The Bookish Flâneuse in Paris

In her recent book, Lauren Elkin displaces the focus from the 19th-century flâneur—dreamed up by Baudelaire as someone who ambles aimlessly, soaking up inspiration from their surroundings—to the contemporary flâneuse, the woman who “gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its facades, penetrating its secret courtyards.” One’s ability to wander and investigate is surely dependent on skin color, nationality, gender, ability, and class, among other things. The role and privilege of the flâneur as a privileged, cosmopolitan, white male has been critiqued by a number of writers (see these pieces by Doreen St. Félix and Aysegül Savas, and this book by Teju Cole). Elkin’s text falls into this line of thinking.

My own exploration of big cities—in the current case, Paris—is facilitated by my skin color and (in most scenarios) my American nationality. I know the city well and feel generally safe, though, as a woman, I avoid wandering alone too much at night. (Which now doesn’t fall until around 10pm. It’s marvelous.) 

I’ve been in Paris for nearly two weeks now, and—I have to admit—most of my promenades have been powered by GPS. I’m a planner. An obsessive one even. Often, I’ll plot out a destination and then stroll around that area as a way to plan for allow some spontaneous exploration. And these Parisian promenades almost always have one of two themes: food and books. In my search for the best bookshops that Paris has to offer, I have found two that top my list. It should be known, of course, that this list is totally biased (but aren’t they all?) as I’m pretty partial to bookstores that overlap with my research and pleasure-reading interests.   

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I have been visiting Violette and Co for years now. I usually stay near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th or 11th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris, which makes this bookstore a 30-minute walk southeast down the Boulevard Voltaire. This boulevard was one of the major routes created by Haussmann who completely renovated Paris under Napoleon III in the 19th century. The boulevard carries the name of a canonical writer and philosopher. But my destination aims to shake up such canons!

I go to Violette and Co to get inspiration, buy feminist paraphernalia, and drift into my happy place. Their funky, hot pink façade decorated with feminist street art would have pulled me in even if I hadn’t discovered it in one of my FOMO-driven google searches. The bookshop was founded around fifteen years ago by two women wanting to fill a gap: Paris needed a bookstore that both addressed LGBTQ+ issues and also emphasized women authors and feminist theory & pop culture. At Violette and Co, I am a kid in a candy store. Their collection is thoughtfully curated and they give helpful, direct advice on your book searches. And not only do they offer a solid variety of textual genres, but the owners also host literary discussions, book clubs, book trades, and artistic exhibitions. On my most recent visit, I spotted that they had just hosted a discussion with author Jo Güstin as part of Le Festival Nio Far (Decolonial Festival of Visual and Performing Arts). Sadly, I missed Güstin’s talk, but snagged the book!

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Given my love for feminist bookstores, it is a surprise then that I just visited Librairie des femmes for the first time during this summer visit to Paris. The walk from the Canal Saint-Martin to the 6th arrondissement where des femmes is located has to be one of my favorites. To get there, I took the long route to walk down rue de Turenne and through the Marais via rue Vieille du Temple. This road winds through the Jewish Quarter (which houses some of the best falafel you’ll ever eat) and the fashionable shops and bustling cafés of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.

On my way to des femmes, I extended my path down the Seine to pass by Notre Dame, which is in a major state of repair and closed off to visitors. The juxtaposition between modern industry and Gothic architecture struck me as both mesmerizing and shocking.

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The last part of this promenade had me gliding through the 5th and 6th arrondissements. This area carries the name of the Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter) where a number of Parisian university campuses are located (the Sorbonne, namely)–thus the name of the area, as Latin was the exclusive language of study in the Middle Ages when many of these universities were founded. The area has become somewhat touristy, but I am able to get over this because I get to majorly geek out here. The Latin Quarter is to bookstores as churches are to the American South.

The Librairie des femmes is a dual bookstore and publishing house that was established in 1974, when it was open from 11am until midnight (sadly, they have since revised their opening hours!). Antoinette Fouque, a major figure of second-wave French feminism and a contemporary psychoanalyst and political commentator, founded the bookstore. Des femmes has since served as a meeting space and major producer and seller of women’s writing from the early 20th-century to today.

The shop has three comfortable chairs and encourages visitors to stay and browse a while. (I spent at least 30 minutes perusing the bookstore’s titles and displays before finally deciding on a couple titles.) They not only carry titles that they publish under the des femmes name, but they also have a wide variety of literary, sociological, psychoanalytic, and historical works correlating with their mission: to highlight and exhibit the creative force of women.

IMG_9575As I was trying to find this bookstore, I first stumbled on the adjoining building: Espace des femmes. This space is connected to the bookstore by an alleyway flanked with greenery. The zen, light-filled room houses exhibitions, debates, and performances. This time, I got to take advantage of a display of Emmelene Landon’s “Pacific portraits.” The artist’s landscapes enlivened the gallery with swaths of turquoise, gold, and navy. And I was more than delighted to find that the exhibit’s expository text was authored by Marie Darrieussecq, one of France’s foremost novelists.

I’m learning more that a good bookshop not only prints and offers thought-provoking literature but also provides a space for engagement, community, and reflection. It also inspires the discovery of Paris for this bookish flâneuse

Next on the docket in Paris? A jump from bookstore promenades to library visits. I’ll soon be spending a week at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to study some manuscripts for a current research project. Ciao for now, and à bientôt !

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