Smith & Son is the largest English bookshop in Paris. Established by the Neal brothers in 1870 as an independent business, it was bought by WHSmith & Son in 1903. Since 2020, the bookshop has become independent again, with a simplified name. We spoke to Patrick Moynot at the shop about its history, recent redevelopment and future plans!
1. Smith & Son recently underwent renovations through lockdown, what is the most exciting change that you’ve made to the bookshop?
We basically wanted to bring light and clarity within the store with modern layouts, but at the same time it was important to keep the historic DNA, with our famous 1908 wooden staircase, and the gorgeous, timeless, sculpted wood mouldings. I think we found the right balance between tradition and modernity, and that makes it a pretty unique place.
2. You have a long history as a bookseller, going back all the way to 1870. How have you managed to remain relevant in an age of online ordering and changing reading habits?
Books were the very first commodity available for online ordering. If bookshops had lost their relevance, they would have vanished years ago, which is not the case. We can therefore assume that it still makes sense to go into a bookshop to buy books. With that said, yes, habits have changed, and our business has had to adapt, sometimes with pain. You’ve got to offer something more than just stock and availability, for example, some useful expertise, or a place for a nice experience around books. That’s precisely why it was rather urgent to refresh what we are and what we do.
3. Speaking of reading habits, have you seen a change in reading tastes over the past year? Are there some areas of the shop that are doing better than expected?
There is a massive move towards “young adult” literature. You could have expected this generation (be it “Y”, “Z” or whatever) to have no interest in books. It’s the opposite. Nobody had expected the success of The Song of Achilles, for instance. And nobody has seen the rise of social networks’ influence on readers. Who had ever heard about “booktok” more than one year ago?
4. What are your plans for the shop in the next few months? Will you be doing any events/anything special in the lead up to Christmas?
It is very tricky to make plans in the midst of a pandemic, still today! But yes, we will hopefully be doing some signings and/or talks with authors. We also have a Café on the first floor, for which this is a very busy period with Halloween at the end of the month.
5. What’s been your favourite book to come out in the last year and why?
Well, I’ve mostly read fiction books in French recently. When it comes to non-fiction, I really enjoyed The Tyranny Of Merit by Michael J. Sandel. We live in a very disrupted era, where democracy is being challenged everywhere for many reasons. Books like this one (and Justice, another Sandel title) are important to understand the rise of anger all over the world.
Though we don’t publish Michael J. Sandel’s books, we have a host of other books that make us reflect on the nature of democracy today. Most recently, these include:
- Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021 by Thomas Picketty (9780300259667)
- Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France by Christophe Guilluy (9780300248425)
- After Democracy: Imagining Our Political Future by Zizi Papacharissi (9780300245967)