The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore is Back! Meet Penelope Fletcher

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The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore is Back! Meet Penelope Fletcher

The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore. Photo credit: Jules Le Masson 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.

Photo credit: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

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…

Photo credit: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

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 all the exciting events we are going to have in the shop. 

Photo credit: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

Is there anything especially characteristic about the Anglophone community in Paris that you’ve observed, especially from the perspective of a bookstore owner? 

There are a few different communities that come to an Anglophone bookshop. And there are several different communities that go to different bookshops. I think when our bookshop on the right bank in the Marais ended up closed, and Odile Hellier’s Village Voice bookshop on the Left Bank closed at the same time, people missed their bookshops far more than we realized at the time. Something characteristic about the Anglophone community? Paris is an international town—so all sorts of writers, academics and just readers, that is people who love reading will be either passing through Paris, in Paris temporarily or permanently and it makes for a rich immediate community

You were on the rue St. Paul before, on the Right Bank. Your new location is on the Left Bank. Is there a particular reason you chose to make that change of location? What do you miss about your old neighborhood, and what do you like most about your new one?

For a couple of years, I Iooked for another bookshop location in the Marais. I wanted to be on the rue Pont Louis Phillippe because it is beautiful, and because it is also the location of the Memorial of the Shoah bookshop, where I worked in 2017 for a few months. I think I will miss the river Seine most of all, and having my friends who live in the Marais able to drop by easily. But the rents/leaseholds are much higher in the Marais than in the Latin Quarter, so that is one reason. I chose the present location because friends of mine found their cafe location (Cafe 13 sur le Jardin) on the rue de Medicis, and we had talked about doing a café-bookshop together long ago. So when they found their location they told me to go look at it, and that is how I found our current location.   

What I like the most about the new location is that the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens are just across the street. I also like having fellow English-language bookshop sellers nearby—Berkeley Books and San Francisco Books. Many of our customers these days have been sent over by San Francisco Books. They sell secondhand books and we sell new books, so we have a symbiotic relationship. We’re very happy also that Paris Walks tours is planning on ending their Literary Left Bank tours at the bookshop on Mondays. 

Photo credit: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

What is the best thing about being a bookstore owner? What is the hardest, or most challenging thing?

It is a toss up—the best thing about being a bookstore owner is opening the boxes of new books, or someone asking for a book and you have it OR that it is the community thing I think—people discussing books—finding a world in the shop, creating a world that is a sane one in these times, or perhaps moments when we just laugh about something. Our work is cut out for us because a bookshop with a political agenda of the extrême droite has opened up beside us. I guess booksellers are sociologists getting to practice their talent/profession in real life. Being a bookseller is like riding a wave. The most challenging thing—or hardest thing (I can think of many)—is to be suave at all times. 

What kind of books can people find at the Red Wheelbarrow? Do you specialize in any particular genres?  

We are opening up in very slow motion, but hopefully, as at the old bookshop, we will have classic literature, etc., for students; new exciting fiction from all over the world, but in English; and nonfiction (history, politics, philosophy). Also poetry, of course. We will also have a huge children’s section, and that will be the only section that also has books in French. I think the genres we will have are apparent in the photos of our shop windows: currently, A is for Activist, a kids’ board book, is placed next to Bob Woodward’s book on Trump.  

What is your favorite book about Paris? And what is your favorite thing to do in Paris? 

My favorite book about Paris is probably The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I like more recent novels about Paris too: for example, Anne Marsella’s novel Remedy was a favorite, and I am looking forward to reading more of her work. My favorite thing to do in Paris is probably just be a bookseller. I also love picnicking by the Seine, and I like the Canal St. Martin. I used to love walking in Paris, but now my life will swing back to being in the shop all the time. 

Photo credit: The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore

Do you have events or special programs at the store? Anything special coming up that we should know about?

Our opening celebration will be on October 27. We will also have celebrations on November 27 and December 17. Yes, we will have events and special programs at the store, but we are still putting that together, beginning slowly. The writers group AWOL comes every two weeks to our bookshop and goes to Berkeley Books on the other two weeks. Camille Rich is planning some events, such as one with James Baldwin’s nephew Téjan Kerafa, around the book Baldwin wrote for Téjan that has just come out with Duke University Press (Little Man, Little Man). There are lots of friends, writers who have promised to have book launch signings at the shop, including Aysegul Savas, whose book Walking on the Ceiling is coming out in the spring with Riverhead Press. 

Why are independent bookstores important? And how can writers, and readers, help make them thrive? 

Independent bookstores are important because they are a hands-on, real source of and connection to what is going on in the world. Lisa Pasold wrote about the reopening of the bookshop. She said that years ago I had put Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Projects in her hands and told her to buy it, and that it had shaped her work from then on. That is really cool. I like what can happen in bookshops! A lot of people grew up with the last bookshop—on rue Saint Paul, and remember it with great affection. Already some young people have begun coming in every weekend with their parents–so that wonderful thing about bookshops continues on…

Writers and readers do help bookshops thrive: writers by telling people where to buy their books. Readers by ordering the books they want, and recommending the books they have read and liked in the shop–not necessarily to the booksellers. Eventually the bookshop owners learn what their readers like, and the bookshop becomes the bookshop of the writer and the reader. 

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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).