‘Young people don’t read paper’
Newspaper vendors in Paris make so little money they are working for love
Newspaper vendors are fixtures of Parisian life, as important as one’s cafe, coiffeur or concierge. They soften Paris’s hard edges by commiserating with you about the weather and politicians, sending you on your way with a cheery, “Bonne journée”.
Vendors on the Left Bank, where I live, have come to resemble the intellectuals who made their quartier famous. One of them, Jean Rouaud, befriended Beckett’s publisher Jérôme Lindon and subsequently won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for his first novel.
Another, a Pakistani immigrant and itinerant street vendor called Ali Akbar, has become famous for shouting spoof headlines as he hawks Le Monde in Saint Germain des Prés.
The Péchaud sisters, Janine (70) and Marie (61) from Auvergne, have owned the small tobacconist and news shop on the rue des Saint-Pères for 34 years. The century-old, wood-panelled concession has “stayed in its juice,” as the French say. Magazines line the left side of the shop, opposite the newspapers, which are painstakingly arrayed on the glass counter.
Until his death in 1991, the singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg lived around the corner on the rue de Verneuil. His house continues to attract fans, who cover it in graffitti.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood liked him,” Marie recalls. “We prepared a selection of newspapers for him every morning. He had a lot of groupies.Oh là là,” she laughs, wagging her hand.
Gainsbourg had a habit of going on television drunk and unshaven, then saying lewd things. “The next morning he’d come in the shop and say, ‘You watched me? You shouldn’t have!’ ”
Because of their proximity to the Louvre, the Académie française and “Sciences Po”, the Péchaud sisters hobnob with museum curators and political science professors. The academician Michel Déon, who lives in Co Galway, buys his pens from them. Actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sophie Marceau are customers. “Nine times out of 10, I know which newspaper someone will buy when they walk through the door,” says Janine. “It comes with years of experience. It’s more their manner than their looks. For example, Le Monde readers are in a hurry; they know what they want.”
“Our clients are people who need to touch paper,” says Marie. “Young people don’t read paper.”
“The internet is killing us,” Janine groans.
The Péchaud sisters’ shop is protected from the elements, and they enjoy a higher status than Paris’s 337 open-air kiosks. The green newstands celebrate their 150th anniversary this year, in crisis. The city of Paris is trying to preserve them, by voting €200,000 in subsidies yearly, and declaring a “Paris loves its kiosks” week last spring.
André Mary (58) mans the kiosk opposite the senate and Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s not unusual to find him reading Philosophie magazine.
Mary says he “barely squeaked through” the baccalaureate exam. But his colleague on the Place St Sulpice holds a master’s in philosophy. “People who do this profession are classless, displaced, in a different time zone,” he says.
Mary has sold newspapers for 20 years, “a vassal of the publishers and distributors,” he says. In a good month, he can earn €1,500 for a six-day, 12-hour-a-day week. “I do it because I have relative autonomy,” he says. “I’m not in the universe of business and competition. I don’t have to endure those kind of relations.”
Alexandre Damechli’s kiosk is on the corner of the boulevard St Germain and the rue de Bellechasse. The Syrian-born newspaper vendor earned a doctorate in linguistics at the Sorbonne and worked as an Arabic to French translator for the United Nations and the OECD. He too puts in more than 70 hours a week, for €1,300 per month, at best. “I want peace more than money,” Damechli shrugs.
The company that owns the Paris kiosks asked Damechli to take over from a predecessor who was so grumpy that I recall walking half a kilometre to buy my newspapers elsewhere.
Damechli is infectiously cheerful. “I doubled the turnover in five months,” he says proudly. “It costs nothing to say bonjour and merci.”
But Damechli’s face clouds when I ask about his family in Homs. Their property has been destroyed in the Syrian civil war. Four close cousins have been killed. Two nephews are missing. “The whole neighbourhood knows I am Syrian,” he says. “But the truth is, when you moan, even people who like you tire of it.
“In the beginning, people expressed sympathy every time something awful happened in Syria. Now, nobody talks about it.”