In the Latin Quarter, Paris’ intellectual heartbeat grows fainter

A film crew on February 26, 2021, in Paris in the Latin Quarter. The neighborhood's charm increasingly draws wealthy people from around the world, pushing more bohemian residents to the suburbs. (Photo: NYTimes)
PARIS — With their bright yellow awnings and sagging iron shelves, the Gibert Jeune bookstores, which sell cheap secondhand books, have been a fixture of the Latin Quarter in Paris for over a century, a mainstay of the neighborhood’s shabby-chic intellectual life and beloved by tourists, too.اضافة اعلان

“So old and unchangeable,” said Anny Louchart, 74, a longtime customer who was recently rummaging through boxes of paperbacks at one of the stores, her voice filled with nostalgia.

But a sales assistant told Louchart that four of the store’s seven outposts in the area, including the one she stood in, would soon close, hard hit by a drop in sales because of the pandemic.

“It closes down,” she said, “and with it a part of the neighborhood collapses.”

The fate of the Gibert Jeune bookstores, some of which date to the late 19th century, is just the latest in a series of emblematic closings that have eroded the cultural identity of the Latin Quarter as the hub of Parisian letters, home to countless writers, philosophers, artists, revolutionaries and students.

The gentrification that many Parisians fear is robbing their city of its soul has not spared the Latin Quarter, where fashion stores and fast-food restaurants have taken over many of the spaces once occupied by ancient cafes, bookstores and movie theaters. The neighborhood’s appeal has driven up rents, causing a once-vibrant student life to crumble.

Figures from urban planning agency Apur show that 42 percent of the Latin Quarter’s bookstores have vanished in the past 20 years, and Paris’ open-air booksellers are also fighting for survival.

But the news of the closings of the Gibert Jeune bookstores — an institution that seemed immortal to many people — has sounded an unusual alarm. It strikes at the very heart of the neighborhood’s identity: access to culture at an affordable price.

Three Gibert Jeune stores just closed, and the fourth was expected to follow suit in the next few days.

“It is this bookstore that best embodied the spirit of the Latin Quarter,” said Éric Anceau, a historian teaching at the Sorbonne, the renowned university founded in the heart of the Latin Quarter in 1253. The name of the area derives from the use of Latin as the language of study by Sorbonne students in the Middle Ages.

On a recent afternoon, Ingrid Ernst, an energetic retired urban planner, was touring the area. Every street corner she stopped at was an opportunity to point to a cafe that had made way for a supermarket or to a record dealer turned luxury hotel.

“It’s the classic gentrification process,” Ernst, 69, said as she grumbled about the proliferation of elevators in the nearby buildings, a sign of “full-speed gentrification.”

Ernst said she would no longer be able to afford the small attic studio she rented when she settled in the Latin Quarter in 1972, when it still bubbled with the energy of the student-led “May 1968” protests that took place there.

The Latin Quarter is home to many universities but fewer and fewer students. They have been driven away by the neighborhood’s housing prices, some of Paris’ highest, and by the creation of new campuses on the outskirts of the capital to meet greater demand.

“It’s almost impossible to live here as a student,” said Constance Pena, 19, sitting on a bench near the Sorbonne, who had come all the way from a western suburb to study in a nearby library.

Gone are the days when Ernest Hemingway wrote that Paris and its Latin Quarter allowed “a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were.”

Michel Carmona, a historian and geographer specializing in Paris, said that the cultural erosion of the Latin Quarter started in the 1980s and was intertwined with the gradual decline of student life. “Cheap bookstores, cafes and movie theaters are primarily for students,” he said.

He added that residents of the neighborhood were increasingly “transit people” — wealthy foreigners eager to have a pied-à-terre or tourists renting Airbnb apartments.

At the heart of this dynamic lies a paradox: Gentrification uproots the same bohemian charm that draws people to the Latin Quarter.

Anceau, the historian, said the atmosphere in the neighborhood had been “apocalyptic” since the start of the pandemic. The gloom that has settled over Paris has been perhaps most conspicuous in the Latin Quarter, whose very heart — the cafes, restaurants, theaters and museums — stopped beating amid government lockdown restrictions to fight coronavirus infections.

The temporary shutdown of these cultural pillars has resonated among local residents as a dress rehearsal for the near future. Cafes and theaters have not reopened since the fall, when a second wave of infections was taking hold in France, and many fear that some will have gone out of business by the time restrictions are lifted.

On the Rue Champollion, a cobbled, narrow street close to the Sorbonne, the lines of film buffs that once stretched out on the sidewalks in the middle of the day are nowhere to be found today. The three art-house movie theaters there were closed for the lockdown

One of the theaters, Le Champo, has been displaying extracts from its guest book — “the memory box,” as it called them — behind its closed windows. A 2018 message left by prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who died last month, read: “For Le Champo! So many years later … and how many more years to come?”