags full of books to be sold and signed by the spotlighted author of the evening. The respect and admiration that surrounds Penelope and the many articles that have been written about the re-opening have made me extremely curious. I thought the most well-known Anglophone bookstore in Paris was Shakespeare and Company. It has resided in one form or another in Paris since 1919. I had stopped by a couple of times when I lived close to it but found the used books to be so expensive that I stopped going. After reading a lovely book about the Tumbleweeds (students and travellers with no where to spend the night and stay at Shakespeare in exchange for work) that have stayed there over the years, I returned about two years ago. I walked through the space which is a delight but was not greeted by anyone and when I tried to talk to the owner Sylvia Whitman, daughter of 2nd owner, George Whitman, and someone manning the cash register, I was greeted with total silence as if I was invisible. I haven’t returned since. My Anglophone bookstore of choice became San Francisco Book Co. I could buy and sell used books there and have a lively discussion with one of the two owners if I had the time.
In April, I went for the first time to The Red Wheelbarrow for a book signing by an author I like: David Downie. My sister and Nancy MacLean will be doing an event there on July 3 and I wanted to see the space and how it might work. Peggy and Nancy are speaking at the Library the night before and I wanted to make sure that the 3rd would be low-key and very casual. I needn’t have worried at all. David was seated at a table and signing books and I knew almost everyone who walked in. I also ran into Michael Ondaatje which got my ‘groupie gene’ activated. There were ladders next to the walls and Michael was climbing up one checking out books that were very high, close to the ceiling. The bookstore is small and filled with books. The windows in front tell an immediate story of who Penelope and her associates are and what the bookstore is.
At the old bookstore in the Marais, Penelope had created a ‘neighborhood’ of book lovers. Visitors to the bookstore became friends and Penelope would introduce new visitors to old. When this bookstore opened last Fall, the ‘neighborhood’ moved with her. Penelope has a dream of community. She wants to serve as a refuge of positivity in uncertain times. According to the Paris Update article I read: “The shop window makes the store’s politics clear: on display are Innosanto Nagara’s A is for Activist and Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works. An upcoming event with James Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart will promote the reissue of his uncle’s book Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood. These choices are especially relevant, and perhaps brave, as right next door to the Red Wheelbarrow is an extreme-right bookstore.
“You never know what’s going to happen with a bookshop,” says Fletcher. “You have to roll with the haywire. Because we have the extreme-right bookstore next door, we have to be extremely attentive to what we’re doing and be an opposition, and be more powerful, and be more positive, and be cleverer than them. Which is a challenge, because they’re very clever.”
She feels a responsibility to oppose the kind of hatred represented by the shop near her peaceful little store. “One of our co-owners survived the Holocaust, so of course her whole life has been dictated by this. Another one is African American – we are all directly impacted by what their intention is.”
Paris Update article: https://www.parisupdate.com/red-wheelbarrow/
I urge residents and visitors alike to support this wonderful bookstore that is more than a bookstore.
The Red Wheel Barrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens. –William Carlos Williams
Canadian Penelope Fletcher, the founder of the English bookstore, has found new partners and is again dedicated to providing one of the best English literary experiences in Paris. The location is pure Paris postcard with large, bright blue picture windows overlooking the park. Afterwards, head to the park to spend the afternoon reading.