Paris’s traditional kiosks are under threat. Like the printed word they so elegantly promote, they should be protected.
Until recently the kiosque à journaux at the end of my street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés resembled an open-air library. On sunny days its purveyor used to arrange totem stacks of fashion quarterlies across from Café de Flore’s terrace to tempt its well-heeled industry clientele away from their noisettes and over to the newsstand.
Then one day a neon-trimmed drinks fridge emerged out front, followed by an array of tourist memorabilia. The fashion tomes disappeared behind magnets and umbrellas. Clearly there was more money to be made from ephemera than the printed word.
Just as I was mourning the loss of this little island of pure print heaven, last November the shutters went down completely. The syndicate of kiosquiers were on strike. A petition taped to the grill listed grievances that ranged from restrictive city bylaws to the collapse of press sales, “caused by an aggressive policy of selling subscriptions at a broken price”. “We suffer,” it began. “Three-hundred-and-fifty Parisian kiosks welcome you seven days a week to ensure the public service of sale of the press with an hourly return of €3. [We] are an endangered species. Support your kiosquier to keep us open.”
Parisian kiosquiers are facing difficult times – but also a moment of transformation. In 2016 the mayor’s office announced that, at a cost of €52.4m, 350 of its green Haussmanian kiosks will be replaced. The hope is that the new design by Parisian Matali Crasset will improve working conditions but also reinvigorate press sales.
Crasset’s new kiosk is domed and racing green. But instead of the filigree ironwork of the 1857 model, its recycled metal and glass form is inspired by the linear windows of the city’s workshops and roofs. “Just like the atelier, the kiosk is a place you do things,” says Crasset, whose design includes interactive screens where the public can buy theatre tickets and access and order zines. “The kiosk is one of the few merchant spaces to remain on a human scale; it supports the neighbourhood.”
Even so, lovers of the old models have come out in force to defend their classic ironwork pavilions. In June 2016, more than 58,000 people signed a petition asking mayor Anne Hidalgo to keep the ornate forms (which are in fact replicas of the originals installed in the 1980s) in place. But city hall is holding fast and the new kiosks will be installed progressively from this spring. The kiosks are subsidised to the tune of €1.8m a year. Yet perhaps the French capital should do more to financially protect this unique historic feature? They are, after all, part of the country’s intellectual fabric.
In Paris, as part of the carefully balanced urban landscape, their look and feel defines the city. Kiosquiers are only selling snow globes and magnets to stay in business. They should be encouraged and supported in stepping into their role as useful and valued community linchpins – and as dynamic outdoor libraries that champion the printed word.
For all the information the internet thrusts into the palms of our hands, technology can create a creeping sense of uneasiness. Are we being productive enough? Did I send that last email? Am I sparing the time to read the books I ought to? That slick black puck of glass in your pocket, forever buzzing and blinking with dusk-to-dawn emails and updates, can be as stressful as it is satisfying.
Unsurprisingly, time-poor readers are flocking to firms that offer shortcuts purporting to unlock the secrets lurking in the pages of lengthy books. Berlin-based Blinkist touts easy-to-digest summaries of more than two thousand works of non-fiction. The précis of each is available as a 15-minute write-up or commute-length listen. Blinkist says that successful ceos read more than 60 books a year and reasons that you can ape their worldliness without having to crack a single spine (all for a nominal subscription fee of €50 to €80 a year).
But these chapterised chunks lend themselves to being ticked off rather than taken in. The aforementioned ceos became successful because they thought better of always taking the easy road. Reflection and inspiration – be they with regards to your career or home life – come from leaving a little distance between yourself and the humdrum barrage of daily tasks flashing up on your phone. You might just find it in the wording of a sentence buried in the middle of a book you’ve been meaning to pick up (right after you’ve answered your next email, that is). But be wary: blink and you might miss it.