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Bookstore spotlight: Zadig

INTERVIEW! Next up in our bookshop series is Gipsstraße’s home of French literature. As we found out, they may have actually profited from the crisis.

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During Germany’s coronavirus lockdown, Patrick Suel’s store was one of the country’s only French-language bookshops left operating. (Photo by Matt Unicomb.)

During lockdown, bookstores were considered “essential services” – along with supermarkets and flower shops – and stayed open the entire time. But was it all smooth sailing? Over the next week, we’ll hear how our favourite shops handled the crisis.  Next up, Zadig, Gipsstraße’s home of French literature.

Where some book sellers have been counting their losses, Zadig, Berlin’s French go-to librairie might actually have profited from the lockdown. “I haven’t done the books yet, so I can’t tell exactly, but I think we had more business than before – and certainly more stress,” says the shop’s owner, 54-year-old Frenchman Patrick Suel. When on March 17 he found out that Berlin considered books “essential goods”, he suddenly found himself without competition in Germany – bar one other shop he knows of in Magdeburg, he says no French literature sellers remained. The only real Berlin competitor remained closed along with the rest of the Galeries Lafayette until late April.

“Even Amazon France is down, along with all French distributors,” Suel says. “On the flipside, that means that we’re having trouble sourcing our books.”

Where orders usually take between five and eight days, customers now have to wait up to 15 days if the book they desire is not physically on Zadig’s shelves. “It’s awful,” Suel exclaims. “As bad as it was when I started in 2003.”

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Mitte’s home of French literature. (Photo by Matt Unicomb.)

As far as titles go, Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) was popular (“Which, by the way, is a political book about fashism!”) and, to a lesser extent, Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy (“But that always goes well.”) Suel credits his customer base’s intelligence for not developing an “illness fetish”. 

He and his one shop assistant have been busier than ever, going through the many orders they received over email, explaining over and over that deliveries would take a while to arrive, running back and forth between the shop and the Torstraße post office, all while sticking to the regular opening hours. And then there are the safety measures. 

“In the beginning I was obsessing a little, constantly disinfecting pretty much everything except the books themselves with chloride,” Suel says. “But now I’ve relaxed and only do the door handles and the debit card reader.” The airy, stylish 130sqm space Zadig moved into almost one year ago allows for safe distancing. The clients and shop assistant now wear masks, but fearful customers have the option of ordering online or phoning to then pick up their reading material from the door. 

Suel remains a pessimist at heart. “Most of the people who come here work in the cultural sector,” he says. “They might have to budget more carefully soon and not buy as many books.” He also points out that the regular readings at Zadig are all cancelled until further notice. “We’re a cultural space as well, nobody knows what is going to happen.”

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Hygiene is a priority for owner Zadig’s owner, Patrick Suel. (Photo by Matt Unicomb.)