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Penelope Fletcher Le MassonPenelope Fletcher Le Masson comes from “an island off an island off Vancouver”. She seems to have been born with a dedication to selling books: before her twentieth birthday, she’d persuaded her father to refit an old henhouse as a moveable bookstore, a brightly painted gyspy caravan which she stocked with second-hand books and set up near the only other store on the island. “But don’t write that, will you?” she asks, blushing. I hope she lets me: she may be shy about her youthful entrepreneurship, but there’s still a bookstore on the Hornby Island site today (though the henhouse is gone), and in Paris, half a planet away, she now runs one of the nicest bookshops I’ve ever visited. The Red Wheelbarrow SignPenelope opened the Red Wheelbarrow in Paris’s Marais district in 2001. It’s a vibrant outlet for both new and backlist books, which are shelved from floor to ceiling and stacked on every available table and chair, and a good portion of the floor. As is the case with many English-language bookstores in Europe, the stock consists of both British and American editions, which makes for a visually stimulating browse.

What really makes the Red Wheelbarrow special, though, is the sense of community that surrounds it. I visited one afternoon last month, and while we talked bookselling and drank ginger beer, a constant stream of people entered both the shop and the conversation: there were tourists looking for guidebooks and leaving with a stack of novels; locals paying their daily visit while walking the dog, friends dropping in to catch up on the gossip of the night before (plenty of readings and other events take place here in the evenings). At one point, an American couple appeared, known regulars by virtue of an annual visit during their vacation. Several times Penelope made introductions among her customers and there was the sense of new friendships being made.

Books on sale in the Red WheelbarrowWhile I left with a book—and would have taken a great deal more if I’d had a fatter wallet that day—it’s not the richly stocked shelves that makes the Red Wheelbarrow special, so much as the role it plays in the local community. It’s good to know that there are still bookshops like this, places where ideas are exchanged and lasting friendships are made, where you can while away the afternoon talking even without the assistance of a coffee concession. It’s the kind of place you’d want to exist if you’d just moved to a new town. Ultimately, it’s also a reminder that independent bookshops like The Red Wheelbarrow can have an importance to the community that even outweighs their importance as bookshops. And that’s saying something.

The Red Wheelbarrow, 22, rue St Paul, 75004 Paris. Tel. 01 4804 7508

21 Comments on “The Red Wheelbarrow: Profile of a Paris Bookshop”

  1. Petulia Says:

    I love the Red Wheelbarrow, it’s conveniently located around the corner from our apartment, so I stop by every time I am in Paris.

  2. stujallen Says:

    this looks a great shop what is a dying breed in the uk .I ll have to look it up whenever i m next in paris

  3. Rob Says:

    Blimey, Stu, I only just realised you have a blog! Am I slow or is it new?

    And yes, you should definitely check out the Red Wheelbarrow. It’s a lovely place.

  4. Biblibio Says:

    I always like seeing American editions alongside British ones. Or, at least, I like seeing them side-by-side until I realize they start having different titles and different marketing approaches. Then the annoyance comes…

  5. Rob Says:

    Those details may be an annoyance, Biblibio, but isn’t it a treat when you discover that a book you’d thought long out of print – or not heard of at all – is not only in print across the pond, but on a shelf right in front of you?

  6. Suzanne Says:

    I visited this wonderful bookstore *twice* during a short visit in December 2009. I bought several books and enjoyed my time within its walls immensely.

  7. Lani Says:

    What a lovely report on a charming bookstore. Thanks for writing this, Rob! I am enamored with independent bookstores like this; thanks for reminding me what a resource I have right in my own Paris neighborhood.

  8. malcolm burgess Says:

    A very charming bookstore but I have heard that they’re also very bad payers when it comes to poor publishers. But I guess you can’t have everything!

  9. Penelope Says:

    Dear Malcolm,

    This is absolutely not true, small bookshops always pay small and poor publishers, unless they havent sold the books, but then they have find the time to return them- this is the only situation when we have been slow – you are spreading vicious rumours. It is easier to support Amazon and large chains – but in the long run, when the e-book readers have replaced real books, and bookshops can’t exist anymore, this sort of rumour mill will be gone as well.

  10. andrew Says:

    Everything i have read about this store is incredible,the charm,ambience,location has 100% changed my dedication.I will only use The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore from this moment further.

  11. Yoni Says:

    This gem of a bookstore was absolutely a highlight of my recent trip to Paris. There’s a kind of magic in there created by Penelope, and you can see that people like coming there as much (or more) for the warm chats and the reading guidance as for the great selection of books.

    Excited to come back on my next trip!

  12. october reads, part 2 « cakes, tea and dreams Says:

    […] Paris’ Right Bank – eating falafel, poking around in vintage shops, browsing books at The Red Wheelbarrow and sipping chocolat chaud at les philosophes cafe. So I enjoyed this memoir-cum-history of the […]

  13. Renée Levine’s list « Arun with a View Says:

    […] 1931, on her way to school). It sold like hotcakes at the Anglophone bookstores in Paris—notably The Red Wheelbarrow, in the Marais—which Renée did not expect, and more copies were printed, I think. It’s a […]

  14. Josephine Fletcher Says:

    It is the ultimate thing to do is too find a very lovely book. Or perhaps a lovely stack of books and curl up in a comfy chair under a good lamp in a quite , peaceful setting and read. No one should take that away. Long live books. One should awake in the morning surrounded by books.
    The books on the shelf should be the books you want to open up and read. Books are to be treasured. I love special old books. I am so happy to be surrounded by books. Then I will stretch and come back maybe into the real world. Or is it real. The bustling too busy to stop! Let me off…..

  15. George Says:

    what a treat to read about this special bookstore . . . I expect to frequent it daily during my upcoming trip to Paris and partake in the community life there and else where in the Marais.

    a habit now, is the joy of finding a special book when I travel to new places.

    can’t wait –

  16. pamela Says:

    Go now!!! Bookshops like this are fast disappearing – note the closure in late July (2012)of the wonderful Village Voice in St. Germain!

    May a similar fate not be in store anytime soon for the Red Wheelbarrow!

  17. Day 3: Left Bank, Place des Vosges & Late Night Falafels (July 30, 2012) | bcinberkeley Says:

    […] continued the ‘books’ theme, we also went into the Red Wheelbarrow, another great English-language […]

  18. Stephanie g. Van Duzee Says:

    I love this shop. When I am in Paris it is one of my adventures.

  19. William Owens Says:

    Last time I walked down rue St. Paul, before I moved from Paris a year ago, the shop was, unfortunately, closed. Sad to see but I heard Penelope arguing with a smart-ass American customer a few years ago about Amazon. The American refused to acknowledge that buying all your books from Amazon undermines the financial viability of great stores like this.

  20. Jacqueline Says:

    The Red Wheelbarrow has reopened as of last week in a new location on rue de Médicis.

  21. Will Says:

    Yes, reopened and charming, easy to find directly across street from Luxembourg Gardens… a 3 minute walk from blvd Saint-Michel. They recently ordered a children’s book for me from a U.S. publisher, took no time at all, and no shipping charges!

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