French town could not forsake bookstore

Nation protective of its traditions

Corinne Dalloz assisted a customer in a bookstore in Poligny, France. Residents banded together to keep it from closing. Corinne Dalloz assisted a customer in a bookstore in Poligny, France. Residents banded together to keep it from closing. (Edward Cody/ Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post / November 22, 2009

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POLIGNY, France - Just off the town square, a few hundred feet down La Grande Rue, a bookstore has been dispensing culture and entertainment to the people of Poligny for 150 years. Over the generations, residents said, it has become part of the landscape, a place where children tarry on the way home from school and their parents duck in to pick up the latest novel.

That’s why, when the shop looked as if it would have to close this spring, a group of townspeople put up cash to form a little corporation, capitalized at $70,000, and bought the lease to keep it running.

As a result, the New Bookstore reopened earlier this month with a coat of fresh paint but a familiar mission: to be a haven where people feel welcome dropping by to buy a ballpoint pen or browse for books.

Poligny residents’ effort to preserve an old-fashioned Main Street bookstore may seem eccentric in an age of electronics, instantaneous communication, and discount giants. But not in France, a country that is fixated on its centuries-old traditions and is determined to safeguard its cultural heritage.

“This place is part of Poligny’s history, part of its patrimony,’’ said Corinne Dalloz, a shareholder and the only paid employee in the bookstore, which serves fewer than 5,000 residents in this town in the rustic Jura foothills 250 miles southeast of Paris.

Respect for heritage helps explain why France is so enjoyable - it is the world’s top tourist destination, with more than 80 million visitors a year. But it comes with a price. National and local government agencies spend nearly $1 billion a year to maintain and restore historical monuments, including funding the paint job now under way for the Eiffel Tower, according to the Culture and Communication Ministry.

The country’s grand wines and celebrated cuisine also owe much to the reverence for age-old traditions. Folk wisdom, for instance, demands that good cheese come from small-scale artisans emulating their ancestors. But the old ways cost more than modern methods - cheese, it turns out, is cheaper to make on a factory scale - and agriculture here is notoriously subsidized.

Politically, as well, France’s focus on the past often creates roadblocks. Former President Jacques Chirac famously observed that French people would not accept the changes necessary to compete in a modern, global economy, preferring a long lunch break to a higher salary and a secure health insurance system to lower taxes.

President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007 largely on a promise to break with that conservatism, vowing that French people would work more and earn more under his leadership. But public suspicion has forced him to pull back on several ambitious moves, and there is no sign French people are working any more than they did under Chirac.

Sarkozy’s latest political initiative is a national discussion on what it means to be French at a time when the population is changing. It now includes more than 6 million Muslims and a growing influx of Africans and Eastern Europeans.

Most of the discussion, however, has focused on the need for new arrivals to adhere to values arising from France’s past.