Bookshop haven faces a future in fast foods

May 28, 1999


The bookshop of the Presses Universitaires de France, one of the major cultural and intellectual landmarks of Paris's university district, is facing closure.

The shop, on the corner of the boulevard Saint-Michel and the Place de la Sorbonne in the heart of the Latin Quarter, is a victim of old-fashioned ideals and a continuing slump in sales of books in the field of human and social sciences.

It is due to close before the end of the year, with at least 40 redundancies, as part of a drastic restructuring plan to save its parent company, the academic publishers Presses Universitaires de France (PUF).

Last week, following a token strike the week before, business was more or less as usual, with customers browsing peacefully. But next to the tills there were petitions against the closure for clients to sign, and union notices and a relevant article from Le Monde were taped to the windows. Devotees fear that the premises, which is licensed for general business, will become yet another fast-food outlet or clothes shop.

PUF was set up in 1921 by a group of professors as a co-operative unique in French publishing to promote French culture and disseminate knowledge to all.

It expanded over the years under Paul Angoulvent who, in 1941, introduced the "Que sais-je?" collection, which concisely explains a range of topics from absolutism to enterprise zones.

For the past few years, however, the company has faced increasing financial difficulties. According to Michel Prigent, chairman of the board of directors set up in 1994 to tighten up management, who this month presented the restructuring plan to PUF's supervisory board, there were three main problems afflicting the company: its shrinking market, including a steep drop in translations; the difficulty of combining its various activities (publishing, distribution, printing, retail and the bookshop); and the unwieldiness of its legal status as a cooperative, which spread capital between nearly 4,000 individuals.

The bookshop with its special characteristics was particularly vulnerable, said Mr Prigent. It had lost E610,000 (Pounds 402,000) in the past three years and would cost E1 million to modernise - "an investment that is too high", said Mr Prigent.

Mr Prigent's plans have not gone unopposed. The son of PUF's founder, Pierre Angoulvent, who ran the press from 1968 to 1994, resigned as chairman of the supervisory board.

The company had not been set up to create wealth for shareholders but "to serve the general interest and the French university by publishing and distribution of cultural matters", Mr Angoulvent said.

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