The Phoenix Bookstore in Paris -- the biggest Chinese bookstore in Europe -- is a resort for those people living in this metropolis who are either curious about or eager to study Chinese culture. The bookstore, mainly dealing in books published in China, has been described by the local media as the “Chinese world on the banks of the Seine” and an envoy to spread Chinese culture in France.
The Phoenix Bookstore was established in 1964 by a couple of French people who were fascinated by the enchanting oriental culture. The three-story bookstore situated on Sébastopol Street, near the well-known Pompidou Center, covers an area of over 2,000 square meters. A tour of the store, which looks like a university library with all kinds of Chinese books stacked neatly on the shelves, gives a very wide overview of Chinese culture covering literature, history, tourism, art and religion. There is an eye-catching Chinese-styled “magazine board” at the right corner of the entrance, on which many popular magazines in China including China Pictorial, Globe, Storytelling Session, Leisure Time, etc. can be found.
According to the French proprietor, Philippe Meyer, currently, the store deals in as many as 35,000 categories of books, of which 90 percent are related to China, including Chinese books in the original, French translations of original Chinese works as well as French books describing China. A total of 85 percent of the Chinese books are from China, while 15 percent from other Asian countries and regions including Japan, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. French translations are mainly from France, Belgium, Switzerland and other Francophone countries. In addition, a small amount of English books from England and the United States are also sold in the store.
Meyer said, unexpectedly, that Chinese-learning textbooks such as Daily Chinese and Words and Expressions for Everyday Use When Traveling in China are his bestsellers, with a sales volume accounting for 15 percent of turnover. By and large, buyers of these language textbooks fall into three categories: those who are learning Chinese, teachers teaching Chinese, and librarians working in reference rooms. Meanwhile, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping as well as classical Chinese literary masterpieces like A Dream of Red Mansions and Book of Master Chuang are always in short supply due to big demand.
Both French readers and overseas Chinese are frequent customers. On a quiet Saturday morning, while looking over a French translation of A Dream of Red Mansions by Li Zhihua, a pilot of Air France who flies the Paris-Beijing and Paris-Shanghai routes said in fluent Chinese that he often visited the store when off duty. Even without buying, it’s a great pleasure for him to come here to leaf through magazines and newly-published books in Chinese.
To extend the bookstore’s influence, Meyer said, for the past five years they have participated in the French International Book Fair. They also took part in the art exhibition held in the Louvre Museum, in which books relating to China’s painting and calligraphy collected by the Phoenix Bookstore were showcased. In addition, a number of prominent Chinese artists such as Ba Jin, one of the living literary giants, have been invited to the store.
Nonetheless, Meyer is extremely concerned over the current situation of Chinese bookstores in Europe. There used to be many of them, but most have been forced to close down. Right now, there is no Chinese bookstore at all in Germany and Italy. The Great Wall Bookstore in Belgium is very small. The Guanghua (Brightness) Bookshop in England shut down long ago. Over a dozen Chinese bookstores once existed in Paris, but only two survive. One is the Phoenix Bookstore that orders books from all over the world and then sells them not only in France and also other European countries. The other is the Youfeng Bookstore established by Chinese Cambodian Pan Lihui, which pays more attention to publication business as well as translation.
According to Meyer, at present the Phoenix Bookstore is facing two difficulties. Firstly, just like other foreign language bookstores, the Phoenix as well as other Chinese bookstores managed by independent booksellers is not able to compete with big chain bookstores. Secondly, alongside its economic advances, book prices are soaring in China, which has raised the purchasing cost by a big margin for the Phoenix. Meyer said that, 15 years ago, they purchased books at the price marked on the cover. However, now they have to drive a hard bargain with the publishing house for heavy discounts. Furthermore, due to the long period to import books from China, the store has to keep a certain stock to meet current market demand. Worst of all, since the store cannot enjoy the right to return surplus books if the order is placed in China, the investment risk is greatly increased.
Despite all of these difficulties, Meyer admitted frankly that he did not intend to make big money when first taking over the Phoenix. To do this kind of business, “compared with the abundant spiritual reward, the material reward is peanuts,” he said with a smile.
(Edited and translated by Shao Da for china.org.cn from sources including 环球时报 [Global Times] and 青年参考 [Youth Reference], July 17, 2002)