Graphically Gallic

What a little French shop taught me about bandes dessinées.

Graphically Gallic

In the Loire Valley, in the vibrant city of Tours, there’s a gem of an independent bookstore called Bédélire. As the name suggests, it specializes in “bandes dessinées,” or BD. English speakers know this genre as graphic novels, but the term doesn’t quite capture the full complexity and history of this Franco-Belgian artform.

I learned more about that history last month from one of Bédélire’s booksellers, Olivier Boyer. He owns the store cooperatively with four others. And full disclosure, he also happens to be my daughter’s partner. So, when my husband and I visited them this summer, I thought it would be fun to interview Olivier about the bookstore. What follows is my English paraphrase, since most of our conversations took place in French.

As Olivier explained it, BD began after the First World War as a form of French protectionism. Concerned about their youth becoming corrupted by supposedly violent and immoral American comics, the French-speaking world promoted its own more wholesome comics, such as Hergé’s Tintin books from Belgium. But BD really took off in the 1960s, and today it’s known in France as the ninth art, with 6,000 new titles produced each year.

Olivier’s interest in BD is infectious and goes back to adolescence, when he did a yearlong internship at Bédélire. He also hosted a local radio program about bandes dessinées for 10 years. After a career in real estate, he was ready for a change. So, when the owners of Bédélire offered him a position, he accepted.

You can quite literally spend hours browsing the wide range of comics, manga, and BD titles at Bédélire. The store also has a charming steampunk design evoking the private library of Captain Nemo’s submarine.

But inherent challenges face all booksellers, and having worked in Washington, DC, at an independent bookstore myself, I know them well. How, I wondered, does a small, specialized place like this enjoy such a robust business? Even during the pandemic, when many American bookstores struggled to keep the lights on, Bédélire managed to turn a profit.

As it happens, there are several telling differences between French and American bookselling. The first goes back to 1981 and the Lang Law (named after the cultural minister Jacques Lang), a protective decree that limits the amount a book can be discounted or marked up. Across the board, booksellers can make a maximum of five percent of the price of a book, which means the cost of a book is the same across France, whether you buy it on Amazon or at Bédélire. Books in France are considered a cultural product. Not only are they protected, but so are editors, booksellers, and authors themselves.

I was also fascinated to learn that, since 2022, Bédélire has been owned by its employees. It’s part of a cooperative association (SCOP in French) supported by the European Union that puts workers at the center of their businesses. Thus, the day-to-day running of the store and all the important decisions are made collectively. Bédélire also works closely with libraries, cultural centers, schools, and regional festivals, and has in this way become a renowned and important enterprise in Touraine.

While, traditionally, BD has appealed to a narrow sector of white middle-aged males, over the last few years, this too changed when Bédélire started carrying a range of feminist and LGBTQ titles. They now reach a more diverse readership, including students and politically and socially active young people interested in gender identity. There’s nothing as rewarding for a bookseller, Olivier observed, as finding new clients who come back to the store with stars in their eyes.

One of the great riches of bandes dessinées, he feels, is the range of subjects it embraces. That includes history, science fiction, fantasy, and political commentary, as well as the larger questions of the moment, such as ecology and geopolitics.

And let’s not forget the many adaptations of literary classics. Several years ago, I fell in love with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way adapted and illustrated by Stéphane Heuet. How great it was to discover that Grégoire Seguin, one of the founders of Bédélire, and Olivier’s mentor and friend, was the editor of the French Delcourt edition of this wonderful book!

While certain BD titles pretty much sell themselves, there are also more unusual books which Bédélire takes pride in promoting. One is La Couleur des Choses by Martin Panchaud. It’s a very individual book in which, as Olivier explained, the author has transgressed the usual rules of BD to create his own language and tell an ordinary story in a personal way. When it was released, Olivier immediately flagged it as groundbreaking, and sure enough, it won the 2023 “Fauve d’Or,” the top prize of the Angouleme Festival, France’s most prestigious BD festival.

But bookselling is a precarious enterprise even in the best of times. Paradoxically, although BD is a billion-euro industry in France, with more titles released each year, Olivier points out that it’s still difficult for writers to make a living. It would be great if the market could expand beyond the Franco-Belgian world and reach an American readership.

Bandes dessinées can speak to everyone. What thrills Olivier most, he says, is the balance of a good and moving story with a design that works with the prose. The power of the images and the text as they move together forms a truly unique world.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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