The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore is Back! Meet Penelope Fletcher

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The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore is Back! Meet Penelope Fletcher
Penelope Fletcher was born and grew up on the west coast of Canada “mostly on an island off an island off an island.” After studying English literature and classics in universities in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec, and working in bookshops in Vancouver and Montreal, she moved to Paris in 1990, and opened the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop on the Right Bank in 2001. In 2012 the Red Wheelbarrow closed, to the chagrin of many readers and writers in the Anglophone community in Paris. But happily, that wasn’t the end of the story: the Red Wheelbarrow is back, now in a new location on the Left Bank (9 rue de Médicis, 6th arrondissement). Penelope recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions from Frankfurt, where she was busy attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. Janet Hulstrand: What drew you to Paris in the first place, and when did you first go there? Penelope Fletcher: I first visited Paris in 1988 with my mother and decided to come back one day. I moved here in January 1990, after a shooting attack in Montreal in November 1989. I had heard about the Canadian bookshop opening in Paris in 1989, but I didn’t get a job there—so I was happy to get one at the Brentano’s on avenue de l’Opéra. When did you first know you’d like to be a bookseller? I honestly don’t know when I knew. I put prices in books when I was three or four (my Mother Goose book had a price on it that I put there—a “4” written backwards). I opened a bookshop when I was 19, and then I worked in bookshops from then on. When I arrived in Paris I thought about opening a bookshop but of course I needed to know Paris first—so I did that ten years later. How did you come to be the owner of an independent bookstore? Also, how (and why) did you choose the name of the store?  My first bookstore was on Hornby Island: I began a secondhand bookshop there at age 19, while I was a student. Later, in Paris, after a year of working at Brentano’s I became an English teacher; married a French jazz pianist; and then had three children. When my youngest was three years old, I decided to begin my own bookshop because I had to earn enough money to support a family of five. I had help from the French Chamber of Commerce at the time, and I was awarded a Paris Initiative Enterprise interest-free loan, which helped me get a bank loan. I chose the name The Red Wheelbarrow because as in the poem of the same name,  “so much depends upon”…something else. Perhaps I thought of this title originally because there was so much paperwork and bureaucracy involved in opening a bookshop. But there are many other reasons as well. For example, the poem was originally published in Lyon, in a volume called Spring and All, in 1923. And William Carlos Williams was a friend of Sylvia Beach, the famous bookseller, and others in the expatriate literary community in Paris… Everyone who knew about the “old” Red Wheelbarrow bookshop is so happy that the “new” Red Wheelbarrow has recently reopened. Can you tell us a little bit about why there was a hiatus? Why did the first store close, and more importantly how and why has it come back? It’s kind of a long story, but the short answer is that events in my personal life meant that the shop had to close while I went back to Canada for two years. The other bookshop closed in 2012, and I came back to Paris in the summer of 2014, and began looking for a new bookshop location in the summer of 2015.  We signed the promise to buy the lease of the new bookshop In September 2017, and got the keys in July 2018. So the hiatus was exactly six years.  But the long answer explains the beauty of why it has come back. The bookshop did not close because it was a bad business: it closed due to difficult personal circumstances that are no longer true. Unlike last time, I now have a support system that will not let me down. The big difference between the old bookshop and the new one is that in this one I have more partners. So this is our bookshop, not just my bookshop. I have ten associates, and three of them are major investors in the shop. One of my main partners works in a publishing house in the U.S., and I hope she will join me one day in the bookshop. At the moment she gives me advice on a daily basis. Another one, Renee Levine, is in her 90s. She, along with her husband Harold Levine, felt the bookstore was the center of a community that could and should come back. She also lives in the U.S., but she lived in Paris for many years and was very involved in the former bookshop. A third is Kate Van Houten Matsutani, who runs Estepa Editions. Kate chose the color blue that is on the outside and inside of the new shop. There is also a couple who spends time in Paris each year, and who helped me enormously with the choice of the bookshop location, and the renovations we did this summer. Also involved are the novelist Anne Marsella; Rebecca Dolinsky, an artist-intellectual who has been running a salon for women artists in the Café Stern; Caroline Emmet, a filmmaker; Miriam Shalinksy, a musician; Anna Arov, a writer/artist who is a founding editor of the Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal; and Camille Rich, a poet-writer who will be helping organize…
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Lead photo credit : Dame de Coeur light show at Notre Dame. Photo: Richard Nahem

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

Comments

  • Pamela O'Brien
    2019-06-17 09:10:11
    Pamela O'Brien
    My husband and I frequented The Red Wheelbarrow on a visit to Paris years ago. I met a young woman who worked there, but I can no longer recall her name or her country of origin. She was researching and publishing about graffiti in cities worldwide. I lost touch with her eventually, although I saw a film she made about graffiti. I would love to know her name and what she is doing in 2019. Perhaps she is still in touch with Penelope Fletcher. I'll try to find out.

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  • Fiona Lafferty
    2019-03-29 07:16:30
    Fiona Lafferty
    I remember the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop being up for sale (maybe around 2010) and actually had a crazy idea of buying the business and moving my whole family (4 children) from England to Paris, but I wasn't brave enough. I was editor of the Good Book Guide at the time, which was struggling to keep going in the wake of Amazon. Eventually a friend and I bought the Guide out of liquidation and we kept it going (on a shoestring) until 2015, when we could no longer cover costs. Having been in publishing, book reviewing and book selling my whole working life, it was a very sad day for me. I am still passionate about books and the wonderful individual service that independent bookshops provide. Today, for some reason, the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop came into my head and I looked it up - so, I am absolutely delighted to discover it has reopened. What a lovely article and a fantastic ending to the story...I shall have to visit one day.

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  • Jackie Clark Mancuso
    2019-03-01 12:26:00
    Jackie Clark Mancuso
    I visited the new location yesterday. Penelope and the shop are equally charming!

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  • Koen Donker van Heel
    2018-12-19 16:55:22
    Koen Donker van Heel
    Interesting. I met Pen when I worked at the Louvre as an Egyptologist in 1991 or 1002. Fascinating personality, and happy to see she has been able to open up her business again.

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  • Jacquelyn Goudeau
    2018-10-26 15:55:17
    Jacquelyn Goudeau
    Just opened my news letter to find that THE RED WHEELBARROW has reopened. This was always a stop of mine when visiting Paris in the mid 90's ! Met so many interesting people and had wonderful conversations as well as getting books ! Was in Paris last May but since I knew the Book Store was not there...did not journey over that way. Plan to be be back in the Spring of 2019 ! Will go by. Merci, merci, what glad news ! PS: I wrote for Bonjour in 2008 for a yr. Jacquelyn Goudeau, Bay Area, California.

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  • Jane Wells
    2018-10-26 09:59:22
    Jane Wells
    I am so excited the Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop is re-opening! Look forward to taking my French/American grandchildren there. Wonderful article.

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