“Going to Galignani is like going to the Ritz to have tea instead of having a takeaway.”
Danielle Cillien Sabatier manages the renowned and historic Galignani bookstore in Paris. In Venice in 1520 the Galignanis were among the first to use the printing press to distribute their books to a larger audience. At the end of the 17th century, Giovanni Antonio Galignani left an economically declining Venice for London and then settled in Paris.
Danielle, since 2009 you have run Galignani, the oldest English language bookstore on the Continent.
Yes. Galignani started in 1801, in Rue Vivienne. It was more of a reading room, where Stendhal used to go and where all the English people who came to Paris liked to go. It was a bit like a club.
Why was it so popular among the English?
They published a newspaper called Galignani’s Messenger for English people abroad. Some of the greatest English authors of the time, Byron, Wordsworth, Thackeray and Scott, contributed to the newspaper, and their books were also published by Galignani.
When did Galignani move to the Rue de Rivoli, where you are today?
The two brothers William and John Antony came here in 1856. They still published the Messenger, but they stopped being a reading room and publishing books, as their father used to do. When they arrived here they only wanted to sell English books.
When did Galignani turn into the French, English and Fine Arts bookstore that we now know?
During the Second World War they were not allowed to sell English books, as the Germans had their Kommandantur in the Hotel Meurice, which is just next door. The grandfather of today’s owner said, “In that case I will sell French books.”
And after the War?
Hemingway came here in 1944 and signed our book. All the people who were important at that time came: the British ambassador Duff Cooper, the writer Louise de Vilmorin, André Malraux, Marlene Dietrich, Paul Morand, as well as Simone de Beauvoir and many others. Marcel Proust came here to buy his notebooks.
Does Galignani have a history at the very heart of the literary world?
Other famous writers who came here were Julien Green, Jean Cocteau and Marguerite Yourcenar, and the Argentinian philanthropist Victoria Ocampo; and then there were showbusiness people, like Gene Kelly and Charlie Chaplin.
Has Galignani also attracted luminaries from the wider world of art?
Yes. The painter Christian Bérard, Noël Coward, Orson Welles and the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. The actress Olivia de Havilland still comes, as does Lee Radziwill. They want to see Bertrand, who is in charge of the Fine Arts department.
It is seven years since you took over the management. How do you run the store?
I had never run a bookstore before, and had no idea of how it needed to be done. The owner wanted someone different, for seven generations it had always been a family member at the head of the bookstore. He wanted someone who had a new eye, and I was specialised in media and marketing and communications.
So what did you do?
I tried to change things, but without being violent in my way of changing them. I tried to value the best people who work here. I created a buzz around the place, because if you don’t speak today you’re dead.
How are you able to keep the store feeling lively?
We change the windows every other week, and we try to create something special, a kind of mise-en-scène each time.
Are highly original window displays very important for a bookstore?
I created a program for our window displays, with some spectacular displays by Karl Lagerfeld, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Goyard, and Rochas. There was even a whole display installed by Jean Paul Goude when he showed his retrospective at The Arts Decoratifs. Sometimes we do exhibitions inside, with Jean Philippe Delhomme, Bruno Moinard, Eric Sander and Mathilde de l’Ecotais for example.
Do you also organise events?
Yes, I changed this. They used to have one event a year, and now we have two or three a month – public talks, conferences and lectures, both in literature and in Fine Arts. These are with people such as Louis Benech, Thadée Klossowski de Rola, Pierre Le-Tan, Jean d’Ormesson, Toni Morrisson, Jay McInerney, Laurence Benaïm, Frédéric Beigbeder, Alain Ducasse and Charles Dantzig.
How many people work here?
Seventeen people. We are open six days a week, from 10 to 7. We are still divided into three departments, like three different bookstores in one, but today they are not separated any more and they work together. I learned that what is important here is to keep a certain spirit.
Do many people still buy books?
Yes, lots. We sell about 200,000 books a year.
Do you sell more French or more English books?
Two thirds of our sales are in English.
What do you sell most?
Literature, and very often classical literature, especially in English. Then obviously we also sell the new literary works.
How many copies does a book have to sell to make it a success?
In fine art a bestseller is around 300 books from us. A novel, 100 in English and the same in French. A Goncourt Award novel can sell 200 copies.
And are you profitable?
Yes. We have a 3.9 million Euro turnover and we make a 10% benefit.
How do you get your message out to your clients?
I have introduced glamourous Xmas catalogues with our choice of the books we believe in, and Summer or Rentrée Littéraire Newspapers, and most of all I developed press relations on a high level, getting lots of articles in the international media, from Russia to China, to Brazil, to Korea, and of course France. And I made a Facebook page.
Has the internet had a big effect on your business?
I did a website, but I don’t want to sell through it. You have to call and make a reservation. I want to keep as a philosophy the link with the place, as it is special. Therefore I don’t sell online.
What about Kindle?
In France it is still not well developed. We sell paperbacks and hardbacks, and sometimes digital. For that we do have a link, and I have an agreement with all the publishers.
What is the biggest danger for a bookstore?
When you don’t think about your clients. You always have to think about them. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we have very faithful clients.
Do you still have writers as clients?
Yes. For instance the Nobel prize winner Patrick Modiano comes into the bookstore all the time.
How would you describe Galignani today?
A place where people who love art and aestheticism come from all around the world or from around the corner. We have many young people coming since I have been here.
So Galignani has become a “destination” for many people?
Going to Galignani is like going to the Ritz to have tea instead of having a takeaway; and, by the way, when the Ritz reopens in January we will have a partnership with them.
What kind of partnership?
We will have an area for display, and we will advise them on their libraries.
What is your secret?
To do things differently. Sometimes our Christmas catalogue makes the success of a book, and I love to do that, to find something special and to launch it.
Can you say that you love this job?
Yes, I adore it. It is not a job, it is my life.
22nd September, 2015.