One of the most obvious differences between Paris and Brussels is the national attitude towards language. In Belgium, there are two official languages: French and Dutch. By law, everything has to be printed in those two languages and a lot of people find it to be just as much trouble to print in three languages as it is to print in two, so English appears often around town.
France is not a bilingual nation, but a reasonably large number of Parisians speak a little English, which has the dubious benefit of not being German. Overall, we had more encounters in Paris than Brussels where language was a barrier, but it turns out that shopping for clothes knows no lingual boundary.
When I was there, I made the comparison that Belgium:France::Canada:United States. They share the same language, provide a vital input to the national entertainment economy and yet stand apart. I suspect that there are long-running tensions and pre-defined relationships between the two countries that go back centuries. For me, I was just happy that we started our crash course in French in a city that offered an English backup from most signs and merchants. Then we landed in a city that didn’t.
Comic book shopping in Paris was centered in a small neighborhood between the Sorbonne and Notre Dame. There is a small street called the Rue Dante that is the traditional home of old comic book shops in Paris; this makes sense, considering the proximity to the university. Around the corner from the Rue Dante are a couple more comic book stores at the intersection of Saint Germain and Saint Michael. One of these, Boulinier is an amazing example of a reasonably sized media mart. There are floors for books, reference books, CDs and BD.
Again, the selection was impressive, but it was organized in a way that would be familiar to the experienced shopper, not really the relatively uninformed American whose French is worse than it should be. I found myself in the same situation in a used-BD store next to Boulinier and in the few shops that I went into down the Rue Dante. There was a store called Album, which had the best selection. I found some stuff that I had read about in review magazines that I’d picked up and managed to find a few free magazines in the store as well.
The only other store on the Rue Dante that I went into was a little shop that specialized in older, out of print French comics. Again, I didn’t feel that I had the depth of knowledge to browse the store effectively, but I did find an edition of Barbarella for 120 Euros. I didn’t check to see if it was a first printing or not, but it’s out of print now and that sort of price is probably fair if you really want to read the material. I made note of the store, but left without spending any money.
On the whole, though, I found that I had created artificially high expectations of the Rue Dante and was not prepared for the much better impression that the Brussels comic book stores had given me. Size and sheer selection went to the Belgians, but I did appreciate that most of the Parisian comic book stores were in one small area – that made it easy to peruse most of them in an afternoon.
There was one other comic book store that we went into while we were in Paris. Being tourists who shop, we went to the Champs d’Elysees on a very cold night. We walked about four blocks up the street, then walked back. One of the places we stopped was the Virgin Megastore, which contained no escalators and a half of a floor dedicated to BD. In fact, as you walked up the marble staircase to the top floor, there was an entire display of comics that had were official Angouleme selections.
The Virgin Megastore’s shopping space for comics was incredible. The selection was very good, even if it was skewed a bit in the direction of obviously commercial work and less in the direction of experimental stuff. Still, every book on the Angouleme selection list was available and I came back on our last day in the city to buy one of the books that I missed picking up at the festival.
I’m an especial fan of the Virgin Megastores in London – they have treated us very well over the years – but I really wish that they felt that they could dedicate half a floor to comic books in that city, the same way they do in Paris. The trip to the Megastore was yet another sign that the people perceive comic books differently than we do in our culture. After all, if they were seen to be profitable and accepted, more stores would dedicate more space to them. Stores sell what people buy.
Next week marks the halfway point in this series – part 6 of 12 – general Parisian tourism.