Meet the Literary Doyenne Behind the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

Meet the Literary Doyenne Behind the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

“This is the fifth bookstore I’ve ever owned,” says Penelope Fletcher from where she’s sitting in a cozy corner of her shop, sunlight flooding in through the massive windows overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. “This is the fourth Red Wheelbarrow.”

The name, evoking the William Carlos Williams poem, has indeed been familiar to Anglophone bibliophiles in Paris for over two decades. But Fletcher’s love affair with books – and her journey to her current role as the owner of the now-flourishing bookshop in the 6th arrondissement – began on the other side of the world.

Fletcher grew up off the west coast of Canada, on Hornby Island, “three ferries away from Vancouver,” she says, with a laugh. When she set out for the city to pursue her studies, she recalls, “I had never been in an elevator by myself, so it was quite a shock for me to go to university and live in a dorm.”

“I quit after one week,” she continues, “and I went back to the island.” 

While university didn’t prove to be for her, that one week in Vancouver did provide the roots of an idea. In Vancouver, Fletcher had discovered a “fabulous second-hand bookstore,” and she returned to Hornby dead-set on launching her own. 

“At first everyone said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” she recalls, “and then they saw this slow mountain of books.”  

Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore. Photo: Emily Monaco

Her father, she recalls, converted a chicken coop into a caravan; she painted it red and added a French window and shelves. She stocked up on 2,000 books, all of which sold in the first weekend she was open. Fletcher was just 19 years old, but it seemed she had stumbled upon the key to her life’s work, and even if she herself didn’t know it yet, her French teacher noticed. 

“He said, ‘Oh, you think you’re another Sylvia Beach, do you?” he said, evoking, of course, the famed owner of the original Shakespeare & Company bookstore, which once stood just steps from Fletcher’s, on rue de l’Odéon. “I had never heard of Sylvia Beach.’” 

She soon discovered not just Beach but many of the other icons who flourished on Paris’s literary scene. When she finally moved to the French capital, in 1990, she discovered the city’s inexhaustible wealth of bookshops, particularly on the Left Bank, with its long love story with the written word. 

“I wandered around rue Madame, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to open up a bookstore here,’” she recalls. 

First, though, she paid her dues, working at bookshops from Smith’s to Brentano’s, where, she recalls, Ray Bradbury and Lauren Bacall were regulars. 

“Then I married a jazz musician and had three children,” she says, “and when my youngest was three, I opened a bookstore in the Marais.” 

That original Red Wheelbarrow soon became a local favorite, something she credits, in large part, to the neighborhood it called home. 

“My kids were going to school around the corner,” she recalls. “My house was on rue de Turenne. And even when I lived in the 5th and the bookstore was in the Marais, it was really nice to go across the river. It’s such a nice thing to do, when you live in Paris: cross from one side to the other. It’s the best part of Paris.” 

Penelope Fletcher of the Red Wheelbarrow. Photo: Emily Monaco

Her store soon attracted attention from Rick Steves, and she launched partnerships with the neighboring Memorial of the Shoah and Picasso Museum. It was hard work, but it was worth it to serve the neighborhood she so loved. 

“I come from a small village, and Paris is made up of little villages,” she says, “so when our bookstore was in the Marais, we did tend to have more of the Right Bank community and people, but we also had a lot of people who lived part-time in Paris or would come back, and in the Marais, you have much more, you know, university professors who might have a little apartment or rent the same apartment, and they come.” 

Sadly, the bookstore shuttered in 2012; Fletcher returned to Canada soon thereafter.  

But the chapter was far from closed.  

“In 2016, a friend of mine told me she had breast cancer,” Fletcher recalls. “And I asked her what I could do, and she said, Let’s open the store again.” 

In 2018, she did just that. While her friend passed away in 2019, Fletcher says, “she lived to see the bookstore being opened.” 

Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore. Photo: Emily Monaco

Today, Fletcher easily shifts among her many hats. Over the course of our interview, she chats with Django the dog, bets on who will win this year’s Booker Prize, and helps an employee navigate ornery ordering software. 

“If you want to be a bookseller, you have to just keep rolling with the haywire and adapting,” she says. 

But while much as she did in the Marais, she has become a bit of a literary doyenne on this street corner, the 6th has not won her heart quite as much as the Right Bank did. 

“I don’t like this neighborhood so much, except for the park… and the light is great,” she says. “But also there’s a fascist next door.” 

Penelope Fletcher of the Red Wheelbarrow. Photo: Emily Monaco

Nevertheless, she’s doing her darndest to cultivate community here. She gets along famously with her other neighbors, the owners of café and brunch spot Treize au Jardin. And during the pandemic’s lockdowns, her shop became quite a hub for lonely Anglophones looking for community. 

“A lot of people came,” she recalls. “Even though the grills were closed, we were delivering books.” 

In 2021, she even expanded to a second storefront, transforming the original shop into a children’s bookstore. Both are home to activities like readings and book clubs. And bit by bit, the same sense of conviviality that long governed her Marais shop has arrived here. 

“We’re just starting to get people who will stop on their way to their hotel or their apartment, and this will be one of the first places they come to,” she says. “And that’s when you know you’re kind of taking root.” 

Fletcher is not resting on her laurels. On the contrary, she’s brimming with ideas. She’d love to open a bookshop in the 19th; she dreams of launching schools for refugee children where they can learn art, music, theater, ballet. Perhaps one of her longest-held ideas is at the forefront of her mind, now that she’s tracked down a copy of Women of the Left Bank. 

“I actually moved to Paris with this book,” she says. “I lost my copy – well I didn’t lose my copy. Someone borrowed it and then never gave it back. A book lent is a book given. And I had borrowed it from a German girl, so I stole it… so it’s very obvious that I would get it stolen from me too.” 

The book explores the lives and work of some of the women who historically ran the Left Bank’s literary scene, from Adrienne Monnier to Gertrude Stein, from Natalie Barney to Sylvia Beach, the bookshop owner Fletcher’s teacher had evoked all those years before. It is part of what has inspired the idea of a bookshop with an apartment upstairs that could host visiting academics. 

“They would have a week of working in the bookstore, and they could organize ateliers around who their subject was,” she says. 

For now, it’s just a dream – but in Fletcher’s capable hands, that’s a pretty safe place for it to grow and flourish. 

Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore
11 rue de Medicis (6th) and
9 rue de Medicis (bilingual bookstore called The Red Ballon)
Opposite the Luxembourg Gardens
Open everyday from 10 to 7pm

Lead photo credit : Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore. Photo: Emily Monaco

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Emily Monaco is an American journalist based in Paris. Her work has appeared in the BBC, Saveur, Atlas Obscura, and more. She is the host of the podcast "Navigating the French" and pens a weekly newsletter, Emily in France, with tips for dining (and cheese-eating) in Paris and beyond.