France’s small bookstores have survived the rise of big chains, Amazon and digital books, but many fear a sales tax rise, part of the debt-saddled French government’s austerity plans, could push them out of business.
Until now the thousands of independent booksellers that dot France’s town centers offered the best of both worlds — a quaint setting, one-on-one tips and advice, and guaranteed prices as low as at a chain store.
Since 1981, the French government has set the price of books, largely to support independent bookstores which are seen as vital assets to local communities.
However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government, which is fighting to get public finances under control, has raised the sales tax on books from 5.5 percent to 7 percent, under measures that took effect last Sunday.
With the French presidential election campaign in full swing ahead of the April 22 first round, the question has turned political with Sarkozy’s main rival, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, vowing to repeal the rise.
Booksellers see the tax hike, part of measures aimed at saving a total of 72 billion euros (US$95 billion), as a stab in the back.
The government has “loaded the bullet designed to kill off independent booksellers,” said Vincent Monade, a former bookseller and head of the Paris region’s Observatory for Books and Writing.
Unlike the US, where bookselling has already become the preserve of big business, France has one of the densest networks of small bookstores in the world.
Across its 2,500 to 3,000 professional bookstores — compared with a little more than 1,000 in Britain — literature-loving staff often stick little notes to titles with their own short comments or reviews.
“What we love is to share the books we have enjoyed,” said Valerie Fournier, of the Librairie du Rivage, in Royan on the French Atlantic coast.
SLF Booksellers Union head Guillaume Husson said that the value added tax (VAT) announcement was a “shock” to booksellers, already hurting from the rise of online vendors, soaring property rental rates, and, now, digital books.
“It’s taking a big risk, for what amounts to a drop of water in the state coffers given the size of the national debt,” which stood at almost 1.7 trillion euros at the end of the third quarter of last year, he said.
On that scale, the SLF said that the sums generated by the extra book tax, estimated at 60 million euros at most, are a drop in the ocean — and yet the effect on bookstores could be disastrous.
Across the French book sector, the average profit margin is 0.3 percent of turnover, according to a study conducted by the SLF and the French Ministry of Culture in May last year.
Given the millions of titles booksellers already have in stock, the SLF fears the VAT rise will eat into their wafer-thin profit margins and push many out of business.
“A majority of booksellers would end up in the red and threatened with closure,” the SLF said.
A group of leading lights in the French book world, led by a Paris bookstore owner, have spoken out against the VAT rise.
“This bad measure will destroy the diversity of France’s book landscape,” their open letter in the Livres Hebdo weekly said, warning of the “incalculable cost of the bankruptcies” that could ensue.
“VAT is a major political issue,” said Husson, whose union has been lobbying all the presidential candidates for a super-low VAT rate on books, a system that already exists for the French press.