Ordering books online is convenient. But there’s something magical about wandering into a real-life bookshop, browsing the titles, and walking out with a fresh paperback in your bag, ready to be cracked open as soon as you sit down for a coffee.
Now, in a stroke of genius, a Paris bookshop is combining the two. At the Librairie des Puf in the city’s Latin Quarter, you can have a book printed for you on request – in the same time it takes to drink a coffee.
Rather than waste space storing thousands of books, most of which will never be sold, the Librairie simply holds an Espresso Book Machine. Customers use tablets to select the book they want to print, adding handwritten inscriptions if they like. The Espresso Book Machine then turns the PDF of their chosen title into a hot-off-the-press paperback in five minutes.
“The customers are all surprised,” the shop’s director, Alexandre Gaudefoy, tells the New York Times. “At first, they’re a little uncomfortable with the tablets. After all, you come to a bookshop to look at books. But thanks to the machine and the tablets, the customer holds a digital library in their hands.”
It’s one big library, and it’s getting bigger. While customers at the Librairie aren’t yet able to choose any book in the world, they can access three million titles compiled by the company behind the Espresso Book Machine – including titles from 10 major US publishers.
They can also print any of the 5,000 books published by the University Press of France (Les Puf for short), which runs the Librairie. And thanks to Les Puf’s esteemed reputation, they’ve also persuaded other French publishers to sell PDFs of their titles through the shop.
Because it eliminates delivery and shipping costs, as well as the need for big print runs, the on-demand model is much more cost-effective – which means that that niche out-of-print title could finally be within your grasp. “We can revive old titles, which we previously hadn’t bothered with because they’d only sell five or 10 copies in a year,” says Mr Gaudefroy.
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The Librairie des Puf first opened in 1921, and for decades was an iconic symbol of Parisian intellectual culture. But – like many Parisian bookshops – it was eventually defeated by the combination of sky-rocketing city centre rents and falling profits, as more and more people bought their books online. In the decade leading up to 2014, some 28 per cent of Paris’s bookstores, including the Librairie des Puf, closed for good.
But thanks to an inspiring anti-gentrification programme introduced in 2008, which rents retail spaces to cultural enterprises at affordable rates, the Librairie was able to reopen in March 2016. The concept has proved so popular that Les Puf are now considering opening self-printing bookshops in other cities around France.
There's no word yet on when British book-lovers will be able to try out the Espresso Book Machine, but readers in the UK are slowly beginning to rediscover the joys of bookshops. In London’s Spitalfields, the bookshop Libreria helps modern shoppers struggling with digital information overload by organising books according to unexpected and thought-provoking categories: “the sea and the sky”, or “enchantment for the disenchanted”, for example. Waterstone’s announced a return to profitability last year, while the app NearSt allows London shoppers to easily locate their nearest bookstore and check if their desired title is in stock.
And, in February 2016, Amazon opened its first physical store in Seattle – perhaps the biggest sign of all that we’re turning back to bookshops.