Pascal Vandenberghe is part of the great family of those who have learned from books. Coming from all walks of life, from all countries, these men and women one fine day laid their eyes on a back cover or on a title, and they never stopped reading, finding in words what they were thirsty.
In The book tightrope walker, in the form of an interview conducted by journalist Christophe Gallaz, the director of Payot looks back on his career as a young man, born in Auxerre in 1959 in a working-class family, who quickly felt the need to push the walls of his family environment , school, life in general. How the holder of a fitter-mechanic diploma will become the passionate bookseller that we know takes from the Balzacian saga with the necessary breath, twists and colorful characters.
The life story allows above all a crossing of trades (Pascal Vandenberghe was also an editor) and changes in the world of books over the past forty years. In a second part, entitled Bookstore is a combat sport, the one who has always shown a taste for heated debate, collects and updates his analyzes on a book market that is constantly reinventing itself.
Le Temps: Book sales were good or even excellent in 2020. Any surprise for you?
Pascal Vandenberghe: Yes still! When I think back to our astonishment at the announcement of the closing of businesses in the spring of 2020… Faced with this unprecedented situation, we had absolutely no idea if and how we would manage to pull out our game. But quickly enough, with the explosion orders on our site, we understood that the book could emerge stronger from this crisis. What actually happened.
Despite Netflix, despite all the online leisure offers, how do you explain such public enthusiasm?
Netflix, social media, and other “entertainment” only last a while. Above all, with this new free time released by semi-confinement, many people who had somewhat abandoned the book have returned to it. Not only because there was “time found” for reading, but certainly also because immersion in a book allows you to disconnect from an anxiety-provoking daily life and a form of salutary escape. And that the other places of culture (living or heritage) being closed, the book remained one of the rare accesses. If it was not considered by the federal authorities as an “essential good”, it was on the other hand by the population.
For the readers, in their great majority, the paper book remains “the” reference.
And this success concerns overwhelmingly paper books. Why did the digital book not break through, when it was predicted to be a triumph?
In countries – the United States and Great Britain in particular – where the digital book has experienced a phenomenal boom in the beginning, this has only been done with slashed prices imposed by Amazon. As soon as prices returned to “normal”, the digital book fell back and the paper book took on color.
However, in the French-speaking world, not only does the book as an object retain a specific status, which differentiates it from a simple object of everyday consumption, but the price of the digital book is regulated there (including in Switzerland), preventing its wide distribution through discounted prices. Its use value is ridiculously low.
Another striking sign: the central role of books in recent social transformations. From Vanessa Springora to Camille Kouchner, these are books that have provoked awareness. What does this inspire you?
This has always been the case since the book has been in existence. It is because it was born at the same time as the printing press that the Reformation was able to spread quickly and widely from the 16th century. Books are the oldest medium for disseminating ideas – long before even Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. It is a perfect observatory of the evolution of the mores of a society: it reflects its questions, is the place of revolts and demands of all kinds.
Unlike the law, which follows the evolution of society and its needs with a delay, the book reveals it and precedes or accompanies it. This is undeniably one of its strengths.
The book is a perfect observatory of the evolution of the mores of a society: it reflects its questions, is the site of revolts and all kinds of demands.
The book even appeals to young YouTubers and Instagrammers, who are authors of printed books and attract crowds to bookstores. What does the book have that other media doesn’t?
Whether you are a politician, an athlete, an artist or other “people”, the “supreme recognition” goes again and again through the book. The stars of social media do not escape this obligatory step, which is in fact a kind of consecration.
Can we say that the appearance of the paperback in the 1950s was ultimately a much bigger revolution than digital?
The paperback was the main step in the democratization of books and reading: by its low prices, it allowed all layers of society to become readers, which the large format prohibited for people with modest incomes. In this sense, it was a real revolution.
The digital book is an additional format, useful for certain uses, but it does not generate a significant increase in the number of readers. If it is revolutionary, it is only on the technological level. But technology, whatever it is, is only a means, not an end in itself. All the studies show it: for the readers, in their great majority, the paper book remains “the” reference, for multiple reasons.
When you opened Payot Rive Gauche in Geneva in 2015, some Cassandras were surprised at your optimism about the insolent success of online commerce. Six years later, is Amazon still a threat or has the tide turned?
Selling online in itself is not necessarily wrong. It is the way in which it is practiced that can be: if the rules of competition are not respected, as is the case with Amazon, whether on the social, fiscal or environmental level, then we have a real concern.
The opening of our large bookstore was an insane gamble for some, but not for me: I was convinced of the merits of this approach, which nevertheless required a substantial investment. It was a success. Proof of this is that we further enlarged the surface in 2018.
Commerce is an art, sale is an act: nothing replaces this human relationship which is the foundation of commerce, and in particular for books, with the plethora of offers that characterize it, and the serendipity that gives it all its taste. but which can only be experienced in a physical store.
On the other hand, an increasingly important part of the population is attentive to the place where it makes its purchases, privileging the local companies having a “responsible” behavior, respectful socially and environment. What we strive to be, unlike Amazon, whose practices are increasingly denounced, and which is the subject of lawsuits in many countries.
The book has survived the millennia … Would it be unsinkable? Where do you see risks?
It has been more than a century (since the appearance of the cinema) that each new media “competitor of the book” is considered to have sounded its death knell. But the guy is more resistant than what the bad omen peddles! Risks exist, of course, which I would rather characterize as challenges. Starting with the desire to go “all digital” in schools: this would break the link with books, which only exist through schools in families where books are absent, and would relegate them to museums. .
The omnipotence of the GAFA, whose alleged liberalism is equivalent to their desire to kill all competition by building monopolies, is another.
In addition, the book crystallizes societal conflicts, and the “new inquisitors” of good thinking, of whatever persuasion, expect booksellers to comply with their respective diktats. This is proof – positive as such – that the book as an object, and the bookstore as a place, retain a strong symbolic charge.
You are an insatiable reader. Your recent finds or joys?
An absolutely necessary book to start:. Then a book that had been on the stack for too long: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Belles Lettres, 2010). And then the Testing de Montaigne that I wanted to reread for a long time, in the new adaptation in modern French by Bernard Combeaud (Laffont-Bouquins, 2019); and to finish a literary discovery with the Lithuanian writer Ricardas Gavelis, Vilnius Poker (Monsieur Toussaint Louverture, 2015).
“Le Funambule du livre” followed by “The bookstore is a combat sport”, L’Aire, 256 p.