The American Dream of a Serial Bookseller

Founding a French neighborhood bookstore in New York City was the madcap challenge undertaken by Cyril Dewavrin. The entrepreneur has just opened La Joie de Vivre near Chelsea, a space offering books in French and English, coffee, and pastries.
© Kate Stremoukhova/France-Amérique

Paris, Avignon, and now Manhattan! At the age of 41, Cyril Dewavrin has already taken over or set up three bookstores in France. For his fourth, he decided to cross the Atlantic. Last December, he opened La Joie de Vivre at 145 West 27th Street. For now, the space has been launched as a pop-up with a limited selection of 3,500 books in French and English. Meanwhile, he is finishing work on the “big” bookshop, due to open in mid-March. Spanning more than 1,700 square feet, the space will offer over 10,000 works in both languages, including classic and contemporary literature, essays, coffee-table books on French culture and gastronomy, children’s books, travel guides and stories, and graphic novels. There will also be a café, along with a gift shop selling postcards, tote bags, Sempé posters, New Yorker covers, board games, jigsaw puzzles, and more.

This is an ambitious project and a substantial investment (3 million dollars) for this relaxed, enthusiastic man who humbly defines himself as a “neighborhood bookseller.” As he says himself: “What makes a place like this successful is always the connection between the bookseller and the neighborhood. Little by little, the two get to know each other and the offering becomes a combination of the bookseller’s choices and the customers’ tastes.” Around Chelsea, the Flatiron, and the Empire State Building, “there are a lot of French people, especially tourists, who want books about New York City and the United States. Traveling here with Jack Kerouac in your pocket is an amazing experience!”

The idea of moving to New York was inspired by a trip a year ago, when Cyril Dewavrin was actually thinking about opening his next bookshop in Aix-en-Provence. “I came to the United States as a tourist for three weeks. I had already spent time in the country, but this time I fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to live in New York for a few years. And I can’t help it; if I settle somewhere, I have to open a bookstore there!

An avid reader since his teenage years, he began working in Parisian bookstores after graduating from high school. He then opened his own space in 2007 with a partner at the age of 25. “We took over a comic bookstore on Rue Lamarck in the 18th arrondissement. Our first – and slightly eccentric – idea was to specialize in philosophy.” The reality of the sector was a harsh wakeup call for the young man. “Like many first-time booksellers, I thought that it was an intellectual profession and that I would spend my days chatting with talented authors. In fact, it’s more like working in a restaurant; you spend most of your time carrying boxes and crunching numbers. The first year, I worked 70 hours a week with no vacation. It was a real slap in the face, but I learned everything I needed to know about the industry.”

© Kate Stremoukhova/France-Amérique
© Kate Stremoukhova/France-Amérique

Working on Social Ties and Atmosphere

After a year of hard work, he reduced the space devoted to philosophy books, became a general-interest bookseller, and found his cruising speed. “Our success was driven by events with guest authors; we organized almost one a week and our customers loved it. We also focused on social interaction and the atmosphere, but without any snobbery or posturing. We even held occasional evening wine tastings and tea parties on Sunday mornings. I believe that a bookstore must be a local landmark, a place to meet and talk. People need to follow the life of the bookstore as if it were a show on Netflix!”

In 2010, Cyril Dewavrin opened a second, smaller bookstore on Rue Cadet in the ninth arrondissement. “I mainly offered a selection of my favorites. It was doing well, and had a very loyal clientele, but I sold the space after three years because real estate prices had skyrocketed. The profits enabled me to consolidate the first bookshop, which I sold a few years later to two employees.” He then headed for the South of France and opened a bookstore in Avignon in 2017. This third space was inspired by what had worked so well in Paris: getting involved in local life by organizing readings and events.

Cyril Dewavrin also believes that it is essential to offer something other than books. “The French have a hard time understanding this, and I’ve sometimes been criticized for it, because the literary world can be rather snobbish,” he says. “For a bookstore to be profitable, you have to sell postcards, posters, tote bags, and stationery, but always with a literary spirit.” In Manhattan, the canvas bags feature the La Joie de Vivre logo, a beautiful black cat in the Art Deco style, and the faces of famous authors with an off beat, humorous twist. On one, Arthur Rimbaud is displayed against a multicolored background along with the words “The Rimbaud Flag” in a nod to the LGBTQ+ community’s emblem.

The addition of a coffee shop, serving French pastries and sandwiches, is all part of the plan. Ultimately, the owner estimates that books will account for only a third of sales. “The profit margin on an espresso is 90%,” he says. “This will help the store to survive, as will merchandise, which is far more profitable than books. You have to mix the two to make things work financially. A bookstore has to be a real business, not just a shop window. You can do highly intellectual things and sell jigsaw puzzles – the two aren’t mutually exclusive!”

In Albertine’s Shadow

Prior to the opening of La Joie de Vivre, New York’s only general-interest, French-language bookstore was located at the French embassy’s cultural services on Fifth Avenue. Inaugurated in September 2014, Albertine was launched to fill the void left by the legendary Librairie de France, which was located in Rockefeller Center from 1935 to 2009. “Albertine is a department of the embassy, which pays the salaries of its three booksellers, but its goal is to be independently economically viable,” says its director, Sandrine Butteau. Spread across two floors of a superb mansion, Albertine offers a catalog of over 15,000 works of general literature, children’s books, and works on the humanities. “Our clientele is made up of equal parts French speakers and Americans, and the proportion of English-language titles translated from French has been increasing for several years.” As well as its online store, Albertine has formed partnerships to create a network of “French corners” in independent American bookstores, such as Politics and Prose in Washington D.C., Brazos Bookstore in Houston, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.